Koto Jazz 16: Bonsai

As a child, I always believed the work of “bonsai” to be the art of imitating natural mountain scenes above timberline. My images were of wind-blown pines standing tall alongside alpine lakes. Growing up partly in Colorado, I spent many days and nights 10k or above traversing the Continental Divide, contemplating the wonder of the crystal clarity in glacial lakes, rushing streams and falls suspended below jagged cliffs. Here are stunning, iridescent meadows interrupted only by the howling wind, or the sweet melody of mountain birds and squeak of pica. The pine trees are shaped and formed into a perfect flowing angle of branches tilted forward to bend but not break, by the powerful, magical hand of the wind. While I’d love to say this is true, it’s not true.

I never imagined it to be an art form which has swept across the Pacific into the creative hands of artists and gardeners across America. As so much of Japanese culture, the art of bonsai can be sourced from China, specifically “penjing”, the art of Chinese landscape. I had the opportunity to see this first hand during many visits to various parts of China. There were featured “penjing” gardens in the areas I visited, of which there seems to be a greater emphasis in the coupling of “penzai” (Chinese bonsai) with uniquely shaped pumice-like stones. The word bonsai does in fact come from the word penzai, both of which are translated to mean tray or pot (bon) and plantings (sai). China doesn’t appear to be as set on miniaturization as does Japan, and it reminds me how so much of Japan’s early ingenuity stems from their unique skills in miniaturizing most all things.

It is likely that “penzai” made its way to the Island of Japan from China somewhere between 600-800 A.D. when Japan initiated a number of Imperial missions to mainland China. However, bonsai first appeared in Japanese paintings in the medieval period (1100-1200, according to Wikipedia).

Here are some nice explorations of bonsai koto jazz style music:

  • Black Pine Bonsai, by Kenji
  • Bonsai Garden (album), by Midori
  • My Tree, My Bonsai – Feng Shui Garden

  • Other:

  • Bonsai Bop, by The Ryoko Trio
  • Bonsai Juju, by Bonsai Garden Orchestra
  • Hunting Bonsai from World War Tree (album)

  • Bonsai as an art form may be of interest to you. You can find additional information about bonsai at the following sites:

  • National Bonsai Penjing Museum
  • Bonsai Gardener (good introduction)
  • Bonsai Northwest
  • American Bonsai Society
  • Bonsai Kits
  • Bonsai on Wikipedia
  • Penzai on Wikipedia
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    KotoJazz 15: “Chaos Jazz”

    “Chaos Jazz” might be a genre of its own, and if that is the case, the east-west connection is alive and well in this category. Some samples of “chaos jazz” I’ve listened to that are connected to koto jazz tunes are:

  • Hatchidori (Hummingbird)- by Kenji
  • Tori No Yo Ni (Like a Bird), version by Kenji
  • Strange Beauty, Who’s Playing, & She Comes to Shore (3 albums), by Pui Ming Lee (the most dynamic, powerful chaos jazz I’ve heard; my recommendation: Strange Beauty (album)), by Pui Ming Lee
  • Nozaki (Edo Gigaku), by Masahiko Satoh
  • Koto Power Trio, by Michiyo Yagi, Jim O’Rourke, and Tamaya Honda
  • Shizuku (album), by Michiyo Yagi
  • She Comes To Shore, by Pui Ming Lee
  • Yuji Takahashi biography; and MP3 music samples, by Yuji Takahashi
  • Improvisational music, by Makoto Ozone
  • Drummin’ Koto- Ney & Guitar Intro to Silent Speech (featuring Mieko Miyazaki (koto), Patrick Goraguer (drums), Nguyen Le (guitar), Kudzi Erguner (ney) by Chris Jennings
  • O-Lim (Ascension) (Red Sun), by SamulNori (images of Korean traditional music and jazz)
  • Record of Changes & Then Comes the White Tiger, by SamulNori

  • Others:

  • Deception Pass, by Scott Cossu
  • Aerial Boundaries, by Michael Hedges
  • Something Ala Mode, by Rondoparisiano
  • Motherboard, by Random Access Memories
  • KotoJazz 14: The Serendipity in “Order Out of Chaos”

    I know I’m not alone in this. I know that many people, artists, designers, engineers, express their deeper, at times darker, life experiences through their art or trade of choice. My big lesson while playing the piano, is facing and overcoming fear. The first step is to know how fear is present in my life. It helps me face them. I find it is often tied to something that happened so long ago that I have unconsciously carried it with me unresolved over years, decades. So much of it stems from childhood trauma.

    So often I sit in fear of imperfection, fear of sweet imperfection; not playing this or that tune or melody just right. I at times become paralyzed, as if it is better to not play at all if it can’t be played perfectly. My piano playing experiences are a microcosm of life’s lessons.

    There will always be imperfection, and through that imperfect journey, that stumbling, prodding, and wandering into the unknown and uncertain, I have the opportunity to learn its innate perfection. It is the imperfection of the journey that makes it perfect; at minimum, it brings out perfection. The imperfection carries with it uncertainty and chaos. Out of the uncertainty, unclarity and chaos, inevitably comes the impeccably clear Mastery of Serendipity (discovery by accident).

    It reminds me of “chaos theory”. Just like 1977 Nobel Prize Winner Ilia Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ book titled, “Order Out of Chaos” states, “the two great themes of classic science, order and chaos”, which coexisted in near conflict since science began, scientifically and mathematically coalesce into a “new and unexpected synthesis”. As Edward Lorenz puts it in his definition of “chaos theory”, chaos occurs “when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

    More reading about creativity and chaos theory is available here at Creative Chaos. If you dare to venture into a story line about “chaos communities”, how about a book on the Burning Man event?

    Out of Spontaneous Serendipity comes the rare and unique, the innovative and delightfully unknown perfect masterpiece. When music lets go of the predictable, releases, or liberates itself from certainty of pattern or predictable stroke, only then does it venture into the unknown; only then may the genius of Serendipity coalesce into the uncharted territory of the perfect Masterpiece.

    When we consider the great masters and creators of jazz, rock, or classical music, for example, we see that the great musicians follow the “chaos theory” in music quite profoundly. And when they have taken a slightly divergent course as proposed by “chaos theory”, only then did they reach a place that transcends what JFK called “the stale, dank atmosphere of normalcy”. Only then did they re-direct and advance the currents of our time. When that happens, profound spiritual, social, and cultural changes occur.

    We live in a time of rapid, often chaotic change. Perhaps, we live in a time where science and art, where the technical and creative, where the image, the design and the real, where “The Head and the Heart”, truly converge into an harmonious co-existence of “order out of chaos”.

    KotoJazz 13: Koto Jazz & The Shinto Source

    This week, I visited North America’s first sanctioned Japanese Shinto Shrine, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, Washington (a suburb of Seattle). I was lead back to the Shinto spiritual nature — immersion into the beauty within the leaf of a delicate red lace maple tree, luminescent light green moss dripping down from tree branches in the world’s largest temperate rain forest ecoregion (as defined by World Wildlife Fund). This region is well known for its high amounts of rainfall (as much as 120 inches/year or 300 cm). Temperatures almost never reach below 50°F (10°C) or above 80°F (27°C), according to Wikipedia and the WWF. Today, this region’s temperature quite frequently exceeds both the higher and lower ranges.

    The Shrine sits alongside a crystal clear glacier water flowing river. There were numerous stone lanterns throughout the Shrine estate, one showing the 12 Japanese zodiac signs carved around the octagonal stone (also originating from China) at the entrance. There is a path that leads into the temperate rain forest with babbling brooks feeding into the river below and glowing moss patches accenting the path. There you will find a place of peace where only the regenerative qualities of negative ions such as the sound of the rolling river and the silent, dense forest are present. Verandas, stone lanterns, and elaborate gates, influenced by Buddhism, were present in the Tsubaki Grand Shrine.

    The grounds are sacred. It is surrounded by a fence made of wood called “tamagaki”. It had a main entrance called “sandō”, featuring a gate way flanked by posts of a gate called “torii”.

    The physical significance of the shrine is a “honden”, which houses one or more “kami” (or god). However, this place is not intended to be a place of worship. It is used for storing sacred objects. The intention of a shrine is to dedicate a natural place of spiritual inspiration and worship.

    I noticed something off about the Tsubaki Grand Shrine as I was reflecting on the visit. It came to me that most of the shrines I had visited in Japan were located on Buddhist temple grounds. My image of shrines are of the Japanese “jingū-ji”, or shinto temple. Imagine a Christian chapel inside the grounds of a Jewish Synagogue (or vice versa)! During the Nara Period (710-794), according to Wikipedia, it was believed that the temple could help guide the local kami to salvation. Japanese believe the kami, like people, also needed the salvation that only Buddhism could provide. Buddhist sūtras are recited to help guide the kami to satori (awakening, understanding).

    While the spiritual learning of my Buddhist- Shinto ancestors continues, I see more and more clearly my own purpose and the vision or path the laid before me; a spiritual path of healthy, balanced living and healthy integration of self with the world around. Just as Shintoism enshrines the local natural deity, koto itself seeks to reflect the spirit of the natural deity in its music.

    Here is a list of Shrines in the U.S. (Buddhist, Shinto, or both)

    East-West Nation & The Next American Revolution, Part II

    A continuation of the last “East-West Nation” blog, equally alarming is how much even some of the more progressive elements of our society choose to ignore Asia in the global discussion. For one example, so much is talked about health care in other countries, now at the highest level due to recent health care reforms. But the statistically healthiest country in the world is completely absent from the discussion.

    So much is talked about the health care systems of Canada, the UK, France, but not an ounce of discussion about Japan or China, even though Japan maintains a more technologically advanced and advancing medical industry and health insurance system similar to that of the U.S. (in comparison to the aforementioned countries). I wrote in my book published by the National Conference of State Legislatures on Japan’s health care system. The WTO’s designated healthiest country in the world, Japan, has the world’s highest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality, but was never part of the health care conversation! Not much more you can say about that . . . . wow!

    Take for example, Jon Stewart’s humorous but astute observations about CNN’s coverage of the Malaysian Airlines crash. CNN has effectively turned it into America’s favorite pastime of “CIS”-ification of finding “possible” airplane parts in the ocean.

    And yet we have a twisted way of creating paranoia around the rising power of Asian countries; first, Japan in the 80s, and now China and India. We speak of them stealing our livelihood as if they are responsible for decisions U.S. and international businesses are making to use their know- how and hard work. This seems to be the only way we can give credence to the Asia Pacific region.

    The problem lies in the fact that even the parties intellectually attuned to Asia, find little incentive politically or otherwise to recognize or acknowledge Japan, China, India, Korea or other Asian influence. The United States establishment is too deeply entrenched in a Euro-centric world such that most international relations and comparative analysis occurs only in relation to our European partners and/or conflicts in the Middle East. The oddity and insanity of it is that all of Europe is more focused on Asia! The result is we keep banging up against the same boring ideas, theories, solutions, and angles. The extremism in the west bangs up against the extremism of the Middle East. But notice that when we turn east to Asia, there’s no more banging!

    The banging up of egos become tempered by cooperation and conciliation, and it’s deeply rooted in eastern mysticism and spirituality. Even the Muslim conflicts with the west which are filtered through the conflicts in the Middle East are suddenly sifted through the more rational, less extremist and more conciliatory nature of Asian Pacific Island countries and people (e.g., Indonesia, India and Malaysia; Indonesia being the world’s largest Muslim country).

    I’m not so sure there’s a point to banging my own head on this subject, but someday it will not matter, even though in today’s environment, there is a critical need to shed light on the subject. What I’ve learned from my amazing, physically tiny but spiritually giant Japanese mother is, “Dai jobu dai yo. Shimpai shinai de; shi ka ta ga nai” (it’s ok, just let it go. Don’t worry; it can’t be helped”). Time to get back to piano playing. I just posted my version of the famous “Kodomo No Hi” (Children’s Day) theme song, “Koi Nobori”. I also have a few koto jazz gigs coming up this summer at a venue near you. Keep coming back if it works for you. 🙂

    East-West Nation & The Next American Revolution:

    This blog entry departs from talking about music for a moment of reflection I wrote about back in the 90s at a boutique publication, “The Asia Pacific Economic Review“. For a nation so attuned to new frontiers since its revolutionary founding, few people here really see the next revolution transforming our country in our everyday lives. In many ways, it is more an evolution since so many influences have been taking place over a number of decades.

    It is sometimes subtle, sometimes “in your face” blatantly obvious. It’s in our food, media images, our tv virtual reality shows, our music, our children’s comic strips, toys & tv shows, our very way of life.

    When was the last time you and your family went to dinner for sushi, kalbi, dim sum, or teriyaki? Or stunned to see your very American as apple pie next door neighbor design a beautifully polished Japanese garden in their back yard? Or to find out your former U.S. Marines buddy is deeply immersed in daily Buddhist meditation?

    When was the last time you found your children couched like potatoes in front of a popular Japanese anime tv show or Japanese video game? Or your child begging for the latest Transformer, Pokemon or Hello Kitty toy? When tv surfing for the next tv show, did you land on a virtual reality show; more specifically did you stop to watch Iron Chef or the next American Idol? All of these things have one thing in common. They all originate from Japan, China, and other parts of East Asia. The original virtual reality shows were on televisions in Japan long before they washed onto the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean.

    We might have been threatened by it in the 80s when the Japanese corporate “invasion” of buying up landmark American properties was in full swing. Or the popular conversations about new business management approaches, such as those of UCLA scholar William Ouchi’s “Theory Z”. It was a threat then to America’s political, business, intellectual, and media establishment, but less so to the masses on the street. To put it bluntly, it threatened the American intellect, but not the heart of America.

    In the 70s and 80’s, we saw the long term and permanent impact of martial arts and eastern health care, yoga, eastern meditation, naturo-pathic medicine, physical therapy, eastern spirituality (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Asian Islam, Confusionism) take its place alongside western culture. Even before this time, Japanese anime began to influence the American psyche as early as the 50s. Then, we saw the longstanding Asian influences in modern architecture and landscaping take hold, beyond Frank Lloyd Wright in the 20s, then I.M. Pei, and an ongoing toying with the influence of Zen-like, minimalist thinking to modern architecture, landscaping, art, and culture.

    The Next American Revolution is more psychological and spiritual than physically tangible. Remarkable is how much our western cultural origins cloud our vision to be almost completely oblivious to this next American revolution. If it is brought up in general to the mainstream media and leaders, even those known to be the more progressive leaders, completely trivialize or only quietly acknowledge its impact.

    A good majority of our media and American consciousness simply ignore it, but it’s turning American culture upside down, or should I say it has already turned American culture upside down. For that matter it has transformed all of western society. It is equally pervasive in European countries, even parts of South America. Talk to the American media, including Hollywood, and they might give you a blank stare. But talk to them about all the things that make up our modern society today and you will find a high awareness of all things Asian as long as the west can claim it as their own. It leaves a deep streak and indelible mark at the core of our society. Things of Asian origin and the Asian influence has become so much a part of American life that it’s Asian origin is almost indistinguishable from it’s American-‘ness’. It pervades our entire society and our entire way of life. It goes well beyond our children’s obsession with Pokemon, Mario, and Hello Kitty. It leaves a permanent imprint far broader than our teenagers’ obsession with anime tv shows or video games. The song “I think I’m turning Japanese; I really think so” is no longer a joking mockery; it is an omnipresent, all pervasive occurrence from the main streets of our rural towns to the high rises of our largest metropolitan cities.

    So what is behind this oversight and what lies within these insights?

    This week I plan to visit North America’s first sanctioned Japanese Shinto Shrine, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, Washington (a suburb of Seattle). I hope to be lead back to the Shinto spiritual nature- immersion into the beauty within the leaf of a red maple tree, blooming cherry blossoms, the flow of crystal clear glacier water, a stone lantern reflected upon still waters embellished with garden flowers, and possibly the serene sound of koto music in the background summoning the mind, heart and spirit to let it all go. 🙂