Koto Jazz 42: Shapes in Design & Music

Shapes in designs are key to our expression and creativity.  There are the sharp shapes, sharp angles such as pyramids and squares (see the above photo’s stone walk way behind the water feature).  Traditionally, this is associated with the manhood and the west. It is common to find square stone walk ways, squared off gate ways, even pyramidal shaped trellises, and square- shaped garden areas. Substantial changes have taken place in the modern era to include rounded shapes and designs. This is not something you think about in the daily neighborhood dog walk. You don’t pass by the Jones’ house and say, “my, what a nicely manicured, squared off hedge outlining their nicely square-shaped yard.” However, it does influence your psyche over time, and if this is all you see and all you grow up with, it influences how you see things and see the world. I would argue, it narrows your vision.

Then there is the circle or rounded shapes.  Traditionally, this is associated with the Buddhist circle of life and the yin- yang symbol of the east. The rounded water features (see above photo) rounded walk ways, rounded stone steps, rounded gateways (more common in China), rounded bridges, are not commonly seen in North America but are more readily available garden features in Asia. For example, I visited a number of Chinese gardens which featured circled garden entry gates outside of Shanghai. This is a generalization of course, but it offers insight into the role of shapes in garden design that can provide you options on how plan your own garden.

The Shapes of Music:

Likewise, music presents its own shapes. There are the common, chordal structures perfected by the west featuring linear patterns, and melodies that take sharp turns. Then there are the often meandering, circular flow of chords and progressions, even non-chords and non-progressions, and musical patterns of the east.  The synthesis of the two are at times attempted to be expressed in modern jazz.  However, western jazz maintains its biases from its origins and while it proposes a best effort to synthesizes the two, it tends to de-emphasize the meandering nature and musical flow of the east (e.g., traditional Koto and east Indian music) without even knowing it. Thus, the concept of koto jazz rears its creative head– a melodious journey, but not beholden even to modern jazz progressions!

Thus, koto jazz tunes can often fit more appropriately into the genre commonly known as new age.  While new age has taken a popularity hit with the closing of society and its mis-representation of new age as being connected to some type of religious agenda, even cult, this is only a temporary passing misappropriation. From what I’ve observed of the new age movement, there is no agenda, except to offer people some peace of mind with soothing sounds and melodies! How’s that for an “agenda”. That said, eastern styles of music are finding their way into the North American and European music worlds quite independent of the new age trends.

Indian Bollywood:

Take for example, my friend Prashant’s Bollywood Dreams Entertainment and the dance style of modern east Indian Bollywood music. I could not help but notice the circular and meandering motions of this invigorating, high energy dance style. This is consistent with the musical melodies of many popular Bollywood songs (see Bollywood Dreams Entertainment), which likewise meander, wander and move in circular melodic motion.

While this koto jazz blog does not concern itself with business achievements, it’s no accident that the likes of Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs admitted to having strong eastern influences in their lives. This, I believe, is where there is a collision of creativity into real world situations, such as high end physics, engineering, architecture, and various sectors of business ventures.

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Koto Jazz 41: Duality

Everything in life can have its duality.

Personally, it’s engrained in my blood and DNA. I am bi-racial, bi-cultural, once bilingual (not currently), and definitely bi-spiritual, among others.

In addition to “bi-“, there’s a duality in general, a duality of perspectives, a duality of existence. There is a duality in the political arena, a duality in social arenas too.  You walk down the street and some people are more interested in suburban convenience and others are more interested in access to the entertainment, arts and culture that the big city provides. There is a duality of east and west. There is a duality in science- one that believes in a supreme order and the other believes that all sources of life derive from chaos and chaos theory.

For me,  the great experience of life is its collision of the unknown into a synthesis of something more, which in its social form could be the defining characteristic we call “the great American experiment”. It doesn’t offer answers to the unknown, but it does offer freedom from needing to have answers. It is in the “process” of life that we achieve complete immersion in the present moment; that we achieve “understanding” which is quite different from “knowing”. Knowing has definition and finality; understanding neither seeks nor achieves either.

In gardening, the minimalist Zen garden contrasts with what we can call “maximalist” English garden. The maximalist English garden style offers a plethora of colors and floral varieties; mostly perennials. I love low maintenance, constantly flowering perennials (see the above photo)! At the same time, too much variety and color can be overwhelming.

On the other end of the gardening spectrum is the minimalist Zen garden. Again, a minimalist Japanese Zen influence can be settling with the scene of open space, simplicity and elegance. It offers room for the eye to appreciate the simple elegance of a single stone, a purple iris, or bonsai tree. It offers the opportunity for the mind to experience space, and fill the gaps with one’s own creative options conjured up in their own minds; and yes, even freedom from the need to fill in the space and find the beauty in open, uncluttered, undefined space.

In music, Koto jazz is in itself a bi-cultural duality. It proposes a piano synthesis of eastern influences sounds, melodies, and themes with western style jazz embellishments, rhythm and beat. Traditional Japanese nationals and westerners may be offended by their perceived in-authenticity of koto jazz as it takes from the purity of traditional music and modernizes it with new sounds, rhythm, and embellishments. In these cases, koto jazz music is not a fit for them. For those interested in exploring this duality in music and collision of two cultures and musical styles, koto jazz is an ideal genre for you.

Koto Jazz 40: Stream Gardens

The “winding stream garden”, otherwise known in Japan as yarimizu– is a key part of Chinese and Japanese gardens. The stream represents in Taoism the permanence of impermanence, ever flowing water that still remains the same. It has also been part of the other creative arts, such as poetry and painting in China and Japan. An important element of the stream garden are the creek rocks on the creek beds and aligning the shore lines, as well as stones and occasional bonsai- shaped pine trees and bushes, as shown in the photo above. This is an excavated and revived archaeological site of the Kyuseki stream garden in Nara, Japan. A natural stream or one recycled by a pump naturally leads into a pond, the image of a larger body of water such a lake or the sea.

The Kyuseki stream and pond garden near the Imperial palace in Nara (Japan’s original capital), dates back to the 8th Century, according to the Bowdoin University website (see Bowdoin’s Japanese garden website. This suggests the origins of “a stream banquet” (kyokusui no en) during which guests attempted to come up with an original poem before cups of wine, set floating from a point upstream, and arriving at their position along the riverbank”, according to the Bowdoin University Japanese garden website.

The Japanese garden is also derived from Buddhist divination principles, with the intention of carrying away evil while attracting good. To do this, the original Japanese garden design publication, Sakuteiki (Records of Garden Making), says the stream should cross the garden from East to West.

In college at Sophia University, I remember reading Genji-monogatori (源氏物語 The Tale of Genji), about the Heian period festival which featured the kyokusui-no-en, the Feast of the Winding Stream. It is an annual springtime event even today at Mōtsū-ji Temple, Hiraizumi.

More often than not, the Japanese garden stream is not a raging force, but a soft and gentle water flow for the contemplative nature of this type of stroll garden. Again, this offers a more meditative environment for reflection and connection to nature.

Here is sample song I wrote with the same intention called Kuriku Iwa No Hamon.

and Black Pine Bonsai

Koto Jazz 39: Old & New Faces at the Royal Room, Seattle

I saw a lot of old faces in the crowd at my performance at the Royal Room (Columbia City, South Seattle) and a lot of new faces.

I can’t thank the old faces enough for coming out to see me play the piano (thank you, thank you, thank you). As we grow in our understanding and expression of koto jazz, it is not possible without your support. What an opportunity to play before a full house on a Monday night. 🙂

I’m also curious about the new faces and why they came. So I went out and talked to them. The feedback I received is that people are interested in the music, but more than the music. They are interested in the flow state and the connection to a spirituality with Nature and the Shinto and Zen Buddhist origins that these Koto jazz pieces introduce to the listener.

I’m surprised I received as much feedback as I did about the spirituality that creativity offers us. On the music side as predicted, people loved certain songs, all the comments came from one of the Koto jazz pieces I wrote (Hatchidori and Kozan no Kaze) and a few endorsements of the variations on known Koto melodies I jazzed up. But it was also the energy they like.

My music is an attempt to re-connect with the spirituality about and around Nature. This spirituality is not locked up in the closed doors of any institution or church, or temple, or shrine. My music serves as a simple offering of our attention to nature and invitation to be present to it in whatever form it takes before us; whether a hummingbird or ripples on creek rocks. Music is one of many vehicles that can unleash that spirituality.

The Shinto influence of it is so much more than the political environmentalism of our time. It’s really not enough for me to say “I drive an electric car”, or “I’m saving up to put solar panels on my home.” Sure, that’s all good, practical good. But it’s not spiritual. It is the essence of the natural world we tend to overlook. We forget that we come from this Natural state and we tend to take it for granted. When do we say thank you in the language of the Creator, that we are grateful for everything created for us in this world? The Creator does not speak a specific human language; not even English. It’s Not just about the stuff We create, but the stuff of Life that’s been here almost forever.

In other blog entries here, I talk about the science of the flow state or Shinto spirituality, ions and all that. Clearly it’s that, but more. I’m interested in all that, because I like science and I like proof, but I’m also interested in the “more” part. There will always be more, and I’m tired of the polemics and ideology that rend our age. I want more, don’t you? I choose today, to pay honor and reverence to that which is “More”; was here long before I came into existence, and most certainly will be here long after I pass on.

The presence of the Natural world in our lives is not a religious proposition, it’s not profound at all, it’s really simple. We can be changed and transformed by it if we “tune in”, if we choose to listen to the language of the Creator. Seek this first, my friend, “and all else . …. ”

Yes, my next big challenge as a musician will be to write a koto jazz piece about the “Sea Slug” (pictured above). If I can write a song about a sea slug, I’m getting somewhere. 🙂

Koto Jazz 38: Japanese Maple Varieties

There are hundreds of varieties of Japanese maples. They tend to be divided into dwarf, green leaf, red leaf, and large tree varieties. The Japanese maple tree often refers to maple tree cultivars from Acer palmatum, Acer japonicum, and Acer shirasawanum. Japanese maple varieties feature feathery and weeping brightly colorful leaves that turn to even more resplendent colors in the fall.


Acer Palmatum, Higasayama Japanese Maple

The dwarf Japanese maple has predominantly yellow leaves with occasional pink pointed ends. In the fall, the Japanese maple leaves turns brilliant orange-red colors. The Higasayama dwarf maple has pink buds in the spring that spread into shades of cream, pinkish, and/or green.


Dwarf Japanese Maple

The Green Cascade Japanese maple is a mid-sized maple tree with drooping green leaves that turn to deep orange- red in the fall.

The Autumn Moon Maple and Moonlight Maple varieties show a brilliant golden color, which can turn into bright orange, pink and red in the fall.


Moonlight Maple

Hogyoku is a sturdy green leaf variety. It is also a mid-sized maple that grow to 15-feet. From a fairly pedestrian green, it can turn to glorious yellow, orange and red colors in the fall. It handles the heat better than most Japanese maples.

Beni Kawa is another Japanese green leaf maple variety, although these smaller, lighter leaves bring out a delicate, lighter green color as well. It thrives in colder weather than the Hyogoku, which is one of the few Japanese maples that withstands a hot climate.


Beni Kawa Japanese Maple

The Katsura maple is likewise a small leaved, light, pale yellow-orange when emerging. Toward the summer, leaves turn light yellow green, then yellow into orange in the fall.

The Emperor Japanese maple varieties are also mid-sized trees that are named for their deep red or purple colors.


Emperor Japanese Maple

Another popular reddish- purple variety is the lace maple, such as the Bloodgood and Burgundy lace, which feature the reddish weeping feathery leaves.


Bloodgood Japanese Maple

The tall Red Filigree lace maple retains its reddish purple color throughout the summer and turns a bright crimson in fall. Overall look is of the weeping effect of the dissectum along with fine twigs.

The Sango-kaku or Coral Bark maple has a light green throughout the spring into summer seasons, and then a bright yellow glow, even pinkish in the fall. After the leaves fall off the tree, the unique bright red coral bark is highlighted.


Sango-kaku, Coral Bark Maple