Category Archives: meditation music

KotoJazz 9: Islands of Japanese Gardens

When you grow up in a town like Boulder as I did, which sits at the front range of the Rocky Mountains, it’s not possible to miss out on the majestic boulders towering over the city. These “flatiron”- shaped boulders jut a thousand or more feet into the air like tectonic plates forced up to meet the sky by two converging continents. They stand tall as guards to the doorway of the Colorado Rockies.
Whether a Flatiron rock laying against the Rocky Mountains or a stone strategically placed as the Buddha in a Japanese garden, there is a spiritual element to the stones we live among. Boulder residents, Silver Wave Records and Grammy award nominees Peter Kater, Carlos Nakai, and Steve Haun were undoubtedly inspired by the cathedral rocks of Boulder. I searched for both western instrumental and Koto music influenced by stone(s) and what it symbolizes, the island, and came up with the following collection:

• Poem of Tree and Stone – by Masao Matsumoto (1956);
• The Spirit of the Island – by Taiko Legends, Traditional Melodies of Japan;
Towards the Vietnam Land (Hong Vi Dat Viet) – by Tran Quang Hai;
Wind, Rock, Sea & Flame – by Peter Kater;
Sacred Stones – by Asian Meditation Music;
The Hour – A White Stone – by Lee McDerment;
Stones, Baby Sleep Music – by New Age Music Academy;

Other:

Island Music of Hawa’ii – by Cyril Pahinui (no relation to koto, but . …) Hawaiian Ki Ho’alu Slack Key Guitar Master;
Emerald – by Wind Machine, Wind Machine album;
The Island – by Christopher Ryan, Lost: Music from the Island for Solo Piano;
Gentle Flowing Brook Over Stones with Flowing Stream – by Green Escape, Nature Sound Series;
Stone Tower Temple (Legend of Zelda) – by Monsalve – Majora’s Mask;
Sacred Stones – by Oriental Music for Relaxation, Meditation, Massage Therapy, Healing, Zen Meditation, and Yoga; and
Box of Stones – by Gavin Mikhail, Skinny Love.

Stone – The Island in Japanese Gardens:
The stone is a common element in the Japanese garden. The Way of Zen and Zen values of simplicity (kanso), naturalness (shizo), and refined elegance are similarly values expressed in the Japanese garden. Stones and rocks are as simple as they get. Normally stones are grouped by themselves or they are grouped in threes with a taller boulder standing regally behind two shorter boulders. This is believed to create balance. All three stones are generally vertical, with the taller stone in the center representing The Buddha (one who has become enlightened), and the two other stones on each side representing two Bodhisattvas (one who is “bound for enlightenment; the two stones are called sanson). They are placed next to water, a body of water or water feature, as images of water features and/or mountains.

Bodies of water are represented in the Japanese garden by a pond or lake. In the case of dry Zen rock gardens where sand and gravel represent the sea or ocean, the stones would be placed next to or in the sand/ pebble garden. The scene of ocean and sea occupying the majority of the garden space (“chisen”) originates from China, as does the garden aesthetic and spirituality of Zen Buddhism. Groups of rocks on one or more sides of the body of water in the garden may represent the seashore.

Japan is an island country surrounded by large bodies of water; the Japan Sea to the west, the North Pacific Ocean to the east, the Korean strait to the west, the South China Sea to the southwest, and the Philippine Sea to the south. Wikipedia says Japan has over 6,000 islands in total, with four main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku).

Unique to Japan:
Perhaps unique to Japanese gardens is the impact of Japan’s insularity; island mentality and sense of space. One can achieve the simplicity, elegance and Zen spirituality of a Japanese garden in a small space.

The Japanese garden itself is a symbol of longevity, as it requires long term care over many years to reach its true potential beauty. There are two types of island stones that symbolize the longevity of the crane and tortoise (often shaped like them; these symbols also originate from China). These special islands are sacred and not accessible by bridge. If one sees a bridge to an island in a Japanese garden, these are ordinary islands called nakajima.

The bonsai images of shaped evergreens in the Japanese garden symbolize happiness and longevity. Black and red pines represent positive (omatsu) and negative (mematsu) forces in the world.

“The visual entities which may appear as a design in the Western sense of forms, textures, and colors are less important than the invisible philosophical, religious, and symbolic elements,” according to garden designer and architect Dr. Koichi Kawana. The Japanese garden represents a utopia or sacred refuge from the distractions of daily life.

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KotoJazz 8: The Wind and the Spirit

While originally secularly founded by Yatsuhashi Kengyo in the early 17th century, Koto, “the music of Japan”, flourished in the 1800s. Koto composer Nakanoshima Kengyo (1838-1894) created and dedicated “Matsukaze”, “the wind in the pines”, imitating the sounds of Gagaku, Japanese court music (see http://www.socsci.uci.edu/~rgarfias/sound-recordings/japan.html). It is a composition in continuous gentle, fluid motion, sometimes wandering yet never searching. It is as confident and steady as the wind in the pines, bending but never breaking; as subtle yet serene as a cool ocean breeze (though I believe the vocals does this piece a disservice). 🙂

A few additional koto and other instrumental tunes worth noting about the wind and the Spirit are:

  • Kozan No Kaze [or Alpine Wind (Storm)] (the 1st song in this medley, more “chaos jazz” than koto jazz),
    – Koto Jazz medley live at the Brass Tacks, Seattle (July 5th). Kozan no Kaze is inspired by world renowned jazz piano player, Li Pui Ming’s style of jazz which I call “chaos jazz”. I will also feature this piece at the Royal Room, Seattle in September (see events section)
  • Kaze no uta (Song of the Wind), by Sawai Tadao, from Spell of Spring: Selected Works of Sawai Tadao (Volume I).
  • Whisper of the Wind, Bali Spa- Kecapi Meets Koto, Volume 6.
  • Song of the Wind with Shakuhachi and Tea Ceremony, The Satsuki Odamura Koto Ensemble.
  • Matsukaze, “The wind in the pines”, Taiga Yamaki III (also known as Yamaki Kengyō) performed by Namino Torii and Minoyu Otaka, with assistance from Steven Otto and Hiromi Sakata.
  • Yamato (Japan): III. Fu (Wind), by Aiko Hasegawa, Relaxing Sounds of Japan
  • Ballades for Koto Solo – Summer – Under the White Wind, by Miki Minoru
  • Temple Spirits, by Ameritz Sound Effects, Music of Japan
  • Kitaro’s Spiritual Garden album;
  • Dream Wind, by Taka Koto Ensemble
  • East Winds Ensemble, by Youmi Kimura / Yumi Kimura and Joe Hisaishi (theme music of Hayao Miyazaki Anime)
  • Breeze at Night, by Circus Band, Sound of the Orient
  • White Winds – by Andreas Vollenweider
  • The Wind and the Wolf – by Keiko Matsui
  • Nanbu Wind Chimes – by Victor, The Sounds of Japan
  • Kaze No Oshaberi – by Ayaha, The Sounds of Kyoto: Maboroshi
  • The Spirit – by Peter Kater
  • Aerial Boundaries – by Michael Hedges
  • Wind Machine and Voices In the Wind – by Wind Machine

  • New to “Sample Sounds” is a brief excerpt of a beautifully performed melodious composition by a very, very special, gifted person. While I attempted to give insight into the basic western chordal structure and show how many songs are based on them, this unique musical talent composed a piece called “Wind-chimes”. Wind-chimes graces with delicate simplicity and inspires with its spontaneous peace and joy. Though you can discern smooth, flowing patterns up and down the scale, the melody captures a gentle breeze tapping the tunes of flower pedal-like wind-chimes. The second “windchime” sample called “Rain Drops from Trees” evokes images of a cool breeze releasing rain drops from branches of a tree, or a tributary trickling downstream in a fresh green mountain meadow and gurgling over creek pebbles. It is a “must hear”.

    John Denver spoke of the wind as “the symbol of all that is free,” in his masterfully sung spiritual ballad, Windsong. Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) suggests that we “listen to the wind of the soul” in his spiritual journey called “The Wind”. To introduce a hint of the trans-formative nature of the wind, I reflect on the western tradition. Probably the most telling story-lines passed on through perhaps hundreds of generations is the story about Jesus who spoke of the One who is to follow. He said we may speak wrongly about himself and the Father and it will be forgiven us, but we may never speak wrongly about the Spirit. There is only one description in the good book I know of where Jesus explicitly defines the Spirit in human terms and that is, “The wind blows where it wishes and we hear the sound of it. We know neither from where it comes nor to where it goes, and so it is with those of the Spirit.”

    The wind is the breath of this small and fragile home we call earth and is not to be tampered with nor taken for granted. If we feel the wind and the Spirit in our own lives, we live in unison with who we are intended to be, what we are intended to do. Then and only then, regardless of where we are or who we are, we are part of the living Spirit through whom we truly “breathe, we move, and we have our being.”

    Let us dare to care for the wind, take heed of each moment it pays us a visit as if it were the One who is to follow, and in JD’s words ” welcome the wind and the wisdom she offers. Follow her summons when she calls again. In your heart and your spirit let the breezes surround you. Lift up your voice then and sing with the wind.” (Windsong)

    KotoJazz 7: Water, Water Everywhere

    “Water water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner). Famous poets the world over find inspiration from the simple element we call water (see Famous Poets and Poems or Haiku poems about water. So much poetry and music is written about water and the movement of water. What it is about water that inspires so much creativity?

    Water is not a new moving subject of our inspiration [see Smetana’s The Moldau or Kiyoko Miyagi’s Haru No Umi (The Sea in Springtime); for MP3 download, see a version by Fumie Hihara]. Water images and music about water are nearly boundless. To name a few, there’s:

  • Ameritz Sound Effects , Slow Boat on the Yangtze, Music of Japan;
  • Ayaha’s Kaze No Oshaberi, Sounds of Kyoto: Maboroshi;
  • Yuka Honda’s haunting Cycle of Water, Water on Mars or Hydrosphere;
  • Geoffrey Castle’s enchanting Waterfall, Float Downstream or Mist on the Mountains,
  • Riley Lee’s soul searching Spring Rain,
  • George Winston’s celebratory dancing Sea or Spring Creek,
  • Wind Machine’s steady rythm of Distant Shores, and
  • Davol’s meditative Mystic Waters or Cascade.

  • My most recent koto jazz piece, Ripples on Stones (short excerpt), borrows a few common koto chords combined with the ebb and flow of ripples on creek rocks. With Ripples, I depart from my koto and western jazz and rhythm and seek to follow the more free form of new age styles. Each musical work possesses in common the peaceful, free flowing meditative qualities of water.

    Japanese and Chinese gardens feature water – still water and more often than not, moving water. Whether a trickle from bamboo water feature onto a stone basin or a cascading waterfall from cathedral rock cliffs, water is a powerful, enchanting spiritual theme. It is a key energy source that sustains us physically, emotionally & spiritually.

    The serenity of the moment lies in the stillness of water, reflecting every part of who we are- reflecting the sun, the moon, the stars and the world around us. It is able to settle & calm every part of our mind and body if we are present to it. It may inspire emotions but is free of all emotions and through its stillness or its movement, it can lead our souls to that same place of freedom from thought, give us a reprieve from the chaos of our day and nourish our souls. Meditation in the presence of water, still or moving, connects us with the cycle of life of which we are a part.

    Again, it requires one thing — our presence . … not just physical, but our awareness and connection to the life it offers.

    KOTOJAZZ 5: KOTO JAZZ & TRIBUTE TO GEORGE WINSTON

    Today, I post two of my favorite George Winston originals– Moon and Thanksgiving. I also posted up a new Koto jazz variation I play based from my favorite Koto piece, Tori No Yo Ni (Like A Bird).

    It is my favorite Koto tunes because it genuinely puts me into the mind of a crane, playing in still waters, and lifting off to explore the skies only to return again. I must call my version a variation on the Tori No Yo Ni, as I’m about half way through this ten minute piece. It’s a blast, it’s lively, it’s reverent to the power and beauty of the crane which has inspired all of Asia with its artistic majesty.

    My other two posts, I play two of my favorite George Winston songs. I can credit my inspiration to play the piano to one person– George Winston. When I speak of him I feel like a giddy child back in the day when I was still learning the basic chords and then trying to morph it into one of his masterpieces. I suspect I’m not the only piano player inspired by his works. When I saw him performing in jeans and barefooted in front of a formal black tie event, I knew he was my guy! Not really, more than that, his music helped me reach for the deeper elements of music and how it can serve as a touchstone for connecting people spiritually.

    As is the case for me with most musicians, my favorite George Winston songs were not his most popular, which were Ode to Joy and Variation on the Canon. I do love those songs and it gave me the opportunity to play these variations for my college graduation ceremony before thousands of students and parents. I’m blessed by this memory, particularly because my dad was there with me. He flew out to be see me graduate, but more importantly, to see me play. It is a blessing, especially as I reflect on his passing, and reminisce over my life long images of him . I played for his memorial reception. Because I shared my music at the funeral reception a few weeks ago, my good friends Sachiko and Eugene Lee shared encouraging words, and Sachiko shared her koto playing experience. Also, my dad’s colleague at the University of Colorado, Dr. Joyce Lebra encouraged me to book events in the Seattle area when I return. I am doing that. I had been a regular performer in the 90s in Seattle, but gave it up after getting married and other priorities took over. It was a joy to play for my daughter, nieces and nephews at the funeral who seemed to be as captivated by Tori No Yo Ni as much as I was playing it, though I could’ve done without the banging at the other end of the piano! 🙂

    I played for church services and other events just because of my George Winston version of Variations on the Canon. However, what George Winston did for me was bigger than that. He laid his inspiring music on my table to explore variations on all music, and ultimately led me toward a deeper appreciation of instrumental jazz, new age, koto, and other eastern music.

    KOTOJAZZ 4: KOTO INFLUENCES TODAY

    If you talked to contemporary ambient/ new age artists

  • Lee Pui Ming,
  • Geoffrey Castle,
  • Riley Lee or
  • Brian Eno,
  • would they attribute some of their influences to Koto music? There’s no question in my mind each of these artists’ musical expressions are rooted in the same source. The spirit of these creators of art, whether or not directly linked to Koto, have produced their works in the same spirit as those of Koto, stirred by the energy and images of the Natural world; Nature breathing life into their music. Each offer a subtle eastern influence, except in the case of Riley Lee where it’s more front and center. Riley Lee’s Satori, for example, as a Grand Master of shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), pulls from similar Japanese traditions.

    While it might be a stretch to say that the alternative rock band Kid Simple’s album “Samurai” or The Sun Dogs’ single “This Shroud” were inspired by traditional Koto music (more Native American influences), it is more accurate to say their music happens upon a same consistent, slow and steady base accompanied by a exploration in and out of dissonance, similar to those often expressed in Koto pieces.

    Koto Jazz is an exciting genre concept for which the above artists may or may not subscribe. Even if these artists came upon their similarities completely independent of Koto influences, the spirit behind the Koto tradition is present in their music.

    What I love so much about Koto music are its basic principals — there are none– none that can be defined and put into a western context; back to its Shinto- Buddhist roots. Perhaps, it involves a tune stringing along a single minor/ sharp chord somewhat randomly interwoven, but not always; possibly fusing a jazz chord progression or two into the mix (but very rarely more than two), with long moments of silence and silent moments where it seems (from a western perspective) a note should be played? Koto does not attempt to interfere with a pure and transparent channel of life flowing through music by intervening patterns imposed by western chordal structures and definitions. This all too often restricts and limits the free natural flow of sound and spirit.

    To quote part of JFK’s eulogy of Robert Frost, “if art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. . . We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda, it is a form of truth.”

    KOTOJAZZ 2: CONTEMPORARY NEW AGE/ JAZZ PERFORMERS WITH A TOUCH OF KOTO

    Some hints or images of koto jazz influences can be heard in the contemporary tunes of

  • George Winston (Windham Hill Records),
  • Peter Kater (Silver Wave Records),
  • Shadowfax (Windham Hill Records), and
  • Andreas Vollenweider (Edel Records, Sony Records).
  • These globally popular musicians transcended their time (the 80s) with a deeper challenge to the traditional sound and rhythm. Each received international recognition for their music, and much can be credited to their serious experimentation with eastern influences.

    KOTOJAZZ 1: KOTO JAZZ DEFINED – SPIRITUAL ORIGINS

    Hatchidori Wa Hana Ka[ra] Hana [e tobu] (Hummingbird Flies from Flower to Flower) and Kabutomushi (Rhinoceros Beetle) are musical tunes that attempt to capture the energy or images of the natural object; in this case, a hummingbird and a rhinoceros beetle. I believe staying true to the spiritual origins of Koto is paramount.

    Spiritually, Koto jazz seeks to bring out the Japanese Shinto-Buddhist spiritual nourishment derived from connection and reverence to nature as well as ancestral worship. The western influences of jazz, in part, have their origins in western Judeo-Christian ideals and institutions. It is my opinion we need to bring these two together into an harmonious whole of “yin and yang”, bringing out the best in both traditions which lifts us to broader spiritual growth and learning.

    The best written description/ representation of this that I’ve read to date is the a #1 New York Times Bestselling book by James Redfield called The “Celestine Prophecy“, and our evolution toward a global non-religious spiritual awakening.

    KotoJazz 2: Contemporary new age/ jazz performers with a touch of Koto

    Some hints of koto jazz influences can be heard in the contemporary music of

  • George Winston (Windham Hill Records),
  • Peter Kater (Silver Wave Records),
  • Shadowfax (Windham Hill Records), and
  • Andreas Vollenweider (Edel Records, Sony Records).
  • These globally popular musicians transcended their time (the 80s) with a deeper challenge to the traditional sound and rhythm. Each received international recognition for their music, and much can be credited to their serious experimentation with eastern influences.