Striking Light, Striking Dark: Striking Words to a Zen Drum

“If light comes, I will strike it. If dark comes, I will strike it.” This is the inspiration behind Striking Light, Striking Dark: Poetry Set to Music, the collaboration between Christopher Yohmei Blasdel and Sasha Bogdanowitsch. It’s a mystical album, and when heard in one sitting, has the power to transport the listener to another time and place. The quotation comes from an 18th-century Japanese text, the Kyotaku Denki, which describes how the shakuhachi flute was brought to Japan from China for religious practices in the Fuke sect of Buddhism. The authenticity of this text is questioned, but the sentiment of this quotation provides these two artists with ample inspiration in this poetry-filled CD.

Blasdel has lived in Japan for decades, mastering the shakuhachi, a long end-blown flute traditionally made of bamboo. Blasdel uses two lengths of shakuhachi here, and with Bogdanowich’s plethora of world percussion instruments, these two artists create a unique and incredibly diverse soundworld in which to explore a mix of poetry on a general Buddhist theme. The opening tones of the shakuhachi quickly merge with Bogdanowitsch’s flexible voice and a subtle groove on the Brazilian surdo drum. The words are for the most part remarkably clear, but the two composers did not choose straightforward texts– the texts of the poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Sam Hamill, David Wagoner, and John Logan are available on both artists’ websites, but not included in the CD liner notes. It is a strange mix of new and old technology to sit and listen to a CD but have to check a website to read the poems.

Christopher Yohmei Blasdel-- Photo by Iwasa Eiichiro

Christopher Yohmei Blasdel– Photo by Iwasa Eiichiro

But perhaps the poets’ original meaning is besides the point. Blasdel and Bogdanowitsch give the words a music of their own. A selection from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, “How could we forget?” becomes a pulsating meditation on the words “could,” “transformed,” “races,” and “dragons.” The context of Rilke’s advice is lost, and the final poignant phrase of this paragraph in the original letter, “Perhaps all that frightens us, in its deepest essence, is something helpless that wants our love,” gets lost in form of the song and Blasdel’s powerfully insistent tones. Yet, the song is affecting in a different way; it gets at the desperation of the letter writer, and we can assume, of the young man to whom he is writing. Many of the songs here use the words as syllabic, rhythmic fodder for their ritualistic sounding music; the percussion and shakuhachi often mimic the sounds of the words, and the voice becomes a fellow instrument.

Bogdanowitsch moves from a lithe James Taylor-like sound to beautiful depths, and he is adept at bending pitches or making his voice reedy to suggest the Japanese vocal style which imbues these compositions. In “Solstice,” both voice and flute emerge breathily from a netherworld and almost pitchlessly articulate Sam Hamill’s sparse language, definitely striking the dark side of both instruments.

What is most striking is the relationship between these two artists– with each other and with their chosen texts. Hamill is an outsider Zen poet inspired by the Beat writers. His works represent nearly half of the tracks on this album, and his mystical poems, filled with nature imagery and a sense of bemused wonder, seem to be at the heart of what inspired this album. Musically, they are the most formless of the tracks, accurately painting Hamill’s plaintive words in fluid and amorphous strokes. “Elegy” simply has a recitation of the text followed by a serpentine extended flute solo, and concluded by a repetition of this 5-line poem. Both voice and shakuhachi find the wry humor in “The Art of Literary Translation,” as “squabbling as they will/in busy traffic, two crows/make meals of road kill,” and twitter away raucously.

Sasha Bogdanowitsch

Sasha Bogdanowitsch

But there is also an almost-pop song based on a David Wagoner poem, “All of It.” An ostinato played on mbira array would not be out of place in a song by the band Air. The words “all of it/suffering my foolishness/I’ll take care of this and more” form a chorus of sorts with cheery, layered vocals and a real groove. The idea of the shakuhachi as a ritual instrument is very much alive here. Blasdel manages to coax a delicious and evocative array of sounds out of his instrument, and Bogdanowitsch’s voice fits in, imitating the flute’s breathy sound or percussively punctuating words. The style is like Osvaldo Golijov’s: a curious and, at its best, captivating mashup of world styles and utterly original takes on poetry. The quotation from the Kyotaku Denki gives rise to a sprawling 8-minute track near the close of the album, and this leads directly into a wordless, ritual chant version of a saltarello.

Striking Light, Striking Dark uses words to inspire rhythms, rhythms to inspire timbres, and the whole thing feels like a deeply inspired, free flowing kirtan. Lying somewhere between traditional world music, improvisation, and formal composition, this collaboration lingers in the ear and transforms poetry into meditation.

Striking Light, Striking Dark, Christopher Yohmei Blasdel & Sasha Bogdanowitsch (Ears Wide Open Records, 2015)

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