Musical Evocation of Australia's Landscape

Feb 21, 2020

Climate change is affecting human lives, and that experience is showing up in the arts. Tonight in Honolulu, five contemporary Australian musicians will share experiences of nature from Down Under. In this concert, visions of the natural world include pastoral landscapes, majestic vistas, and much more.

Shakuhachi are made of bamboo. There is no reed or mouthpiece, and only five holes, four above, and one below. Introduced to Japan from China in the 7th century, its sound is closely identified with Japan and Zen culture.
Credit Riley Lee

The Honolulu Chamber Music Series presents the Honolulu premiere of “Five Elements,” with shakuhachi Grand Master Riley Lee and the Enigma Quartet. One performance, tonight, February 21, 2020, 7:30 at Orvis Auditorium on the UH Manoa campus. 

On a recent Wednesday morning, I headed to Orvis Auditorium on the lower UH Mānoa campus to find out more about a timely collaboration.

“Oh we’ve had incredible fires,” said cellist Rowena MacNeish, who plays with Australia’s Enigma Quartet. “On the other side, we’ve had incredible rain as well. Bush fires and devastation there, but drought and loads of flooding and immense amounts of rain. A lot is going on in the elements and we are feeling it in our daily lives.”

MacNeish took a break from rehearsal to tell me about the inspiration behind a new music project, “The Five Elements.” The collaboration brings Eastern and Western music sensibilities to bear on music related to Australia's landscape.

Contemporary Australian composers were asked to contribute pieces based on the five classic elements: earth, ether, water, wind, and fire. The idea is linking the landscape with classical instruments, plus an Eastern element, the shakuhachi flute. MacNeish says for these compositions, unexpected sounds are coaxed from the instruments.

“There are lots of different sounds you wouldn’t often hear at a string quartet concert, sounds you hear in everyday life, really.”

“Recently that would be considered clashing,” acknowledges Riley Lee, a shakuhachi Grand Master.  But, he says, “It’s a particular sound, that works.”

Today, sounds are experienced rather than judged, and Lee agrees that complex or challenging sounds can seem more evocative of the moment.

On the other hand, there is the very simple: A shakuhachi is a flute made from the root end of a bamboo stalk. It’s traditionally about two feet long, with 4 holes on top and one on the bottom. There is no reed or mouthpiece, though an amazing range of effects is possible just by blowing into the end.   

Shakuhachi were used as a tool for meditation, which, according to Lee, can be calming as portrayed in the West. In deep practice, however, Lee says meditation can also be physically painful and profoundly confronting.

“The shakuhachi, like so much Japanese music and art, originally was inspired by nature,” Lee continues. “And nature is not just this calm beautiful Hawaiian afternoon. Nature is like what we’ve been getting in Australia, bush fires, floods, drought. There are extremes in nature as well.”

“One has to listen to contemporary music in the way one listens to nature,”  Lee observes.

A recording of “The Five Elements” is in the works and available in advance. The performance at Orvis Auditorium on February 21, 2020 will be the work’s Hawai‘i premiere.

“Hopefully people that come to our concerts go away being very energized and thoughtful, having experienced something they hadn’t before. If that happens, great!”

The Honolulu Chamber Music Series continues with the Calder Quartet on Saturday, February 14, 2020.