Suizen forms the third and final panel of a series of pieces for different solo instruments, beginning in 2007 with being the pine tree for accordion, later followed by Ume for guitar in 2013. Each piece is based on one of a trio of seasonal images common to a number of Chinese and Japanese art forms: pine tree, plum blossom and bamboo, the so-called “Three Friends of Winter”. While all three represent different shades of strength and endurance, they are each endowed with their own particular virtues as well. The pine stands for longevity and patience, the plum blossom for purity and evanescent beauty. The bamboo, in its turn, embodies flexibility, bending with the wind, as well as the quality of emptiness – referred to as mu in Zen texts – a boundless spaciousness that is the true state of all things.
As with the other panels in the series, I wrote the music through the instrument itself, creating material as I improvised on them as best I could, making a special effort to note the (many) imperfections in my naïve playing and create a place for them in the piece. By this means the error – the accidental – becomes beautiful and exalted rather than unwelcome. Each piece also has a strong connection to a traditional Japanese instrument whose structure and technique it resembles. In the case of the bass flute, the inspiration was the hocchiku, a larger, more rough-sounding version of the end-blown bamboo shakuhachi flute. In contrast with the other pieces, though, Suizen was influenced by a specific tradition of playing, even a person. In late 2008 I heard a performance by Atsuya Okuda, whose specific meditative practice was improvising on the hocchiku, known as suizen, literally “blowing meditation”.
It was never my intent to fall into exoticism by copying Asian-sounding pitch patterns or melodies. Rather, I was drawn to the intense quality of Okuda’s playing, his range of tonal colors, in which gestures separated by long, intensely shaped silences seemed to evolve constantly, as if a single, uninterrupted thought were being relentlessly pursued in a fragmentary way. Of particular interest was his way of ending a piece very suddenly, with an almost perfunctory gesture, the timing of which nonetheless felt absolutely right. Phrase lengths are calculated according to the duration of a single breath. Durations are long, notes are few, and the music employs the full range of colors produced by the performer’s breath, from its strongest and most violent to its most ragged or fragile.
Suizen is dedicated to Hanna Kinnunen, whose playing shares many qualities with Okuda’s, and which has been a neverending inspiration since our first meeting many years, and many pieces ago.