Saturday, November 04, 2006


John Cage composed a series of works inspired by Ryoan-ji, the Zen garden in Kyoto, starting with a version for oboe and adding other versions for flute, double bass, trombone, voice and orchestra. For each composition Cage traced the outlines of stones onto staves, creating ascending or descending glissandi for the lead instrument. It is quite easy to hear the shapes of the stones after listening for a while, and the simple percussion accompaniment fills the surrounding spaces like gravel in the garden. The music thus outlines a kind of sparse landscape and the path taken on the page by Cage's pencil is like the flow of air pressing against and swirling around a group of rocks, turning them into a a wind instrument. Listening this morning to versions of Ryoanji for flute (played by Dorothy Stone) and trombone (James Fulkerson), I was also reminded of the sounds of birds and animals, heard in the depths of the forest or high among the mountains in Japanese poems.

I took the photograph of Ryoan-ji below in 1998. It shows how the rocks appear quite isolated in the sea of gravel. One of the things I remember being particularly moved by was the beauty of the old wall framing the garden.

Postscript 2015: Youtube clips come and go and so I have replaced the one I originally had with a new one.

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