I must dedicate this blog post to my teacher, Dr. Joanne Metcalf, who first introduced me to Ryoanji, a later composition by John Cage, and for me, one of his most beautiful works. The composition takes it name from a famous, dry rock garden in Kyoto that consists of only a few rocks that rise out of a plot of raked, white gravel. Not only is Cage’s composition named after this garden, the score itself consists of drawings of the rocks which are used as pitch contours for a soloist. There is also a percussionist who performs a simple obbligato, perhaps mirroring the simple figure-ground relationship of the stones and gravel.

Upon arriving in Kyoto yesterday morning, Ryōan-ji was the first place I went. The garden is a half-hour from the city center, at the very end of bus 50’s route. From the final stop you walk a quarter mile over a hill and past deciduous forests that lie at the very edge of Kyoto. This being winter, you might think that Ryōan-ji would be desolate, but the approach to the famous viewing room was anything but. The gardens that surround Ryōan-ji would be a tourist destination in their own right even without their more famous neighbor. The paths that lead to the rock garden follow the shore of a lake through mossy forests that remain lush even in this season. To access Ryōan-ji you pay your entrance fee, remove your shoes, and then walk along viewing platform. Behind this platform is a tatami-mated Zen temple.

Ryōan-ji and Cage’s Ryoanji are beautiful metaphors for the kind of sounds I like best. Both are unhurried, unremitting, full of space and breath.

I had not anticipated the beauty of the baked clay wall that surrounds the garden. Apparently the clay was first boiled in oil to prepare it for use as a building material, and this oil has slowly seeped out over the centuries to form a subtle, organic pattern that perfectly highlights the visual space.

Ryōan-ji and Cage’s Ryoanji are beautiful metaphors for the kind of sounds I like best. Both are unhurried, unremitting, full of space and breath. Although sound can only ever be a metaphor for visual impressions, I can’t think of a sound that better represent the experience of looking out over those minimalistic spires of stone than does Ryoanji. Such a connection would not have seemed odd to the patriarch of Japanese, twentieth-century classical music. I’ve been reading Toru Takemitsu’s collected writings in translation in the collection Confronting Silence,1 and these words particularly struck me:

A lifestyle out of balance with nature is frightening. As long as we live, we aspire to harmonize with nature. It is this harmony in which the arts originate and to which they will eventually return. Harmony, or balance, in this sense does not mean regulation or control by ready-made rules. It is beyond functionalism. I believe what we call “expression” in art is really discovery, by one’s own mode, of something new in this world. (“Nature and Music”)

And in the essay “The Garden of Music”:

For Arc I divided the orchestra into four solo instrumental groups, namely woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion. Different roles were assigned to each group. The solo piano assumes the role of an observer strolling through the garden. In the same way that plants and sand exist in a given space in their own time, changing with the climate and season, and that the entire garden is affected by the change from day to night, so do musical aspects change in this piece.

1 Takemitsu, Toru; Kakudo, Yoshiko; Glasow, Glenn; Ozawa, Seiji (1995-01-01). Confronting Silence (Fallen Leaf Monographs on Contemporary Composers). Rowman & Littlefield.

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