Can you satisfy God with one sound?


This is a question often posed by the shakuhachi grandmaster Kakizakai towards the beginning of his lessons. The shakuhachi is an end-blown single piece bamboo flute with five holes. With manipulations of breath, fingers, and the angle of one’s head, this simple instrument is capable of producing a remarkable range of tones and colors. Regardless of one’s stage of development, though, each lesson begins with both student and teacher repeatedly playing the note ro. The question is a kind of challenge: have you made progress? Are you closer to mastery of this, shakuhachi’s most fundamental note?


The question also has a philosophical side. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, it is known as a koan. (Famous koan include those concerning clapping hands and falling trees.) The purpose is not to elicit an answer but to prompt meditation. Kakizakai’s koan reminds the student that problems of technique are also problems having to do with the music’s spiritual purpose.


This was a question posed repeatedly to the composer Lachlan Skipworth during a period of intensive study with Kakizakai in Chichibu, Japan. With an impish smile, Kakizakai would answer his own question: “I couldn’t.” Skipworth spent nearly three years with Kakizakai between 2005 and 2007. The experience of absorbing the honkyoku repertoire would come to shape every aspect of the compositional language that he would develop over the following decade.


Skipworth first trained as a clarinetist in the classical tradition at the University of Western Australia. The son of a farmer, Skipworth’s easy-going West Australian manner belies a spiritual intensity and commitment to technical rigor. In his final year, he studied composition with Roger Smalley, a British-born composer committed to the pedagogical methods of high modernism. Smalley exposed Skipworth to the practice of working within predetermined structural parameters, including the use of “pitch sets,” a core group of notes that is developed using formal manipulations.


After graduating in 2003, Skipworth combined work as an instrumental teacher with some initial forays into composition of a minimalist tendency. An encounter in early 2004 with Riley Lee, the Texan grandmaster of the shakuhachi based in Sydney, spurred him to start lessons. It proved not to be a passing passion but the basis for a second musical education that would culminate 14 years later in Lee performing the premiere of Skipworth’s Breath of Thunder, a concerto for taiko, shakuhachi, and shinobue with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.


While still studying with Kakizakai, Skipworth started to turn his attention back to composition. He was curious about the creative possibilities that his training had opened up. Returning to Australia, Skipworth was caught between continuing his study of the shakuhachi and initial experiments with adapting the honkyoku. He enrolled in a Master and later a PhD at the Sydney Conservatorium, where he applied himself to what we might think of as his compositional koan: how can one recreate the power of the honkyoku in the western classical milieu? This entails avoiding exoticism while not abstracting from the honkyoku to the extent that its traits dissipate altogether. It also involves continual reflection. Are there other ways, better ways of achieving this transmission? Ought one even to attempt it in the first place?


His teacher and guide over these years was Anne Boyd, the distinguished Australian composer whose compositional language was deeply shaped by her own encounter with Japanese music 40 years earlier. As she has explained to Skipworth in an interview, Japanese aesthetics allowed her to break from linear developmental structures and to employ “simpler scale forms [that] enabled a greater focus on timbre.”


Light Rain (2009) for shakuhachi and string quartet, a work he dedicated to Boyd, was an early answer to his compositional koan. A landmark, it nevertheless found a familiar resolution to the problem of cross-cultural composition. The non-western instrument is the melodic protagonist around which is woven a sympathetic musical fabric. A chance meeting with the composer Jörg Widmann in 2009 took him in a different direction. When he moved to Germany a year later to study with him, Widmann challenged Skipworth to walk away from certain assumptions about his compositional parameters. Rather than trying to achieve a set style, he encouraged him to forge distinctive musical worlds with each work (something for which Widmann himself is known). Skipworth commented about his subsequent approach: “I tend to examine and refine my material until I find a musical space with its own identity.”


He composed The Night Sky Fall for clarinet, cello, and piano while still in Germany. (Note, the version on this album uses a ‘psalterphone’ rather than the cello: an instrument created by Skipworth made of metal rectangular tubes that resonate when a bow is drawn across the opening.) He stripped away all external cultural markers and focused on a simple problem: how can one create a satisfying musical form using only the notes of the harmonic series? He was responding to Kakizakai’s koan by starting from the simplest gesture: a single crotchet C on the piano. The melodic expansion that follows requires increasingly unconventional and precise adjustments of pitch from the clarinet and cello as they explore the outer reaches of the series.


The Night Sky Fall is the earliest of the compositions on this album of works for chamber ensembles. The rest were composed over the following five years as Skipworth’s oeuvre steadily grew and his reputation rapidly rose. Although each is very different, one can discern how he has drawn on key principles from the honkyoku to shape them. Perhaps the most central is ma, a concept that the musicologist Luciana Galliano characterizes as “neither space nor time, but the tension in the silence and in the space surrounding sounds and objects.” One of Skipworth’s strengths is to give each musical gesture the space it needs to achieve a clear outline. This is evident in the opening of The Night Sky Fall where each note articulates into an impalpable meter and silence itself becomes a texture.


Articulations against pregnant silence can become predictable, though. Skipworth has developed a range of techniques for creating the sensation of suspended musical space within which melodic lines can freely unfold. The opening of the clarinet quintet has a cascade of mezzo-forte to pianissimo bursts in the strings, which transition from the nasal sul ponto (playing next to the bridge) to hollow sul tasto (playing over the fingerboard). Against these harsh high frequencies enters the round cool G sharp of the clarinet. Soon the strings join in the melodic unfolding of the piece through heterophonic interplay (listen for the beautiful rising and falling arpeggios in the violins that end an early phrase).


The honkyoku repertoire eschews steady beats and regular rhythms. To recreate this in the Western classical context, with its precise system of notation and musicians drilled to obey a beat hierarchy, requires a number of innovations. Take the overlapping glissandi of the opening movement of the piano quartet. What at first sounds like a background texture reveals itself to be a rising melody given outline by the clear notes of the piano. This opening variously plays rhythmic groupings of 7, 5, 4, 3, and 2 against each other with notes frequently suspended over the beat or otherwise displaced such that one is unable to gauge the pulse against which these sub-divisions are measured. At times the instrumentalists themselves can only make educated guesses and are compelled to respond intuitively to each other’s rhythmic interpretations. Skipworth calls the resulting temporality floating time.


“Floating” does not necessarily mean without propulsion. The second and third movements of the piano quartet and piano trio employ ostinati and propulsive unison melodies. One’s feet might start tapping but continual trips and displacements within shifting meters ensure that no set pattern is established. It produces a sort of driving ma in which force is detached from metronomic logic. At moments it can sound as though Shostakovich has been suspended in a solution of floating time. It renders the notion of syncopation largely redundant as one struggles to pick the down beat against which stressed “off-beat” notes articulate. This is especially true of the ten-note ostinato patterns of Intercurrent. If it is tempting to think of this as “phasing,” the minimalist technique made famous by Steve Reich, it shows that multiple paths can be taken towards similar musical effects.


Where ma illuminates Skipworth’s melodic and temporal approach, meri helps us to understand his approach to harmony and timbre. The shakuhachi’s five finger holes produce a basic five-note pentatonic scale. Notes can then be bent up a semitone and down as much as a tone by changes to fingering and the angle of one’s head. These “bent” notes are known as meri and they have a quieter, more earthy timbre. In the honkyoku repertoire, the fundamental pentatonic framework contains 2 meri notes, creating an additional timbral dialogue to the established pitch hierarchy.


In early experiments, Skipworth directly transferred the harmonic modes of the honkyoku but found the effect to be exoticizing. He did not want to revert to the triadic structures of diatonic classical music, nor the atonal schemes devised to break them down. Instead, he returned to the pitch set. To give each work its harmonic framework he begins with a set, typically 6 notes, whether an augmented Japanese mode, an octatonic scale, the notes of the harmonic series, or more dense pitch clusters. As he expands into territory at the limits of the initial set using structural manipulations or intuitive additions, he also alters color and timbre. A clear example is when the clarinet reaches a high B quarter-flat about a third of the way through The Night Sky Fall, a note in the upper range of the harmonic series. The note requires a special fingering that gives it a paler color. At the same time, the piano and psalterphone play a deep low F, the work’s fundamental note, anchoring it in a richer harmonic context. The “meri” note thus does not cut across but further stretches the harmonic palette.


If “meri” notes add tension and color, they also allow Skipworth to produce striking juxtapositions as complex textures can give way suddenly to a single note. Towards the end of the clarinet quintet, for instance, there is a dramatic crescendo that tips into shimmering glissandi in the strings, against which the clarinet plays a transposed iteration of the opening melodic line.


First-time listeners to the five works on this, Skipworth’s first recorded album, may be surprised to learn that such contrasting pieces share a musical language and approach. Skipworth is not as interested in achieving a “signature” style as he is finding a set of generative compositional problems. The works may be divided between those that take a more conceptual approach and those that unfold more organically.


The series of falling lines in the piano in The Night Sky Fall were devised using a mathematical formula according to which they become lower and longer. The texture thickens as the piano reaches its middle and lower tessitura before thinning out at the end. To these were added the gradually rising melodic line of the clarinet supported by the luminescent tones of the psalterphone, giving the work its expansive dramatic arc. Intercurrent, a work Skipworth composed for a new music ensemble that he founded and which takes the same name, is a “reverse canon” that deploys a basic ten-note pattern into eight sections that form a palindrome. The three live players perform the work from start to finish alongside a pre-recorded version that is played backwards from finish to start. Like a moving image played in reverse, the backwards version seems to obey an upside-down sonic gravity as though being sucked into a parallel reality.


Among the works that develop more organically, the clarinet quintet most closely approximates the form of a typical shakuhachi piece. Starting from a single note, the clarinet line expands slowly and stepwise producing ever more intricate shapes in heterophonic interplay with the strings building to its climax, after which we are plunged into the ethereal, inconclusive closing section. The piano trio and quartet have more recognizable three-movement structures. Skipworth’s tendency, nevertheless, is to shape the pieces into single dramatic structures. The quartet begins in meditative “floating time,” from which melodic shapes emerge. The ostinato figure enters in the second movement to propel the piece into the fast, almost frenetic heterophony of the final movement, before dramatically slowing to the primordial falling motifs of the conclusion.


The piano trio is notable for quoting directly from the honkyoku repertoire. The first movement adapts the piece Daha (often translated as “pounding wave”). Previously, Skipworth had been loath to draw directly from the honkyoku for both musical and ethical reasons. What the trio demonstrates, however, is that he has been able to create a musical language that can host a honkyoku melody without it feeling like a foreigner. The work’s drama and striking contrasts extend and amplify the original’s subtle mimesis of the sea’s movement between states of calm and turbulence.


Each of these five works exemplify aspects of Skipworth’s evolving musical language. They also have their own distinct coherence and musical satisfactions. Skipworth is rare among contemporary composers for his capacity to engage tradition neither with polemic nor awe. Whether or not they satisfy God, Skipworth has shown that one note can be expanded into a world.


— Ben Etherington



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