This interview took place in July 2000 at the time of release of the “Sanctuary” CD.
First, I really enjoyed your new CD and wish you much success with it. What inspired you to take up the shakuhachi flute and how long have you been playing it? How did you get into music to start with?
I’m glad to read that you liked the CD. I should point out that it is not new for me, as I recorded it nearly 20 years ago! I was inspired to take up the shakuhachi mainly by the sound of the instrument (which I first heard on the venerable but still popular Tony Scott album “Music for Zen Meditation”); and secondly by a series of circumstances or coincidences which got me to Japan and with a teacher. I began lessons in Japan in 1971. So I’ve been playing for almost 30 years.
But how many years someone has been playing a musical instrument is relatively meaningless. Some of my students practice only 30 min. a week; others practice 3 hrs a day. The former will have played their instruments only 26 hrs the entire year, while the latter will play the same amount of time in only 9 days! (I would be in the latter category; I was averaging 6-7 hrs a day during the first decade.)
I first began playing piano at the age of 8, but gave it up for football after two years. I played French horn for 5 years in school band, and was bass guitarist in a rock band in 1965-1966. Also, I played taiko (Japanese festival drums) professionally for 3 years with the group now called Kodo. I co- founded, with Ian Cleworth, Australia’s premier taiko group “TaikOz” 3 or 4 years ago, and play them as often as possible. The balance between the flute and the drums is a good one.
What inspired the composition of your new CD?
The inspiration of the CD was (as near as I can remember) an interesting and very personal combination of ‘nature’ as I remembered it best in Japan and ‘nature’ as I knew so well in Hawai’i, where I grew up and where we were living when the recording was made. Japan and Hawai’i are quite different in their natural environment, but the beauty of, and at time the inner quietness received from both environments are very similar.
How do you prepare yourself when composing? Do you work out? If so, what do you do, do you meditate, practice martial arts, etc?
I enjoy long distance running and swimming. I used to do a fair bit of bicycling. Snorkelling is high on the list of pleasurable activities. In the late 1970s, while living in Japan as a member of the taiko group now called Kodo, I ran marathons, but these days the distances are 10 kms or less. I also work out at a local gym when possible. Playing the shakuhachi is my meditation, as it has been for many shakuhachi players for centuries. This practice is called ‘blowing zen’. Though I firmly believe that regular seated meditation is essential in addition to “blowing zen”, I don’t practice what I preach.
What’s your nationality?
I am a citizen of both the USA and Australia, though my family and I live in Australia now. My father is Chinese; he immigrated to the USA in 1941 from China. My mother is American of Irish/English descent.
Last question… I was wondering how I might go about purchasing a shakuhachi flute ASAP and about how much it would be with shipping and handling. Do you know a good source?
The fastest way to get an inexpensive flute in Australia is to contact me.
Who is Riley Lee?
Well, once he was a small and very lucky boy, who was allowed / encouraged by his parents to become anything he wanted to become – but only if he tried to be his absolutely very best, at least some of the time.
What would you do differently to what you do now?
I would try to be more thoughtful of others more often.
Riley Lee is a grandmaster
Interview by Berry Liberman
Zen and the art of Shakuhachi seem an impossible path for a Chinese-American boy born in Texas in 1951, who grew up loving Led Zeppelin and country and western music. But for Riley Lee accidental journeys are what life is all about.
As a young traveller in the 1970s, Riley found his way to Japan, an exotic, remote place at that time, still emerging from the rubble of the Second World War and steeped in tradition. One fateful day, he ambled into a music store, thinking it would be fun to buy a Shakuhachi flute. Instead of selling it to him, the man behind the counter gave him the number of the only Shakuhachi teacher with a phone.
Five Elements will take you on kaleidoscopic journey through the Australian landscape that traverses universal concepts linking humanity to our natural environment and spiritual core through music.
Drawing inspiration from the belief in many ancient cultures that the entire universe was made of just five fundamental elements, earth, air, water, fire and ether, Riley Lee and the Enigma Quartet have commissioned and selected music from Australia’s finest compositional voices to present a strikingly original concert.
The program allows audiences to experience new sound worlds created through the union of the meditative sounds and gestures of the shakuhachi and the rich harmonic palette of the string quartet, a convergence of Eastern Zen Buddhism with Western Classicism.
Five Elements features pieces by composers such as Ross Edwards, David Hirschfelder, Anne Boyd and Katy Abbott amongst many other luminaries and alongside existing music by Peter Sculthorpe.
New production at City Recital Hall
The Flower is the Mind, the seed is technique.
Zeami Fushikaden (The Transmission of Style and the Flower)
An interview with Riley Lee in April 2001, largely about TaikOz, Australia’s taiko group co-founded by Riley Lee and Ian Cleworth in 1996. TaikOz was soon to perform for the first time in Japan.
I believe it will be a great honour for TaikOz to open the Kobe Festival in Japan, and that TaikOz are the first non-Japanese group to do such a thing. Is this true?
Though TaikOz won’t be opening the taiko festival in Kobe, it will be performing in the single main event, a taiko concert in Kobe’s largest performing arts space. What makes this such an honour is that the concert will also feature the world’s top taiko soloist Eitetsu Hayashi, and the world’s number one taiko group, Kodo. Besides this main concert, we will be participating in a huge outdoor taiko concert featuring 1000 taiko players from the surrounding district of Kobe. I’ve never heard a thousand taiko being played together before !
I have heard that participating in Taiko requires a great deal of physical training. What can you tell us about this?
Everyone on stage looks very fit and strong. What kind of training is required, and is the physical aspect a large one? Yes, playing taiko well demands a great deal of strength, stamina, flexibility, and coordination. The physical demands are much higher than almost any other form of music making. As with anything as physical as this, one has to train regularly, not only by playing on the taiko, but also by doing lots of stretching and strengthening exercise as is found in such practices, for example, as hatha yoga and pilates, and other forms of physical activity such as swimming and jogging.
Have the group trained musically entirely in Australia?
Ian Cleworth, with a little help from me, founded TaikOz in 1996 or 1997. We continue to be co-artistic directors of the group. Both Ian and I learned to play taiko in Japan. Ian’s teacher is the well known Amano Sen, while I lived and performed with the original Kodo (then called Ondekoza – Demon Drummers). I’ve lived and studied in Japan for over eight years all together, first going there in 1970. Up until this year, when we will be studying with Mr. Hayashi for a couple of weeks, all of the other members of TaikOz have learned their taiko skills almost entirely from Ian, again with a little help from me.
Has the tradition of Taiko always been theatrical and dramatic? Are these essential elements?
Rather than theatrical and dramatic, I would say that the taiko tradition is a visual one. In Japanese, the expression is to go “watch taiko”, never to go and “hear” or “listen to taiko”. The movements of one’s entire body are an essential part of playing taiko. The quality of one’s movements determine the quality of sound. Interestingly, the most beautiful and interesting movements are also the ones that create the best sound. They are also the most efficient.
Does the group perform traditional pieces, originals or improvisations?
In my opinion, one of the strengths of TaikOz is its ability to perform both traditional routines and contemporary pieces composed by members of the group as well as by other compositions. Almost all taiko playing, both traditional and contemporary, involves some degree of improvisation as well as a great deal of learning by heart. What never happens in taiko performing is reading from notation. That would be like dancing while reading the steps in a book!
I believe you have been involved with taiko since the 70’s, and you have been involved with important figures of taiko.
As mentioned above, I lived, slept, and breathed taiko for nearly four years from 1973 while a member of the original Kodo. I was the only non-Japanese in the original group. We all lived together in an abandoned school building on Sado Island. Our lives were ruled utterly by our artistic dictator, a singular man named Den.
What are the instruments used in the performance?
TaikOz uses various sizes and shapes of drums from small shimedaiko approximately the size of a snare drum to the odaiko. Our odaiko is the largest drum in Australia, weighing over 300 kgs with skins over a metre in diameter. We also use various metal instruments such as large and small gongs and cymbals. Finally, a number of bamboo flutes are used to accompany the drums.
As a shakuhachi master how does your status/expertise reflect upon the group?
My status as a shakuhachi player really has little to do with the taiko. I suppose TaikOz performances are enhanced by the shakuhachi interludes that I’m able to contribute, but really taiko doesn’t need shakuhachi. The small bamboo side flutes called yokobue are more integral to taiko playing than shakuhachi. In TaikOz performances, have the pleasure of blowing like crazy on these shrill flutes while the drums are booming away. But one doesn’t have to be a master yokobue player to do that. This is a good thing, because I am not a master yokobue player!
Briefly, what is the Japanese tradition of the master/student relationship? Is it considered a spiritual/mystical practice?
Briefly, the teacher/student relationship in Japan is traditionally like that of parent/child. Such relationships are much more demanding on both sides. Much more responsibility is incurred compared to a typical music teacher / music student relationship that we are more familiar with here in Australia. How spiritual or mystical such relationships become depends entirely upon the individual teacher and student. Each relationship is different. Most teacher/student relationships in Japan, in my experience over the past thirty years, are no more or less spiritual or mystical than such relationships anywhere else in the world.
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