Shô Me The Way

Sarah Peebles with Evan Parker, Nilan Perera, Suba Sankaran
Delicate Paths: Music for Shõ

‘Taking time’ along ‘Delicate Paths’ produces curious audio minutiae throughout this set of careful arrangements for shô – the 17-piped mouth organ associated with Japanese gagaku music – which includes duo improvisations with Evan Parker, guitarist Nilan Perera and vocalist Suba Sankaran; an electroacoustic assemblage of nature recordings made in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and a set of solo tonal explorations by composer Sarah Peebles. However, to characterise this music as ‘slow’ might be to impose a comparison where none is warranted: if performances proceed at a crawl, it’s likely because they arise from an unusually still state of mind, quite possibly influenced by the sine wave-like convergences issuing from Peebles’ chosen instrument, which build to a near-climax in the album’s latter stages. Indeed, self-hypnosis is suggested by the tonal blossoming that emerge during the four ‘Resinous Folds’ pieces, while co-performers display an uncommon level of sympathy in duo settings.

Inspired by tone clusters and tuning pieces drawn from Japanese gagaku music 1, these explorations convey a ‘contemplative’ sound that Peebles explicitly distinguishes from any idea of ‘easy’ listening; rather a singular, timbral complexity that envelopes and dissolves stray thoughts. The drawback for more impatient listeners might be the concentration required for the longer stretches that seem to hang without appetite for drama, in which case satisfaction may well be found along the three ‘Delicate Paths’ in which select guests provide contrast without contrivance, with restraint verging on ceremonial; notably so in ‘Delicate Path (Sandalwood)’, in which Suba Sankaran’s snaking vocals curl and disperse like incense smoke upon Peeble’s rising tonal currents.

A more extra-terrestrial phenomenology occurs ‘In the Canopy (Part 1)’, the shô held like a candle in a churning cavern, metallic tonality spiralling outwards into a fading universe. And yet the sounds emanate from sources natural: field recordings of birds and insects captured during Peebles’ travels in New Zealand. The stillness of the surroundings – not to mention the alchemical importance of bees audible in the environment 2 – prompted pause for thought and a hint of ‘that which is just beyond our perception’ 3, which seems an apposite designation for the unusual beauty of these eight pieces.

  1. Which Peebles studied in Japan in the 1980s.
  2. Black bees wax, known as cerumen, formerly comprised the coating of reeds for shô.
  3. As it translates from Maori phraseology.