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John Levy
Tibetan Buddhist Rites From The Monasteries Of Bhutan
Sub Rosa

A snaking frottage of long trumpets, sometimes kissing the sky, sometimes slithering out in the form of misshapen and unrefined drones, Tibetan Buddhist Rites…, recorded by London ethnomusicologist John Levy some 30 years ago, seems unwilled, internally ideal even when its exterior shapes look perverse. It's the test of great music that it comes to the ears with an aura compounded of surprise and inevitability. After two hours, it's difficult to think that there was a time before you started listening to it. This music has both a monumental quality and a strong sense of process and flux, like a sculpture made of plasma rather than stone or bronze.

And though the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism seek a release from suffering, there is a sharp, steely dissonance caught in the throat of each iridescent texture and pensive clatter of percussion. As outlined in this document's extensive liner notes, adorned with a plethora of edifying photographs, this sense of discordance will strike at Western ears particularly since, as almost a rule in India, the long trumpet raises the tonic drone by a near semitone, putting the other wind instruments unusually out of tune. The other immediate impact of this approach upon the uninitiated, perhaps offsetting or at least aiding the development of these at-times-grating drones, is a blossoming of singular, florid harmonies that ascend above the grumbling background events, as though weightless. Like this particular motif, the music often suggests the self-regulating accord of utopian community. A horde of hymnal voices (piping from the throats of 76 lamas and monks) merges with the earth-toned, grainy throb of a thick-set bass, perhaps indicating that humans are indelibly worldly and the world indelibly human. This position seems reinforced by cross-flute, cymbals and trumpets, never endeavoring to stand on their own, instead fashioning complements in each other and through their communion, finding shades and color more distinct and defined.

It's no surprise that the collection harbored on disc one was recorded at the Monastic College in the Tashicho Dzong in Thimphu (the capital of Bhutan); its large halls pick up the faintest of sounds, heightening the immediacy of the proceedings, as even the gay cooing and fluttering of pigeons form a constant background to the music. In light of Volume I, the second disc is an altogether more intimate, even minimal affair. Volume I having forged many of the work's melodies, motifs and themes, this second side gathers all of these somewhat loose strands together into equilibrium — a common ground, which is groundlessness.

Bass rumbles pound massively in the foreground, while other players spar and collide on their various reeds, or mesh into a curtain of controlled noise. Through it all, drums somehow convey a lightness of touch as well as steering energy. Players continue to unreel swift lines and linked strings of notes that very effectively ride the propulsive bounce of double-membrane frame drums. Pieces 3-6 are more laterally inclined, pursuing implications, seizing and investigating what's frayed or dislocated. The remaining moments are more overtly expressive, frictional and dramatic, favoring edgy textural blowing that modifies mood as much as direction. It's a situation in which players sound entirely at home, unobtrusively but actively engaged in tilting relationships, drawing other voices together or prompting them to move on.

These are all ways of impregnating the world with human purposes and concerns. Instruments or environments are no longer mere objects, spectacles to be stared at, but bodies that hold life itself — precious time, the everyday and the extraordinary, secret rites, rituals long forgotten, a child blowing through a weed.

by Max Schaefer

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