Christine Tavolacci: Ryoanji
Orenda Records

When John Cage died in 1992, I'll confess I was concerned that the American composer might ultimately be remembered more for his writings and provocations than his musical works; say the man's name, and the first things that come to mind for many are his notorious 1952 composition 4'33” and 1961's influential Silence: Lectures and Writings. Artists such as Christine Tavolacci are helping, however, to ensure that Cage's gifts as a composer aren't completely overshadowed by his impact as a provocateur. On her debut solo recording, the Los Angeles-based flutist and educator, ably supported by percussionist Bonnie Whiting, presents a superb realization of Cage's 1983 graphic score Ryoanji.

The flutist specializes in contemporary and experimental music and currently is associated with a number of groups, among them Southland Ensemble (of which she is co-founder and co-director), Dog Star Orchestra, Gurrisonic, and the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble. For her part, Whiting has collaborated with many of today's leading ensembles, including eighth blackbird, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Bang on a Can, and Ensemble Dal Niente, and has a debut album featuring Cage material scheduled for 2016 release on Mode Records.

Ryoanji is consistent in tone and character with a sensibility heavily informed by Indian Philosophy, Zen Buddhism, Noh theatre, and the I Ching. As a word, Ryoan-ji refers to a Zen temple in Kyoto that includes a garden raked daily by Zen monks consisting of fifteen moss-covered rocks on a bed of smooth white pebbles. Between 1983 and 1985, Cage created a series of Ryoanji compositions for solo instruments with percussion and tape or with a twenty-member orchestra, versions of which exist for voice, oboe, flute, trombone, and double bass.

Cage didn't, however, simply draw for inspiration from the Japanese rock garden; he used the arrangements of its stones as a basis for the score: from tracings of parts of the stones' perimeters, he produced graphic notations displaying rectangles in which curves are read by the performer as glissandi within a given pitch range; a pre-recorded tape element also appears, and the percussion part involves unison sounds of wood and metal.

Certainly Tavolacci's sensitive, twenty-eight-minute realization accentuates the meditative and minimalistic character of the piece. Space and stillness are exploited to maximum effect, and even the minutest sounds—the motions of fingers on the instrument's keys, sharp intakes of breath—are audible. At times doubled and subjected to repeated pitch-shifts, Tavolacci's haunting, lonely flute expressions emerge softly, all the while punctuated by the clunk of Whiting's insistent yet nonetheless restrained accents. The artistry here clearly depends as much on what's not played as what is.

May 2016