Hojito Ryoji

A Man From the East

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When John Cage wrote his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, he couldn't have anticipated the lengths other musicians would take his innovation to. While "prepared piano" is almost de rigueur among avant-gardists these days, one cannot help but wonder why Cage, with that merry, mischievous twinkle in his eye, would have singled out Hojito Ryoji for praise, because he has taken the project to such outrageous -- and wondrous -- extremes. Essentially, Ryoji was a jazz pianist until 15 years ago, when he discovered Cage's Sonatas and Interludes; since that time he has looked upon the piano as two things simultaneously: as a musical instrument and as one object containing many others. His approach to improvisation is to balance those two views simultaneously, and create new works from them each time he performs or records them. The two Russian concerts that make up A Man from the East showcase the remarkable intensity, beauty, and raw vision Ryoji has. And lest one thinks that all his works are spontaneously composed, one would be advised to listen to "My Treasure," with its gorgeously haunting, Japanese folk song melody, combined with a shifting, shimmering vibration from the beginning of the piece that gives way to a drone created by a vibrating Styrofoam cup placed on the middle C chord. This gives way to a series of tight, angular arpeggios, all revolving around the tones between F and G before returning to hammer on both keys and strings contemporaneously to conclude the section. When the small hammers, rubber bands, nails, and plastic conduits come out one or several at a time, Ryoji caresses or hammers the soundboard, strings, keys, pedals, surface, and tuning pegs into a kind of musical submission before coaxing from them their mysterious timbral combinations and overtone strategies. Make no mistake: this may be improvised -- as Ryoji bows and pulls on strings -- but he knows exactly what he's doing, at least insofar as his method is concerned. The end result is more often than not stunningly elegant and refined to the point of intricate, awe-inspiring beauty. Of all the recordings of solo "prepared piano" out there, A Man from the East is the one to own; it is nothing short of a postmodern, lyrically inventive masterpiece that's so far out, it's irrevocably, musically, "in."

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