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Ablutions: Reflections on Marimba Music
by Composer Keiko Abe (安倍 圭子, Abe Keiko), and
Waka Poetry by Otagaki Rengetsu (太田垣蓮月) (1791-1875)

This page combines the waka poetry of the Japanese Buddhist nun, calligrapher and potter, Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1895), with reflections by the modern woman composer and Japanese marimba master, Keiko Abe (b. 1937). Visit Keiko Abe's HOMEPAGE.

Citations from Abe's beautiful, religio-aesthetic nature reflections are quoted here from the liner notes of her amazing CD recording, MARIMBA FANTASY: THE ART OF KEIKO ABE, translations by Robin Thompson: WERGO, WER60177-50, 1990. Also here is an mp3 audio sample of PRISM (770K) by Keiko Abe from Joseph Gramley's Global Percussion CD.

English translations of Rengetsu's poetry can be found in JAPANESE WOMEN ARTISTS 1600-1900 (Kansas: Spencer Museum of Art, 1988) by Patricia Fister, also John Stevens' LOTUS MOON (new edition from White Pine Press, 2005) and a fully illustrated catalogue of her art and poetry, BLACK ROBE, WHITE MIST. For more on Otagaki Rengetsu's sound poetry, see online: Idiophonics. (Note: Otagaki is Rengetsu's first name in Japanese, but last or the family name in English. Rengetsu means “Lotus Moon”)

Life in the Mountains
by Otagaki Rengetsu

Living deep in the mountains
I've grown fond of the
Solitary sound of the singing pines;
On days the wind does not blow
How lonely it is!

Introductory Notes
by Keiko Abe

"When I first realized that the marimba was the instrument through which I could best express myself musically, I set about exploring the unknown musical possibilities of this instrument to the farthest limits within my reach...The most important thing for me was that the marimba was rooted in my everyday life. When happy or when sad, I would by nature reach out for my mallets and discourse with the instrument...

"In the present recording I am performing entirely pieces which were originally no more than fleeting moments of my everyday musical life, put into notation when time permitted."

The Paper-Doll Festival (March 3)
by Otagaki Rengetsu

As an offering today
To this lord and lady
Freshly opened peach blossoms
The joy of countless springs
Is once again ours.

Variations on Japanese Children's Songs
by Keiko Abe

"Flutes and drums echoing from a distant summer festival, the sound of my wooden clogs clacking along an empty street -- the sounds and memories of my childhood, linked with traditional children's songs, are constantly in my mind. I have tried to portray these songs not just as melodies providing fond memories of the past but as my own music, music of great vitality with its roots in the earth and the present."

by Otagaki Rengetsu

In this world
People from all walks of life
Go to the shallows of a stream
And perform ablutions
To purify their minds.

by Keiko Abe

"The title "Mi-chi" indicates the different paths which people must tread, and at the same time refers to the path representing the pursuit of cosmic truth in Eastern philosophy. At the time I composed this piece, I saw photographs and read an article relating to the excavation of footprints dating from more than two thousand years ago, and was strongly impressed. In the context of human history as a whole, I remember thinking that my own life is nothing but a droplet in the ocean, a speck of sand on the seashore. One day, when I was feeling in a sultry mood, a performance beginning with a simple melody played with one hand, each tone picked with great care, blossomed naturally into an improvisation. My spirit flew free, transcending the restrictions of everyday life. This piece is a transciption of my performance on that day."

Handmade Pottery
by Otagaki Rengetsu

Taking the fragile
little handmade
thing to sell —
how lonely it looks
in the market place!

Ancient Vase
by Keiko Abe

"The image of this piece came to me while I was admiring an ancient vase at a friend's house. The vase carried away a mysterious impression with its ambivalent appeal of dynamism and elegance, either or both of which is conveyed depending upon the direction and angle it is viewed."

Fallen Blossoms
by Otagaki Rengetsu

The blossoms have fallen,
The fetters of my heart
Have also loosened,
And it has become summer;
A rivulet murmurs cool and clear.

Dream of the Cherry Blossoms
by Keiko Abe

"I invariably make a trip once a year during the spring to view the cherry blossoms. I was standing once beneath a cherry tree whose blossoms were past their prime when the petals began to scatter with increasing rapidity, enveloping me in a blizzard of blossoms goaded on by the spring breeze, and transporting me far away from the real world. This world into which I was carried, detached from the world of appearances, was one of beautiful, fantastic and mysterious tranquility."

Singing Pines
by Otagaki Rengetsu

Like a zither, plucked
To create rhythms and melodies --
At the eaves of my house
The evocative voice of the wind
Sings in the pines.

Wind in the Bamboo Grove
by Keiko Abe

"In the early morning haze as I stood in the middle of a bamboo grove, I became enwrapped in a rich medley of sound. Listening to the bamboo leaves rustling against each other in the occasional whip of the breeze, I seemed to hear the song of the wind...I sensed the dynamic and powerful nature of life forces. I took out of my pocket a marble and threw it into the grove. The blue marble disappeared into the morning haze, leaving behind it beautiful echoes as it rebounded from stalk to stalk."

Naniwa Bay
by Otagaki Rengetsu

Naniwa Bay --
as the night is deepening
through the mist and waves,
not clearly distinguishable
the hazy evening moon.

Memories of the Seashore by Keiko Abe

"Many beautiful memories of the sea exist quietly in my mind as a single poetic entity. These memories, which resemble peaceful and tranquil moments amidst solitude, have led me to bring out the gentility as well as the richness of the instrument."

(see note below on how to make a marimba from driftwood)

A Frog Leaps In
by Otagaki Rengetsu

As I reach to gather
some fallen blossoms --
a frog leaps into the stream
and then floats about
the water in protest.

Frogs by Keiko Abe

"I composed this peice during my student days as an exercise in double-striking with the left hand using four mallets. The theme came to me naturally once when I saw the sight of small frogs moving along a shore pavement in the direction of a pond during the rainy season. The piece was inteneded as descriptive music providing a comical portrayal of the frogs as they leaped on to the lotus leaves, swam about, and poked their heads up from beneath the surface of the water."

  • Note on reflections #6:
        "How to make a marimba from scattered driftwood" by Bart Hopkin,
         from Experimental Musical Instruments: VOLUME 7 #1, JUNE 1991

    In describing how to choose the wood to build the marimba, Hopkin says:
      "...Begin auditioning driftwood pieces to serve as sounding bars. An easy way to test a piece of wood for its musical properties is to toss it in the air and strike it near the center in free fall. Some pieces will ring with more resonance than others...Some driftwood rots and softens after long exposure to the elements, and other pieces may be waterlogged. These will probably sound dull. Some become dry and brittle, and produce a correspondingly bright sound. Others may be rich and mellow. Some pieces have checks, visible or concealed, which cause rattles and snaps and buzzes. In spite of these general expectations, many pieces will surprise you, revealing an acoustic personality you would not have guessed at based upon appearance...the sound, especially in its native environment can be very appealing."
  • Women Composers Early Music & Ragtime MIDI
    Idiophonics (Natural Sounds) in Early Japanese Women's Poetry
    Women Zen MastersMt. Fuji Goddesses
    Emily Dickinson's Nature Mysticism: A Photo Poetic Labyrinth
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