For some quarter century the Toronto-based American composer, improviser and installation artist Sarah Peebles has conducted a musical love affair with the shō, the Japanese mouth organ. Ever since studying its foundational repertoire embedded in the music of the antique gagaku, performed by the orchestra of the Japanese court, she has sought to explore the shō’s sonic strengths. She has particularly identified with its ability to produce microtonal and psychoacoustic effects reifying sound, often unfolding leisurely over time.
There is yet another key element on this album. Bees. Peebles’ installation art practice explores the lives of wild bees, pollination ecology and biodiversity, a branch of BioArt. This concern not only explains some of the titles of the works here – i.e. Resinous Fold – but it is also reflected in the synergistic relationships between mouth organs and the resinous production of bees. Tropical stingless bees secrete a resin which has been gathered from wild nests for millennia and applied to many human artifacts, including mouth organs. The shō is no exception. You can view a number of fascinating photos, of both bee habitats and the delicate shō reeds for which their products are an essential ingredient, on the web page for Delicate Paths hosted by the “unsounds” label.
Peebles’ music employs both improvisation and composition, embracing acoustic as well as digitally processed performance. While shō is clearly featured, the album invites other musicians into the music making. On Delicate Paths she has included three star improvisers: a familiar reed instrument, a string, and a voice. Free jazz-rooted saxophonist Evan Parker, prepared electric guitarist Nilan Perera and multi-genre vocalist Suba Sankaran join Peebles. They are canny choices. Each effectively supports, contests and offsets her shō’s melodic long tones and clusters, providing welcome musical tensions, cultural reframings, as well as textural and timbral richness.
Slipping the CD out of its handsome black trifold case I was delighted by its striking, subtly translucent honey-coloured appearance. Repeated listening revealed music of refinement, occasionally graced with a gentle aural sweetness, which in my imagination at least, resonates with a key component of the shō’s inner workings.