Though artistic expression through gardening and landscape design is common in many cultures, it is the Japanese, with their dry gardens, who have produced some of the artform’s most eloquent and aesthetically articulate examples. Many dry gardens take their design inspiration from classic narratives or poems, though to those unfamiliar with the references being made, their scrupulous precision and austerity can seem mysterious or obtuse. Yet even the eyes of the unversed in classical Japanese and Chinese literature can appreciate how a dry garden can change its appearance depending on the time of day, the weather, and the season, and also be transformed over time through the effects of weathering. How formal exactness can give rise to such openness, subtlety, and change is arguably one of the key questions of Japanese aesthetics, as Allen S. Weiss proposes in his book Zen Landscapes.
It is also a concern that is implied in Haruo Okada and Fabio Perletta’s new album “Genkai”. Okada’s recordings of metallic clangs and clatters, tappings, crackings, and thumpings, flutterings of wings, ploppings, shakings, and many other sounds have been set with great precision and care in a bed of electronic whispers, bleeps, and tones by Perletta. It’s all very subtle and quiet, which gives an ambiguity and ephemerality to the sounds. Sometimes there are faint chords, and on one occasion a single note from a guitar and from a piano, but it’s all very low-key and not at all obviously narrative or emotional.
Listening for some kind of pattern, or trying to figure out the logic of the recorded sounds’ placement in silence and faint tone, would seem to be as pointless as trying to guess at the narrative behind the design of a Japanese dry garden such as Ryōan-ji. No, perhaps not pointless — though as much an occasion for the free play of imagination as for deducing deeper meaning from sonic facts. But “Genkai” proves as malleable by factors outside its control as a dry garden does, sounding different in the morning compared with the evening, or in a rain storm compared with sunshine. To a large extent it’s an empty vessel, its only offering an enjoinder to listen.