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You'd think someone as busy as Randy Raine-Reusch would live in a more cluttered place. Except for the kitchen nook jammed with his computer, books and papers, the two-bedroom, East Vancouver house that he rents with a friend is sparsely clad, yet homey. We sit on legless, cushioned folding chairs on the carpet, in a dimly lit living room modestly adorned with Japanese wall hangings and a few plants. Where most Canadian homes entertain a couch, there stands Raine-Reusch's koto (a Japanese zither).
Today, over 600 traditional, world instruments that he has collected over the years fill a small, unfinished room in his basement, transforming it into a virtual living museum. On dozens of them, he creates improvisationally based compositions that merge traditional world musics with contemporary classical aesthetics.
Raine-Reusch lives for months at a time in Far East countries studying with "Master" musicians--from rice farmers to National Treasures--to improve his technique and deepen his musical understanding. Players from Korea, China, Vietnam and Japan join him in performances of traditional song and modern improvisation. Vancouver's Chinese community invited him to play his guzheng (a Chinese long zither) as a featured artist during their 1996 Chinese New Year celebrations. In March 1998, he had the rare honour to perform his ichigenkin (a one-string Japanese zither) on stage at the Canadian Consulate in Tokyo, with Japan's Iemoto of Seikyodo Ichigenkin (hereditary head of the traditional style of ichigenkin in Japan).
His world music group, ASZA, which was nominated in 1997 for a Juno award, recorded their first CD two years ago and performs regularly around the world. Currently, Raine-Reusch is at work on a piece for nigenkin (a rare, two-string Japanese zither) for an upcoming tribute CD, produced by Victoria-based composer, Bob Priest, of original compositions based on Jimi Hendrix's music. Raine-Reusch also works to record and preserve the indigenous music of Borneo.
How does this man find the time to pursue and accomplish so much?
"I've always been this way," he replies. "I am a survivor of a dysfunctional upbringing. The abuse fractured my psyche and quashed whole parts of my being, which is partly why I do so many things, and at once. Through all my endeavors, I'm expressing the many parts of myself and bringing them together into the one person that I am. I'm actually doing one thing; I'm attending to many branches of the same tree."
The seeds were planted in 1952 in Halifax, Nova Scotia where Raine-Reusch was born and lived until age five when the family moved to Vancouver. Growing up, there was no music in his lower- middle-class home, until his first accordion lessons, at age eight. However, because of extremely poor eyesight, he couldn't read the notes, so he randomly pressed the keys, instead, and discovered a world of tones, listening to them for hours. The "noise" annoyed his parents who quickly sold the instrument. But Raine-Reusch simply turned to a school piano and, later, the saxophone his school music teacher handed him.
With his poor eyesight and keen hearing, Raine-Reusch realized he saw and heard things no one else he knew did. He became attracted to the spiritual, and by age 15 realized, if anything, he was a Taoist. Meanwhile, his short-wave radio acquainted him with electronic music, and the library introduced him to blues, jazz and world musics.
"Finding music was like discovering a secret garden that I could escape to," says Raine-Reusch. "I could be happy and excel there, and nobody could take that away from me."
In his 20s, after a year at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, in Victoria, British Columbia, he took up the Appalachian dulcimer and went to the Creative Music Center in Woodstock, New York, in the late 70s. There he studied and improvised with free jazz musicians Karl Berger, Jack Dejohnette, Dave Holland and Fred Rzewski.
Over the next several years, he bought African lutes, a guzheng and other world instruments from junk stores, and taught himself how to play them by imitating what he heard on records. Ultimately, Raine-Reusch found it easier to learn and read Japanese and Chinese notation over Western music's "rabbit droppings," as he puts it, because there were no staff lines that moved when he looked at them, given his impaired eyesight. But it wasn't until his first trip to Asia, in 1984, that he began to seriously study Asian music.
A small Canada Council grant paid his way to Thailand where Nukan Srichrangthin, a poor rice farmer, recognized as the best khaen (a free-reed mouth organ) player in the world, spent seven hours a day teaching Raine-Reusch. "I practiced another four and I still couldn't grasp the rhythms or the feel of the music at all," he says. "Then, one day with my teacher, I felt my brain turn sideways and I instantly understood, deep within myself, how the music worked, but I couldn't intellectually explain it. My whole way of being changed then, and that's when my lessons really started."
Thus began a series of trips to countries in the Far East and South Pacific, to study with a wide variety of musicians and masters. "I felt an affinity with traditional Asian music. I liked its attention to introspective and philosophical aspects. >From studying it, I found nourishment, but I also found I had a lot more to learn," says Raine-Reusch.
Studying the instruments reinforced everything he had taught himself about sound, music and listening, when he'd pluck one note for hours, giving his all to a single sound, from attack to decay.
"I realized the context of the sound is more important, in some senses, than the sound itself," says Raine-Reusch. "The sound is a medium; it's not the real content. Where and what am I producing this sound from? Why? What is that sound's relationship to my environment? These are all questions that musicians have asked for thousands of years, and I felt I needed to be mindful of them if I was going to make a sound."
Creating his own music always remains Raine-Reusch's intent in his study on traditional instruments. "He won't be the top traditional player because he wasn't brought up in the culture," says Qiu Xia He, Vancouver lute player and ASZA member. "But if you ask him to play for other Chinese people, they'll say 'Wow,' because of how he approaches the instruments. He uses traditional techniques but applies them in a contemporary way." Raine-Reusch specializes on about eight instruments, including the khaen, guzheng, ichigenkin and the Korean kayageum (a 12-string long zither). He comfortably plays over a hundred others, and can demonstrate various techniques on the remainder of his collection. Playing these requires that he step outside of his world and learn a entirely new musical culture. "In the Western tradition, music is often considered to be found in the 12 notes of the scale. But in Asia, it's found between these notes," says Raine-Reusch. "To play Asian music, it has taken me years to learn a whole new way of listening, thinking and even moving."
Jungae Lee, a well-respected kayageum player in Vancouver, appreciates that Raine-Reusch grasps some of the most important elements of Asian music. "Randy understands the feeling of Korean music," she says. "For example, there is happiness but not this Western feeling, not delightful. It includes sorrow as well, but it can be expressed as happiness. He understands this spiritual feeling and sometimes this is communicated in his music."
"You may get better musicians within a specific country, as national treasures," says Stuart Dempster, Seattle-based composer and improviser on trombone and didjeridu, who has played with Raine-Reusch. "But I haven't seen anyone who has taken this kind of world view to music."
For both his compositions and improvisations, Raine-Reusch uses traditional techniques, creating a new piece in the classical style of a culture's instrument. He then begins a long process of ongoing revisions of the piece, which becomes more contemporary as it progresses. Along the way, he incorporates new tunings; tonalities; and techniques and concepts from related instruments. Jazz, experimental, world and new musics also find their way into his work, as well as other instruments, live sound sources (dripping water, falling leaves, snapping twigs) and computer-generated sounds.
Says Paul Plimley, Vancouver experimental jazz pianist who has improvised with Raine-Reusch, "Randy is performing a noble task in that he's utilizing Asian instruments, philosophies and spiritual mind sets that apply to centuries of playing music, but he's not replicating those classical traditions. Rather, he's assimilating what's useful, natural and stimulating for him, so he can adjust and incorporate aspects of those traditional languages into his own, unique vocabulary and approach to making music. He ends up transforming those Asian influences to come up with a personalized approach to improvising in a way that speaks more about who Randy Raine-Reusch is than the traditions of Asiatic music-making."
Some people, however, may see Raine-Reusch as a "cultural bandit," one that skims off aspects of traditional music that are more potentially palatable to Western tastes, and pours them into his own global goulash that has little or nothing to do with the original culture and its cumulative spiritual meanings. Fellow improviser, Kingston, New York's Pauline Oliveros, accordion player and founder of Deep Listening, says, "It's a delicate position being a white male, which is often seen as the exploiter. I think of Randy as a bridge between Asian and Western practice . . . He makes every effort to understand the cultural aspects of his instruments."
Robert Dick, internationally known American avant-garde flute player, and Barry Guy, British bass player and composer, improvised with Raine-Reusch at the 1997 Vancouver Jazz Festival and recorded a soon-to-be-released CD, produced by Russ Summers. Says Dick, "When I see trees growing on the roofs of burned-out houses in Harlem, or a vine's root hairs holding the earth through a tiny crack in a concrete wall, I think of musicians like us. . . Randy is an original, and is putting his life together out of a jigsaw of elements . . . He presents a unique voice that is like some kind of musical airline hub with undelayed flights to everywhere."
Improvisation forms the basis of Raine-Reusch's original compositions. His scores combine Eastern-influenced graphics, the occasional Western notation, calligraphy and poetry. Each is accompanied by several lines of written instruction for the performer. Raine-Reusch's piece titled, "The Warmth of Stone" suggests:
Although written for Chinese guzheng, a twenty-one or twenty-three string long zither, other instruments may be substituted.
A deep awareness of stone is suggested. The performer may wish to sit listening with a stone for a long time.
This score can be performed by playing only the pitches indicated, or by playing all pitches except the pitches indicated, but always includes playing stone.
This score does not need to be performed to be performed; it is performed by being regarded.
The scores direct the player's state of mind, listening or being, rather than tell him or her to play a particular note. They also live as independent works of art that visually express the complexity of Raine-Reusch's feelings that he wants performed--no different than anyone else's scores, except for the language he uses.
"Some people balk at my scores because they think they're flights of fancy or New Age-y, but they just don't understand," he says, reflecting the isolation from others that he often feels.
While his scores make little or no connection with some people, for others, they can reveal themselves right away or slowly over time. Some people see the scores as an interpretation they instantly recognize, and believe in--perhaps even have longed for--not something they have to struggle to figure out. "There are few people I've met who share my perceptions, and it's lonely because of that," says Raine-Reusch. In the search for like-minded souls, his scores serve as beacons, lighting the way for others to find him.
John Cage, whom Raine-Reusch met just two days before his death in 1994, validated his expression to write any way he chose, "and that it was not only OK, but it was the only way to do it," he continues. "Both John and Pauline were the first people who recognized some of the deeper aspects of my music. I finally felt accepted. If not for them, I don't think I'd write and play the way I do."
Cage; Oliveros; Yuji Takahashi, pianist; Kazue Sawai, koto virtuoso; Toru Takemitsu, composer; and Malcolm Goldstein, violin improviser, are among those with whom Raine-Reusch feels an affinity. Their friendship and support have provided fellowship, and helped him strengthen his sense of self, musically and otherwise.
His growth as an artist has given him a deeper appreciation of the need to preserve the original sources of music he relies on. Recently, he travelled to Borneo, where he recorded and produced two CDs of indigenous music, in an effort to maintain and promote the traditional music there.
In 1997, while in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, he found that the traditional music was rapidly being replaced by influences of modern culture. It took two more trips and several months to procure local government permission to record, with sponsorship from the Canadian Society of Asian Arts and Malaysia Airlines. Significant financial support was obtained from Borneo's former Deputy Secretary of State, Datuk Taha Ariffin, through his newly formed company, Tamar Holdings, as well as the Sarawak Tourist Board and Majlis Adat Istiadat (a legal society for the indigenous people). The recording, titled "Sawaku: The Music of Sarawak" was released on Holland's PAN Records in March 1998.
In Borneo, Raine-Reusch also assisted the Sarawak Tourist Board in organizing a group of traditional musicians and dancers --who had never before left the jungle--to perform in Marseilles, France in January 1998. They accepted the invitation of Ben Mandelson, the director of WOMEX [World of Music Exposition] to participate in this international world music conference. Currently, a booking agent is organizing a European tour. It doesn't stop there. Raine-Reusch is also stimulating the Borneo people to make more, traditional instruments, for both social and commercial interest. These include the krommoi (a percussion instrument, made from two snail shells, that imitates the sound of a frog), sape (a boat lute carved from a tebulon tree) and keluri (a bamboo mouth organ). With the Sarawak Tourist Board, he is working to mount the Rainforest World Music Festival. The annual, weekend event will feature dozens of local and international artists, and debuts August 1998 in Sarawak. A film of traditional Borneo dance and music is also in the works. "I want to see the music survive in Borneo," says Raine- Reusch. "Most of it is vanishing along with its associated, traditional rituals. I'm helping to provide opportunities for the indigenous people to play their music and share it with the world."
He tells me the story of Tegit, a subsistence farmer and Borneo's best sape player, who had barely stepped out of his Sarawak long house before he boarded that plane for France. "It was the shock of his life. For the first time, he rode moving sidewalks and elevators, flew above the ocean and ate croissants," says Raine-Reusch. "There we were standing at the edge of the Mediterranean one morning in Marseilles when he said to me, very quietly, 'I don't want to die. I want to see all this, first.' It was just beginning for him."
And for Raine-Reusch, as well. "There's a kid in me that has yet to be born, and I want to give him life," he says. For him that means going back to the Borneo jungle, around the world and, as always, deep inside himself to the place where his expression of music continues to grow. It means spending many more years of study with master performers in their own countries, writing scores that some people may scoff at, and playing music that will move others to tears. It means, at times, aspiring to do absolutely nothing.
"As a child, I couldn't just wake up in the morning and feel the sunlight on my skin and go, 'Ah,'" he tells me. "It's hard for me not to clutter my mind with ten million things and read thousands of meanings into something, which is typical of the kind of compulsive behaviour that can plague people who have been abused as children. But I think I'm getting there."
So it doesn't really surprise me when I ask Raine-Reusch one final question: If you had just one minute left of your life to say something with music, what would that be?
"I'd make no sound whatsoever," he says without pausing to think. "Either that or I might give you a rose petal."
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