The Sense of What is Missing

Heaven to Earth Border House and The Three Presences of Connection

Mulgoa Nature Reserve in Glenmore Park, Western Sydney

It is not a technology that can yet handle all of our five senses. The role of art is to fill whatever is left. They are the trace of trial and error. 

(Hiroshi Senju, 2020)

I still think that art should be a way to bring people outside their homes and connect around something more tangible than the virtual. Again, in-person communication and interactions are not only about words but the sensations and the atmosphere. So our common goal is to create a space for authentic communication and dialogue through art. 

(Hiroshi Senju, 2021, p. 6)

In this time of deep turmoil of the pandemic times, which has infiltrated Sydney with the longest lockdown we have experienced so far, how is that we can transition through this liminal space of uncertainties safely?  I am struck by the almost monastic approach of Japanese visual artist Hiroshi Senju, who points out our sudden entry into the era of “artificial intelligence and the presence of technology” (Milovanovic-Mladenovic2021, p. 2) through the advent of thepandemic, yet in the midst of panic, he stills his spirit with an early morning visit to the Meiji Jingu—the Shinto shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo—where birds singing and monks worshipping merge as part of a creative routine. Similar to this stilling of spirit towards creativity, is Chinese painter Cai Guo-Qiang’s approach—amidst what he perceives as his society’s Renaissance-like rationalism of the twenty-first century (Miranda 2017, p.64)—he finds an inner creative space for expression and spiritual mystery. Both artists are in one sense currently contained by pandemic liminal spaces, yet both transcend them through with their creativity that speaks to the mystery of what is missing, what is not articulated in zoom technology, and what is felt at heart-level between people in the expression of culture through creativity. What is missing from our new lockdown era and how can we begin to transcend this as creative practitioners? I would like to suggest three principles for finding creative space within panic situations, drawing on Hiroshi and Cai’s ideas and reflected on through my autoethnographical observations about the hybrid creativity within collaborative music making behind the Korean-Australian project—Heaven to Earth Border House (Crossman 2021).

Visual Arts Contexts for Three Suggested Presences for Music

Hiroshi, within his monastic-like working space in New York during the pandemic, points to the first principle of the felt presence of senses of people gathering within artistic activities. He observes that although technology can provide global opportunities—such as through zoom and the internet—it only works through the auditory canals and visual perceptions that are not a complete picture of the felt senses between people, which I interpret as including the tactile materiality of art making, wafting smell of porous processes, the taste of the air around us, and the Japanese Masense of felt-presence between people. The artist points out that “in-person communication and interactions are not only about words but the sensations and the atmosphere” (Milovanovic-Mladenovic2021, p. 6). Hiroshi points out that even though we connect technologically in pandemic times, this is not enough and the role of the artist is to provide the sense of what is missing—“The role of art is to fill whatever is left” (Sundaram 2020). This connection of the sense is both sensual and spiritual. I remember the quiet glowing spiritual presence amidst the presence of people reverently shuffling past Hiroshi’s  Shrine of the Water God (Suijingū) at The Metropolitan Museum in New York, as I found respite from crazy uptown rhythms in the atmospherically lit upper rooms of the gallery during my last visit to the metropolis, literally days before the pandemic closed the city in early 2020.

Both Hiroshi and Cai value the pulsating sense of flow between nature and people as a type of living sense pulse, perhaps akin to a Daoistic sense of flow of spirit in nature that permeates classic Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu’s The Peony Pavilion, or contemporary Japanese architect Akihisa Hirata’s tangling concept finding “new forms in the tangle of things in the living world” (Hirata, 2018, p. 5). So, the second principle I propose for connection is the flow of presences between people and nature before the culture of differences appeared. Hiroshi Senju deliberately situates his painting practice in natural materials, including natural pigments and animal glues with old Japanese paper using traditional thousand-year-old nihonga techniques. He seeks to return to a time before cultural difference, to find a connection between humanity through a sense of connectedness to nature which he describes as the approach “to keep the technique which existed before all those revolutions, as I wanted to create art everyone could relate to” (Milovanovic-Mladenovic2021, p. 5). Cai Guo-Qiang also utilises this felt-flow between nature and human artistic creation, noting that in Pulse Mountain (2019) the spirit of spatial sense from mountains, combined with man-made gunpowder to explode (quite literally) into his Japanese hemp paper so as the “trace of smoke imbued the painting with an elevating air—everything is rising and full of vitality” (Robertson 2019, p.133). This flow of the painterly piece where the spirit of spacial dimensions from nature seems to pulse along the wall as people traverse the gallery space, is something that taegŭm performer Hyelim Kim and myself felt as we viewed the work in Melbourne at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2019—the year before panic hit the world. We were energised by the experience and pondered how we might blow up our collective identities towards hybrid creativity whilst resonating within the bamboo presence of culture in our collaborative music making—Heaven to Earth Border House (Crossman 2021).

Figure 1: Bruce Crossman, Navona album design, Hyelim Kim (photos: Vincent Tay, Edward A. Fleming, Jinhwan Lee)

This sense of heaven to earth connection leads me to my last suggested principle for transitioning panic, which is spiritual ritual and presence as centring amidst crisis. I love the way Hiroshi describes his early morning ritual in his visits to Tokyo, where nature’s music merges with monks’ chanting as a mysterious process of renewal for creative activity. He decribes his hidden respite within Tokyo—almost a type of ancient Japanese Okuspace hidden and revealed amongst the backdrop of ultra-modernist busyness—where nature merges with a sense of spirit in “shy light coming through the centenarian tress around the temple, the singing of the birds and then watching the monks as they worship…my peaceful and slightly mystical routine” (Milovanovic-Mladenovic2021, p. 3). Cai too, talks of a sense of spiritual awakening and the blurring of things inspired by El Greco’s painting, where it is not the perceived reality of rationalism that predominates, but creative exaggerations of the heart where “His forms and colours were exaggerated; his works were shrouded in deep spiritualism and conservative medieval mysticism…El Greco’s fierce subjectivity and individualistic freedom deeply resonated with me” (Miranda 2017, p. 64) towards expression at the heart-level. He translates this idea to the expression of uncontrolled dimensions beyond artistic making so as “Gunpowder not only manifests different energies, it is energy” (ibid p. 69).

Figure 2: Yi Ji-young, Hyelim Kim, Kate Fagan, Bruce Crossman, Hyelim Kim (photos: Kim Jin Hwan, Vincent Tay, Jinhwan Lee, Bruce Crossman, Hyelim Kim)

The ritualised performative explosion of identities towards creative exchange, witnessed in contemporary Chinese artist Cai’s fluid explosive creativity, speaks to the spirit of Hyelim and my musical collaboration—Heaven to Earth Border House—something which we pondered together in Melbourne. Witnessing this together became a moment exploded by creativity that flowed transnationally from Sydney to Seoul to London with exciting musicianship from Hyelim Kim (taegŭm), Yi Ji-young(gayageum) and the spatial beauty of the poetry of “Border House (Notes to a Bird)” by Australian poet, Kate Fagan. In pandemic isolation, something flowed between us all using digital file sharing technology to make and record music to express that which was missing—a sense of spirit.  These senses of connections between living flows of felt-sensory perceptions worked in accord with three principles of sensing.

Presence One: Structure and Collective Creativity as Sensed Connection

Firstly, Hiroshi’s ideas about creative presences within artistic gatherings of felt presence of senses of people gathering within artistic activities was in our Heaven to Earth Border House (2021) project, within the collective creating across borders through cyborg-like connections on zoom and file sharing between Sydney, Seoul and London with person-to-person sharing in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria and riverside breakfast spaces. Just as recent Korean architects of the post-war generation currently rebel (Hong 2016) against the necessity mass high-rise housing architecture of their predecessors to create bespoke, low-rise, repurposed traditional hanok-house dwellings where, as Seoul-based architect John Hong observes, unrelated individuals share intimacy within new flows of social space, so to, the traditional Korean musical form of sanjo can be repurposed with unrelated intercultural individualsideas from Korean and Australian creatives. It worked across free-jazz, bluesy-spectral colour gestures, contemporary chromatic and modal compositional palettes, expansive heaven to earth encapsulating poetry, and gritty Western Sydney Mulgoa Nature Reserve tangling branch imagery, whose macrocosmic collective purpose fostered new creative interconnections. Korean and Australian relationships centred in discussions between London-based leading young-generation Korean Gugak and jazz musician Hyelim Kim, Yi Ji-young, a Korean official master (yisuja) of the Intangible Cultural Property No. 23 Gayageum Sanjo and Byeongchang, renown Australian poet Kate Fagan, the Director of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University, and myself as an Australian composer and cultural organiser. 

Into our intercultural border housewe re-shaped and repurposed Korean traditional sanjomusical acceleration forms within ideas from all the collaborators. The porous breathing natural tangling space—our intercultural border houseof communication—sat around Kate’s beautiful poetry of a transitory space shaped by time, people and living presences from heaven to earth within nature’s porous flows. In her poem, “Border House (Notes to a Bird),” she captures this fluid creative space that allows freedom for creative visions to co-exist:

A house sits on a border between sky and earth

A house is large enough to encompass ideas of blue and small enough to cradle

    our finite selves

A house is a verge repurposed by generations

A house changes over days the way words transform with use

A house is to moths what an ocean is to cormorants, a place of passage among

    states of air

(Fagan, “Border House (Notes to a Bird)” in Crossman (2021), pp. 5-7)

As a composer, it was important for me to have a musical structure that could contain these heaving and breathing interactions—one that unified ideas but also shifted perceptions unexpectedly. I am inspired and conceptually shaped by how I think about my artform by painter Cai Guo-Qiang’s ideas of form to contain his explosive creativity (quite literally) at the Museo Nacional Del Prado in Spain. The exhibition was a creative dialogue between visual knowledge bearers “The more I engaged, the more intoxicating it became…its struggles and speculation, gave me an injection of youth that made me happier than the inebriated sight of the moon” (Miranda 2017, p. 62). Cai drew on ancient and contemporary Chinese literary and musical form of Qi cheng Zhuan he—which is essentially: Rise; Development; Shift; Unification (Miranda 2017, p. 61). Importantly, Cai’s structures shiftperceptions in the third room  quite literally blowing up identities within an “18-meter gunpowder painting, The Spirit of Painting” which he goes onto describe as “a fearless and cathartic liberation of my artistic sensibilities” (ibid, p. 61).

My own music for the Heaven to Earth Border House (2021) project was triggered visually by recent young architects from China to shape the chunkiness of my sonic juxtapositions as if they were raw slabs of solid materiality. The music is arranged in rough-hewn sections to reveal material sonic roughness but within an overall triangular structural frame, paralleling other East Asian creative approaches, such as the way Chinese architect Jiang Ying sets cube-like rooms in zig-zag arrangement in Z Gallery across the rough concrete of the cavernous space of the renovated Honghua Dyeing Factory (Williams 2019, pp. 90-93). My musical form falls into seven sections: A—Distilled Breath; B—Colour climax; C—Colour Breath; D—Symmetrical Stasis; C’—Colour Breath; B’—Crazy Colour Climax; A’—Distilled Breath. The music is arranged as a series of balances: distilled breath, colour breath, colour climax, and a balanced stasis section. The seven sections orientate around a gradual revealing of a golden section form that cuts loose in the sixth section’s aleatory and sonority richness. This explosive sonic room of the sixth section creates a shift of perception—away from manuscript control into the porous sense of spiritual time from traditional and contemporary Korean Gugakperformers’ creativity of Ji-young and Hyelim. I was not in control; something far more wonderful presented itself and activated natural and heavenly flows in the music. 

  Presence Two: Porous Flow between People and Nature as Sensed Shared Beauty

Secondly, Hiroshi’s ancient and contemporary Japanese conceptual ideas of nature-inspired abstractionism through the flow of presences between people and nature was in the material sonic fabric of our Heaven to Earth Border House (2021) project.I am struck by the intimate rumblings of sound as heaven touches earth in the imagined and spiritually felt aesthetics of Korean master Gugak musician Hwang Byung-ki’s gayageum sounds, as paralleling East Coast Australian Sydney bush sounds, where its alive stillness surprises me—with angular branch rhythms that shimmer in the still pond momentary ripples and frogs’ boisterously lopsided rhythmic exchanges that cut chunkily through the air. As creatives we move from the mysterious “misty compass” (Naito 2014, p. 49) for our spiritual, or affective feelingexpressions within the materiality of sound, crossing landscape borders of Japanese architect Hiroshi Naito’s figurative and literal landscapes, into the territories of Hwang’s “inexplicably subtle” (Hwang 2002, p. 814) felt-spiritual dimensions of life expressed in sound. I know from my own bush walks in Mulgoa Nature Reserve near my studio, how the entanglement of nature where water, soft reflected spring-light, and angular rhythmic interlacing of branches suggest rhythms for my border housemusic. Hyelim too, talks excitedly of how her taegŭm bamboo and reed membrane breath sounds greet Seoul springtime as part of a natural flow between artistic creation and nature, in a similar way to that of New York-based painter Hiroshi Senju, with his meticulous ancient techniques of using natural materials such as “pigments obtained from minerals, corals and shells” (Hiroshi 2020, p. 5) to create a porous connection between people and nature that existed before difference divided us. Hiroshi elegantly describes this ancient Japanese aesthetic that inspires some tradition-connected recent Japanese contemporary painting and architecture, stating:  

Thousands of years ago we weren’t divided between East and West. It was one world, nature, the animals and us, the humans. I wanted to keep the technique which existed before all those revolutions, as I wanted to create art everyone could relate to. My expression comes from our common feelings, our common memories, our common instincts, our common beauty whenever and wherever we are. 

(Hiroshi 2020, p. 5)

In a sense, part of the connection between Hyelim and I as collaborating creatives in the Heaven to Earth Border House(2021) project, was our shared love for the natural rhythms and energy in nature as a sensed source for inspiring creativity in music. 

Figure 3: Mulgoa Nature Reserve bush and pond, 2 and 5 July 2021 in Glenmore Park, Western Sydney, Australia (photos: Bruce Crossman)

Figure 4: Glossolalia and Birdsong from Mulgoa Nature Reserve—Heaven to Earth Border Housescore (2020), bars 117-19, by Bruce Crossman (Crossman 2020)

Presence Three: Judeo-Christian, Buddhist and Ecological Spiritual Senses for Creativity 

Finally, the third principle for sensing presence for creativity is framed within Hiroshi’s idea of spiritual ritual and presence as centring amidst crisis, visible in his early morning creative ritual of a visit to the Meiji Jingu that I discussed at the outset. Perhaps to place this within the autoethnographical discussions between Hyelim and I in Melbourne in 2019—just before the border house project and the world exploded—was a final structural idea from Cai’s work that emerged in our thinking; the eighteen-minute manuscript would not be enough, we needed to explode it into a four-part life cycle rooted in large arch-structured, one-hour climax-focussed sanjo-like structure showing the breath of spirt-led life, following Cai’s gunpowder explosions of peony colour as a four-part life-cycle of the peony with “emergence of the bud, bloom, wilting and decay” (Melbourne Winter Masterpieces 2019, “Transience (Peony)”). Interestingly, Cai’s use of the Chinese literati tradition of peony and cypress symbols of beauty with resonances of royalty, virtue, resilience and personal identity (ibid, “Transience (Peony)”, “Flow (Cypress)”), worked through the curved gallery spaces on intercultural surfaces of silk and Japanese hemp paper rearranged from unpredictable explosions of another Chinese cultural icon, gunpowder. To us, it was suggesting spirit through imaginative cultural juxtaposions between pyrotechnics and painting to express the artist-in-the-now. The artist noted in the NGV wall notes, that just prior to unleashing the explosive energy of gunpowder, he prayed in the moment before unleashing a flow of contemporary mark making that was a ritualised performative explosion of identities. One that was resonant of the traditional past, but intangibly of the moment’s movement, and controlled by dimensions of spirit.

In 2020, my father passed from earth to heaven—in a way that shook me too my core—and the planned visit of Hyelim and Ji-young to visit Kate and I, from London and Seoul to Western Sydney, was eventually cancelled as the world shook and still shakes with the pandemic crisis. Moving from a centre within my own Judeo-Christian faith, one that practices glossolalia—or speaking in tongues—whilst navigating the narrow bush paths of Mulgoa Nature  Reserve, I re-envisaged the project as spirit sensed creativity that connected both spiritually across Judeo-Christian, Buddhist and ecologically sensed presence traditions, and worked with the physical world digitally through file sharing recordings between studios in Korea and the United Kingdom. Ji-young recorded her gayageum and voice parts of the Heaven to Earth Border House score on November 8 2020 at Seoul National University in Seoul, Korea, and Hyelim recorded the taegŭm and voice parts, as well as mixed the whole sound-world in an incisive and dramatic interpretation of the score, on November 21 2020 at Stella Polaris Studios, London, United Kingdom.Both used their own Korean Buddhist Temple bowls’ beauty of luminous sounds for the recordings.

Into Kate’s poetic border house poetry of spacious dimensions reaching to the sky but anchored in the earth, I had woven, within the score, hints of Judeo-Christian glossolalia—prayerful speaking in tongues—and elements of the intimate spaciousness of the poetry half-chanted, sung and spoken by the instrumentalists to make the music a type of ritualised house of prayer where what is above touches those on earth. The creative concept was to reference and resonate with Korean gayageum master, Hwang Byungki’s concept of heaven to earth creativity, as stirring something in Korean court music—Aak from a heavenly source, which he poetically sees as “comes down from heaven to stay in the human mind…It touches the heart of everyone…and activates his spirit” (Hwang 2002, p. 814). The music’s living colours in the score had intentions to fluctuate texturally as spirit in-and-out of the earthy vocalizations to reveal the noise-like grittiness of the traditional instruments—noisy air, bamboo and reed-membrane (Kim 2013, pp. 37, 41, 43) excitations of the taegŭm, and silk-string (Yi 2011, p. 36) bends, hand striking techniques and delicate fingernail colours that resonate with the paulownia-wood materiality (ibid, p. 36) of the sanjo gayageum—within an overall golden section structure that climaxes in the aleatoric informed sixth section. 

Hyelim and Ji-young metaphorically torethese upand exploded the potential sounds. The language game of the poetry between English, Korean and glossolalia became an experimental dabbing of vocalisations towards spacious excitement between Ji-young and Hyelim, and their free build sections became anchored in a gritty gayageum sanjo-acceleration with bird-like woven bamboo taegŭm sounds entangled in it as if Mulgoa Nature Reserve and Blue Mountain’s birdsong was speaking to Kate and I. The sense of flow and space of the music was not mine—it was a breathed lifeof the Korean Gugakperformers where time was sudden energy yet meditative space, that included Ji-young and Hyelim’s mysterious breath tone chants and explosive syllables framed by the still meditative spaces of their gentle Korean Temple bowl resonances. As Kate and I were simultaneously aware on hearing the recording—they had breathed a mysterious life-breath into our collaborative work.  

Conclusion: Three Principles of Sensing for Transitioning Crisis

In conclusion, perhaps what we can do amidst the pandemic induced panic of our times, is embrace the cyborg era but as artists to give it a sense of what is missing through the holding to creative values. This is something that we found motivated creativity and sustained us in our shared autoethnographical process of creating the Heaven to Earth Border House (2021) sound world—something that started before, is present within, and hopefully will exist after, the worldwide pandemic of the 2020-21 crisis. These creative aesthetic values include: firstly, embracing felt presence of senses of people as a collaborative artistic making process; secondly, taking time to re-energise through a sense flowof presences between people and nature; and finally, valuing the heart-felt expression of spiritual ritual and presence in our creating. Perhaps we can aspire to a type of collective creating, where even though the space is small we fill it with what is missing—our hearts expansiveness within restricted senses, as Cai notes: “painting is an expression of the heart and mind, a space where several thousand miles can exist within a small few inches” (Miranda 2017, p.63).

HEAVEN TO EARTH BORDER HOUSE Hyelim Kim taegŭm  Yi Ji-young gayageum 


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© Bruce Crossman, Glenmore Park NSW, 30thAugust 2021