Sometime in the 8th century, at the center of Lake Dhanakosha, an enlightened being emerged from a lotus blossom in the guise of an eight-year-old child. This was Padmasambhava, the Second Buddha, a legendary figure who is said to have tamed all the gods and demons of the Himalayas before bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Although Padmasambhava lived over a millennium ago, he is more than a figure of the remote past: according to legend, the great master hid sacred revelations, objects, and texts known as terma throughout greater Tibet, thereby passing on his esoteric knowledge to the peoples of the past, present, and future.
Master of Time takes its name from an exhibition centering on Padmasambhava titled The Second Buddha: Master of Time. A mixed-media exploration of the figure’s mythos, this months long showcase featured sculpture, scrolls, textiles, manuscripts, lectures, guided meditation sessions, and the live performance which comprises Master of Time. Through these various channels, the exhibition aimed at drawing out the essence from the stories told about Padmasambhava, which carry “universal messages about the power of human emotions, human achievement and triumph over adversity, self-transformation, impermanence, and the nonlinear nature of time.”
Coming as he does from a traditionally Buddhist Bhutanese background, guitarist Tashi Dorji seems like a likely choice to express this essence through music, yet the heady, punk-tinged builds of Manas, his duo project with percussionist Thom Nyugen, reveal little of his roots. Collaborating with Susie Ibarra, a percussionist with extensive experience in music from free jazz to that of Philippine Kulintang ensembles, reveals a new aspect of both performers, and their skill as improvisers serves as a vehicle to bring Padmasambhava’s mythical world to the concert stage. The result is a music that is raw, energetic, driving, and intense, but also reserved, contemplative, and focused. Master of Time captures the highlights of a sound that existed for an evening yet will continue to resonate far into the future, one that is timbrally, rhythmically, structurally, and spiritually unrepeatable.
The core of Master of Time consists of two roughly twenty-minute long tracks: “Confluence” and “The Way of the Clouds”. True to its name, “Confluence” opens with a mix of harmonically rich, resonant electric guitar and metallic, stuttered percussion that blend together in a subtle balance. As their instrumental streams slowly intertwine, Dorji and Ibarra reach for a wide variety of timbres and tools, from gongs and feedback to bending bass notes and rustling shells. The track “Moments of Time” sees Ibarra playing a set of tuned gongs in a state of graceful repose, while “Mist of Light” is a sparse, angular landscape of twanging strings, rustling snare drums, and twinkling bells. By the time we reach “The Way of the Clouds”, Dorji and Ibarra are in full swing, finding hypnotic, cycling rhythms through careful sonic searching, expertly sounding out the moment, the room, and each other. Despite its absolute basis in improvisation, each moment of build and release feels absolutely, fatally inevitable.
Like a terma passed down to us from another era, Master of Time is a capsule uncovered from a specific moment in time, a ritual performed and then sealed in a bottle for the people of the future. This is an album which deserves to be heard, again and again, by those who would discover the secret to making some of the best improvised music out there today.