Suikinkutsu, literally "water-zither-cave," is both a garden ornament and musical installation, typically built next to a stone basin for washing for the Japanese tea ceremony. Water drips from a chozubachi stone basin into a partly-filled underground ceramic bowl. This jar is an upside down pot buried underground, resting on a bed of gravel. The dripping sound, resembling a koto zither, resonates and is amplified through the ceramic, and is projected up through bamboo tubes into a garden, where water may symbolize spirit, purification, solace, consolation, and reflection. The fact that the mechanism is hidden is said to intensify the pleasure 23 of the sound.
Dating to the mid 17th century Edo period, the name suikinkutsu is often credited to the famous tea ceremony teacher Kobori Enshu. After a decline, the instrument re-emerged in the Meiji Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with renewed recent popularity.
I went to Enko-ji Temple in Kyoto to hear the suikinkutsu on a hot August afternoon. The brown cicada, aburazemi (Graptosaltria nigrofiscata) and bear cicada, kumazemi (Cryptotympana facialis), soundmarks of mid and late summer in Western Japan, were in full force. They danced an acoustic figure and ground with the sounds of the suikinkutsu, recorded both in the rocks and at the tips of the bamboo. The more you turn down the volume the more the refreshing acoustic density delights, like interior scat singing at the edge of consciousness.