When I was searching for shakuhachi players in London a few months ago, I knew practically nothing about the instrument and its tradition, to be honest. I wrote many e-mails to local players asking if they could give me any background information about shakuhachi and the training they received, as I found it interesting that there were so many players in such a far away place from Japan.
The first to respond to my message was Kiku Day, a shakuhachi performer and teacher from Copenhagen who is also based in London. She began her musical studies on Western classical flute but then, due probably to her mother’s Japanese heritage, took up her curiosity of the shakuhachi and the wonderful music that belongs to it. She lived in Japan for eleven years, studying with one teacher and trying different instruments there. She graciously invited me to her home and spoke with me about the troubled past of the shakuhachi and its role today in contemporary music and concert practice. Shakuhachi is an instrument that I believe must be heard live, as all of my preparation with YouTube and CDs could not have compared to listening to her that day.
The shakuhachi tradition began in Japan around the 6thcentury, with the Japanese Zen Buddhists known as the komuso. They were monks of the Fuke sect and they traveled around Japan with reed baskets over their heads to hide their faces, begging for alms and playing shakuhachi for the rural people. They believed that those who played shakuhachi, as well as those who listened to it, participated in meditation known as suizen (blowing zen) and they strived for enlightenment in the process.
In 1868, however, the Fuke sect was abolished and shakuhachi music was forbidden to be performed. Much of the tradition during this time was lost, along with the spiritual meditation associated with it. When shakuhachi was re-introduced, it essentially lost its independence and became an accompaniment to other instruments such as the shamisen and koto. An interest in the shakuhachi began in Western pop music and film music from the 1980s onward and eventually, more players around the world began to give solo concerts of traditional pieces as well as new compositions.
The flute itself is end-blown and made from bamboo. Since it does not have keys like a Western classical flute, the bore size and fingerhole positions must be precise in order to achieve a full range of notes. The tone is a bit hard for me to describe as it ranges from deep, rich tones to high, airy ones… it’s an incredibly versatile instrument in that respect. The player must bend their lip position in order to play certain notes and much of this (vibrato as well) is done with the head. As a result, particular notes are stronger than others on this instrument and tuning isn’t as exact as maybe that of the Western classical flute. The color of the tone can also be changed with air speed, lip placement, and covering of the keyholes, making it a very flexible and entrancing instrument.
There are three different kinds of shakuhachi music that I would like to address.
Honkyoku – These are the pieces which were played by the komuso monks and they were used for meditation. There are many that have survived the abolishment of the Fuke sect and the proceeding years, but it would be wrong to say that the pieces surviving are in their purist original form. The honkyoku were taught verbally/aurally, not with the aid of sheet music, so naturally they would differ slightly from group to group. The performance of these pieces is extremely difficult and takes years to learn, since the shakuhachi itself is a complex instrument to master.
This particular honkyoku is called “Iwashimizu” and it is considered to be a more modern piece, composed in 1904 by Tozan Nakao. The piece is in three sections: the first depicting autumn in the mountains, the second describing a spring in the garden of the Iwashimizu temple in Osaka, and the third depicting the foamy water created by the waterfall. In shakuhachi performance, how one starts the note and the sounds before/after the note are just as important as the note itself, and you will hear this in the following example.
Sankyoku – Considered the “chamber music” of Japan, this music is played by a three-instrument ensemble consisting of shakuhachi, koto (the plucked string instrument played on the floor), and shamisen (the guitar-like instrument). The instruments in sankyoku accompany a song, usually a Japanese poem.
The first sankyoku piece is entitled “Shojo no Tsuru” or “A Crane in the Pines” by Yamato Manwa. This ensemble, in a way, could be compared to the kutcheri ensemble of South India. However, the singing is done by one of the instrumentalists, proving an even more difficult task! The second example is a piece entitled “Yaegoromo” by Ishikawa Koto, telling the story of the four seasons and the different clothes one wears in each.
Yamaguchi Goro, Nakanoshima Kinichi, & Nakanoshima Keiko: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1N40MS19-8
Aoki Reibo, Yokekawa Fumiko, & Yonekawa: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pwudk4W7V8
Shinkyoku – This term is used to describe any modern compositions for shakuhachi, from the end of the Meiji era onward. Shakuhachi music at that time was beginning to be influenced by the sounds of the West and much of the pop music from the USA was being played on Japanese radio, especially around the time before World War II.
The first shinkyoku piece is called “Haru no Umi” (“Sea in Spring”), a very popular piece written by Michio Miyagi.He wrote this piece to depict the sea during springtime before he went blind. Notice how articulation similar to that of Western-style playing is used in this piece, providing clear fronts to the notes with the tongue. The second example is called “Ichikotsu”, written by Yamamota Hozan in 1966. This piece might sound more like a Western flute piece, focused more on the melody than changing tone color.
Yoko Hiraoka & Kaoru Kakizakai:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ylh0C5Wsog
Yamamoto Hozan & Yonekawa Hiroe:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGcwOlnFWsM
The last example is a concerto for shakuhachi/biwa with orchestra by prominent Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, entitled “November Steps”. It was written in 1967 and from the first couple minutes of listening, one clearly hears that this piece is a unique one and that surely no one had heard anything quite like it up until its premiere the same year.
Yokoyama Katsuya, Kinshi Tsuruta, & Seiji Ozawa/New Japan Philharmonic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CeDYLRK0ik
My experience of trying to imitate the sound of the shakuhachi has really tested my abilities on flute and, in some ways, has been freeing to play in a completely new style. I’m not focusing so much on just the core of the sound but what comes before and after as well, visualizing the sound moving from my body, through the instrument, and then out into space. It is very much like meditating and I can see why the shakuhachi was employed for this practice. Shakuhachi music is about calmness and balance between sound and silence. The piece of which I will be depicting this instrument will definitely be a contrast from the rest of the program and is, so far, my favorite!
Hope this music calms you down after a crazy day!
Hukuda Teruhisa – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7s-wXZWT5o
James Nyoraku Schlefer performing his shakuhachi concerto “East Meets West” with orchestra – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4n4eNblHPA
Team Kozan playing a cover of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” (How could I not add this??) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ06aVZpGYA
A piece called “Journey to the Hanamachi”from John Williams’ soundtrack for the film Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6IBWEdzlGc
Clive Bell and Melissa Holding performing “Rokudan” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3hjiNw_Vy0