Playing the shakuhachi
One feels the unseen worlds…
In all the universe there is only this sound….
Ikkyû Zenji (1394-1482)
Few musical instruments could appear more simple than the shakuhachi, a hollow bamboo stalk with only five holes. Yet it has a reputation as being one of the most difficult instruments to master, and can produce an extraordinary range of sounds. The wind playing with leaves in a bamboo grove…. the cry of a soaring bird… waves crashing on a distant shore… an empty bell ringing in a still morning….
I first heard the shakuhachi in 1987 when I was 25 years old, and soon after began rudimentary studies of the instrument in London with Clive Bell. Everything changed when I heard a recording by the great shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya. I felt as though an electric shock had gone through my body. Although coming from a far away culture, the music seemed intimately familiar and echoed in my heart like a call from some universal depths of my soul. I felt then that I had to go to Japan to meet Yokoyama and study with him if at all possible.
I wrote a letter and had a friend translate it into Japanese, and sent it to Yokoyama care of the International Shakuhachi Society. To my amazement I heard back from him within a short space of time, and he invited me to study with him. I was fortunate enough to find a job as an Assistant Language Teacher in a Japanese school, and a short time later I found myself living in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. Although the teaching job lasted only for a year, I later received a Japanese Government Scholarship to continue my studies with Yokoyama-sensei, and I came to stay in Japan for 7 years.
The shakuhachi has an ancient and venerable history. Buddhist monks used the instrument in a meditation practice known as Sui Zen (blowing zen). It was considered that the development of ‘spirit breath’ (kisoku) would lead to ‘absolute sound’ (tettei-on), in which a single tone could contain the entire universe. The monks who practiced the shakuhachi in this way were known as komusō, literally ‘Monks of Emptiness and Nothingness’. They roamed the Japanese countryside playing the shakuhachi from temple to temple with rattan headdresses that obscured their face, signifying detachment from the world.
The traditional repertoire of the komusō was called honkyoku (original music), or dōkyoku, (music of The Way). Some honkyoku pieces are serenely meditative and picturesque, others are more powerful and dynamic. These pieces have been passed down in an oral tradition spanning hundreds of years, with different playing and teaching styles emerging at different times and in different parts of Japan.
The legendary shakuhachi master Watazumi Doso Roshi commented:
“If you go deep into the source of where the music is being made, you’ll find something more interesting. At the source, everyone’s individual music is made. If you ask what the deep place is, it’s your own life and it’s knowing your own life.”
Yokoyama Kaytsuya was one of the great shakuhachi masters of the post-WWII generation. He played a key role in introducing the shakuhachi to international audiences, performing in concert halls around the world in the 1960’s, at a time when the shakuhachi was more or less unknown outside of Japan. He further opened up the shakuhachi world by combining different styles of playing in his repertoire, and by performing pieces by contemporary composers such as Toru Takamitsu. Yokoyama was a true descendant of the shakuhachi tradition transmitted down through the generations, and at the same time he pioneered a revolution in modern music that swept across Japan.
Yokoyama wanted his students to learn the traditional honkyoku pieces from him as precisely as possible, in keeping with the oral tradition of study, but he also encouraged us to find our own voice within the music.
“These pieces represent an infinite source of wisdom to be tapped. The more you think and feel the depths of this music the more you realise your own depths and that of the universe. These pieces are a way to penetrate inside, to find something true in the depth of the being. Not only something from the past, ancient, old things … it has to emerge from the bamboo as a living, breathing spirit.”
Studying for 7 years with Yokoyama sensei was an extraordinary privilege, and even though he passed away in 2010 I still hear strongly in my soul the echo of his words and the sound of his flute. Since leaving Japan I have travelled the world with the shakuhachi, collaborating with musicians from India, Brazil and other countries, incorporating the shakuhachi into many projects in a wide variety of musical styles. But always returning to the simple awareness of breath, sound and spirit in the ancient practice of Sui Zen.
I play shakuhachi made by Miura Ryuho, Yamaguchi Shugetsu, John Kaizan Neptune, Tom Deaver, & Monty Levenson
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