Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ned Rothenberg; Ryu Nashi No School New Japan

With a performance by Ralph Samuelson:
Sample of Ralph on 1.8 with Accompaniment

Ned Rothenberg:
After a 30 year romance with the shakuhachi, this is my first release exclusively devoted to compositions for the instrument. Why so long? When I say ‘romance’, I mean the word in its full literary compass, love and hate, ardor and betrayal. The root attraction has always been its depths of sound, capable of tonal colorings unsurpassed in the flute world, which can create musical expressions of great weight. The darker side? It is maddeningly difficult; compared to my beloved saxophone, it is a most fickle partner. On good days the breath and the sound are one, on bad ones, one flounders about searching for the illusive center, blowing no Zen, just hot air.
As a musical and cultural outsider, this duality is also a reflection of my relationship with Japan itself. This recording represents my embrace of that outsider status and the perspective it affords. I have had the opportunity to study with 2 of the preeminent masters of the instrument, the late ‘living national treasure’ Yamaguchi Goro and an artist whose power and dynamism has made him a true legend, Yokoyama Katsuya. I believe, because of cultural factors, there are no native Japanese who have been able to do this. This is because the traditional music world there is rigidly divided into schools, each of which demands allegiance. Different schools focus more or less on particular aspects of the instrument. Musical approaches with various relationships to phrasing, vibrato, pitch and tone color, become the guarded property of the various factions. The positive result is a wealth of varied style but the negative is a system of rules, which can sometimes be quite arbitrary.
My writing for shakuhachi seeks to lead from the instrument’s strengths, those special aspects, which are owned by no particular school. At the same time, I have no interest in ‘westernizing’ the instrument. I am a multi-instrumentalist and if I want the fleet angular, capabilities of a flute or a clarinet, I will play those instruments, not an ungainly end-blown bamboo flute with just 5 holes. The result is that listeners who are only a bit familiar with shakuhachi will think that this music sounds very Japanese, quite ‘traditional’. It draws largely on the aesthetic of honkyoku, the zen-based solo music that Yokoyama-sensei’s teacher, Watazumido, described as a kind of breathing meditation, rather that music. But musical it is, and the 2 solo pieces on this cd and Cloud Hands, the shakuhachi duo, arise from this domain. However, all the phrases are of my own invention and do not follow the rules of any particular school. For instance, a central element in honkyoku is the nayashi, a note which is started flat and bent up to pitch. In Yokoyma’s school, this bent interval is always a whole step, followers of Yamaguchi and other Kinko school teachers play a half step. Cloud Hands uses as one of its central themes side-by-side nayashi of a half and whole step. Thus, listeners who are well acquainted with Japanese traditional music will hear that these compositions constantly try to stretch traditional constrictions on the instrument.
Naki Tokoro Nite (Where there is neither).. uses the traditional pairing of shakuhachi and jiuta shamisen, central instruments in the sankyoku tradition of Japanese classical music. Again, the music is in some ways traditional, and I am pleased to have my original shakuhachi teacher, Ralph Samuelson performing, as I have always deeply admired his way with this music. Here I have tried to retain sankyoku’s aesthetic profile while combining it with the more complex contrapuntal and rhythmic designs I utilize in my works for western instruments. Most notably, I frankly have long found the endless 2/4 meter of most Japanese traditional music quite tiresome. Japanese poetry, on the other hand, such as haiku and tanka are based on phrases of odd lengths. This piece utilizes the meter of tanka poetry, 5-7-5-7-7, for much of its rhythmic structure. The opening and closing tanka, beautifully sung by Yoko Hiraoka, expresses the frustrations of the poet, Toki Zenmaro, with the pitfalls of the Japanese language:

It’s hazardous
To live in Japan and say
In the language
of the Japanese people
What’s on my mind

(written 1912 (!))
(Suffice it to say that the composer shares the poets feelings!)

There are other elements, like canonic and contrary motion, in Naki Tokoro Nite and Dan no Tabi (Journey on a Staircase) which are mainstream compositional devices in the west but foreign to traditional Japanese music. So it might be fair to say I am doing some ‘westernizing’ of the compositional approach to shakuhachi but always while trying to maintain its core sonic strengths.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ichion Jobutsu

Matsumoto Kyozan Notation Book Calligraphy


Ichion Jobutsu: the attainment of enlightenment through perfecting a single tone. The goal is not to experience aesthetic pleasure but to achieve personal and spiritual maturity through the realization of the ultimate tone (tettei-on). For in the single tone of shakuhachi, the whole of nature can be heard whispering its secrets.
The essays of Fuyo Hisamatsu (1790-1845) notes that Fuke shakuhachi is a spiritual exercise of breathing through which a state of freedom from the rational mind is achieved. If the shakuhachi is used as an instrument of spiritual exercise, then aesthetic values are reversed: a fine tone is not the goal of shakuhachi practice. Mere musical pleasantry or technical brillliance in the absence of a concomitant spiritual cultivation is devalued as empty mechanical wizardry. The quest to produce an ultimate tone or the true sound of the bamboo assumes a function similar to that of Zen sitting. When playing the Fuke shakuhachi, the practitioner is to experience a meditative process through the sound, similar to the aims of otodamaho*, by concentrating purely on the sound through spiritual breathing so as to reunify the state of body and mind, subject and object.
Ichion jobutsu is characteristic of Buddhist feeling. The sensitivity is made possible by the Buddhist belief that the sound of instruments is to embody the sound of spiritual enlightment itself. The idea of ichion jobutsu is also rooted in Japanese sensibility. Japanese people listen attentively to the tone of a big bronze gong suspended in a temple. They first enjoy the unique timbre of a single sound and then enjoy the ma, the 'space' created after it. When engaged in this moment, they unconsciously practice the aesthetics of a single sound.
*Otodamaho in Shinto is a method of purifying the body and mind through the esoteric power of sound. Japanese animism since ancient times believes that spiritual power resides in all sounds including natural sounds and spoken words. Otodamaho suggests that spiritual practitioners become engaged in a meditative process through the appreciation and embodiment of natural sounds, situating themselves in nature to become part of the universe.
For nothing is more magical than the spirit of sound. All things in this universe are caused by the spirit of sound. Simply listen to a "sound." Simply listen to a certain sound quietly and calm down. That's all... You do not have to listen to music. Listen to a certain unchangeable sound: the sound of a waterfall, the murmur of a brook, the sound of rain, the sound of waves, anything you like.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Katsuya Yokoyama

Prolific student of Watazumi.

Watazumi; founder of Ichoken Fukko-ha also known as Myoan Masho-ha.

Watazumi Doso, rather than merely searching for a form of expression, strived to be in tune with nature. This intentional inconvenience is a necessary condition to experience nature because that is how nature is. Noise is not an object of elimination but the world itself. Watazumi considered a work of expression to be a manifestation of one's deep impression of nature, a revelation of unity between the artificial and the natural. -- KM PhD from Queensland

Nevertheless, watch out with that teacup, Eugene.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mushroom Komuso

Alongside a senryu, or satiric poem, a matsutake (pine mushroom) komuso sprouts up. The derogatory "limerick" denounces the komuso during the late Edo period. Government spies and assassins infiltrated the ranks of anonymous, mendicant monks, creating a suspect reputation that is lampooned in this illustration. They're everywhere!

Transmission of Taizan-ha Repetoire

"If made known, it will spread throughout the world, while if it is kept secret, its existence will disappear from sight." {The source of the quote is Ninomiya Sontoku.]

Yushin (left) with popular writer Ushida Yasuo (2nd from left)

Komuso performance at mystery writers' discussion, 2009.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Michal Slavíček, Shakuhachi Maker


Beautiful new hanko design, featuring the 5 finger holes of a shakuhachi, and the notation for a wedge breath.

A great-playing Slavíček 2.6 jinashi hochiku's natural hanko; One Leaf Left Over the Rising Moon. Photographed with my backyard background of Eastern White Pine and the hardy bamboo Phyllostachys Bissettii, both still green after another harsh Chicago Winter.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shakuhachi for Elk


"Okuda’s teaching is based on ‘old-fashioned’ Japanese concepts, in which the pupil is expected to imitate the teacher’s playing. That, however, is not the whole story: whenever I studied a honkyoku piece with Okuda, we would go through it phrase by phrase, with him explaining the new techniques involved. Then, in order to get the shape of the piece, we would play it through together what seemed an unlimited number of times. Each time, Okuda played the piece slightly differently. In the beginning I found this frustrating – just when I thought I had it right, Okuda would come with a surprise! After a while I simply accepted this as part of Okuda’s pedagogic method and just tried to play along as best I could. Much later I realised that this was the most efficient way to learn the true sprit of honkyoku and the instrument itself, and thus it enabled me to improvise on it." - Kiku Day

My teacher Morimasa Horiuchi has used a similar teaching method. Most interesting is the variabilty in approach for a honkyoku over time. To play that moment who you are, how you are. Changing as the seasons. The other week we played what could only be described as a Winter Choshi. To play along with the changes, well, that opens your ears, it opens your heart.


"I produced this recording a couple of weeks ago (August 2006) at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, Ca. Okuda is the most unusual shakuhachi player living in Japan today. The closet person that you compare him to is the late and great Wadazumidoso. The instruments used by both players are shakuhachi more like the original form of the instrument; with a raw unfinished interior, and often of a much larger size deemed: hotchiku. Okuda is much more concerned with improvisation and sound than all the rest of the mainstream shakuhachi players in Japan put together. His sonic sensibility and taste is much more like that of a free improvisor than of a classical musician of any particular traditional school. On this recording engineer Stephen Hart and I managed to capture Okuda at a peak performance moment. We experimented a lot with different microphone setups and devised a system that yielded the best recording of a shakuhachi that my ears have ever heard. While Okuda plays traditional pieces here, what he does with them is quite OUT and quite wild, in a quiet Zen way. I get the feeling that Okuda could knock over a building with his shakuhachi, if he wanted to. It's kind of like a magical, super power thing. Like Evan Parker's Monoceros or The Snake Decides, this is a landmark recording of a solo wind instrument. I felt that I was very, very fortunate to be involved here." - Henry Kaiser

"Although Okuda mainly plays the traditional repertoire, honkyoku, played by the komuso, the Zen Buddhist monks of the Fuke sect, his music is always evolving and changing, the sign of a living tradition. His belief is that each piece and each note is complete in itself, and that one must set the mind in a state in which there is no audience and no performer. Each note is approached with originality as if it played for the first time – from this stance the union of new and old emerges. From this perspective, the sounds produced by the jinashi shakuhachi helps us, according to Okuda, to transcend music itself and unite with the universe." - Kiku Day

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dr. Koji Matsunobu; Shakuhachi Ph.D

Dissertation title: Artful encounters with nature: Ecological and spiritual dimensions of music learning

Abstract: this ethnographic dissertation offers an in-depth analysis of how contemporary music practitioners/educators interpret, appropriate, and practice the tradition of spiritual music both inside and outside Japan, focusing on how they reframe and embody what I identify as indigenous cultural values in today’s educational settings. I specifically examine the nature of the traditional practice that approaches the shakuhachi (a type of bamboo flute) in a holistic, organic manner: Practitioners of this tradition personally harvest the bamboo and fashion their instruments directly out of nature, taking great care to preserve and appreciate the nature inherent to each piece of bamboo. Their instruments are much less processed and closely resemble the natural state of each piece of bamboo. This type of organic activities through music—hardly introduced and practiced in the educational realm—are observed both inside and outside of Japan. The practice of shakuhachi related more directly to Capra’s vision of environmental ethics. Capra (1996) argues that the basic principles of teaching and learning should be congruent with the characteristics of ecosystems such as interdependence, sustainability, ecological cycles, energy flows, partnerships, flexibility, diversity, and co-evolution. The practice of shakuhachi making, for instance, is interdependent on the natural resources available in each place and cannot occur without a sustainable relationship with the land. Diversity of musical practice is brought about through the various shapes and sounds yielded by different bamboo pieces. The natural materials make it possible for practitioners to embody the flow of the earth energy (ki) through sound. Co-evolution is observed when practitioners yield to the distinctive characteristics of their individual pieces of bamboo as they are, assimilating themselves to them, instead of altering them in favor of functionality. They get used to each bamboo segment in time while developing a sense of attachment, devotion, and responsibility. The findings of this dissertation suggested that music learning is place-based and instrument making serves as a process of localizing and personalizing music learning. In order to articulate this integrative, interactive nature of music practice, this dissertation submitted an emerging notion of “self-integration” as a form of actualizing the body-mind, human-nature integration.

Doctors of Shakuhachi Research and Musicology

Andreas Gutzwiller (1974 - Wesleyan)
Ingrid Frith (1978 - Cologne)
Takahashi Tōne (1990 - Ann Abor)
Riley Lee (1993 - Sydney)
Shimura Satsoshi (ca 1994 - Osaka)
Tsukitani Tsuneko (year unknown - Osaka)
Jim Franklin (1997 - Sydney)
Marty Regan (2006 - Hawaii)
Matsunobu Koji (2009 - Illinois)
Izukawa Hidefumi (2010 - Osaka)
Joshua Smith (2010 - Osaka)
Kiku Day (2010 - London)

Research pending:
Christiam Mau (2011 - London)
Flora Henderson (2012 - London)
Joe Browning (2013 - London)
Sarah Strothers (2016?)