Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Original Edo Voice Restored: A Perry Yung Special Repair

A 1.7 Edo period shakuhachi on Ebay that was represented by some blurry photos, and described as a sweet-toned flute before it had cracked after it had travelled from Kyoto to the drier climes of sunny Spain, was a relatively cheap buy.   Yes, it was thoroughly cracked, but luckily the old bamboo closed completely after three days in a humid box.  And after it was bound, the old flute played with a nice nuanced and dynamic tone with a sweet kan. 

In the recent past, however, someone had added a brown paste covered with red urushi or lacquer at the top of the flute.  And the original urushi in the bore was so old that it had become chipped and flaked.  After several months of playing it, some of the recent urushi fell out and the flute became stuffy.  I temporarily filled the gap with electrical tape, that almost worked, but something was missing, and more urushi was coming loose.  I finally decided to send it off to Perry for repair.


Perry's initial appraisal was that this shakuhachi was most likely made by a Komuso monk.  A Buddhist pilgrim would appreciate the water gourd hanko.  Perry also felt some strong energy as it was played a lot by the maker or previous owners, the bamboo of the finger holes had been worn down by decades or even centuries of appreciative meditative playing...

Perry removed the recently added red urushi and paste, and the older flaking urushi in the rest of the bore.   The top of the bore was widened slightly to increase the resonance of otsu Ro.  There was a divot under the front of the ivory inlay and it was decided the best route was to coat the inlay with rubbed layers of shuai urushi for a cool translucent antique effect.  Perry also gave the flute's bore a layer of new shuai to replicate the original layer of urushi it had when first made.

When I got the shakuhachi back (after it flew out on one of the last planes from NY before Hurricane Irene closed down all the airports for the weekend), there was an immediate response to the improved resonance and increased dynamics, surprises of nuanced tones leapt out from varying angles...  As Perry put it; "Your old Edo 1.7 sounds really great now. It has an intimate yet lively feel, like many of the better-made, older and shorter flutes of the period. I believe this is how it probably first played for the original maker, before someone painted the other paint in the bore."  Perry feels like I do, these Edo period flutes are kind of priceless, as they open a door to how another time sounded.  Perry definitely brought this one back from an obscured past after his fine restoration... thanks so much, Perry!  The sound of it now really sends me back!

Thanks for the free antique flute bag, too!  A nice surprise....

The Articulated Embouchure

Taizan student Ken Morrison visited Perry Yung in New York recently.  While there, he was very impressed with Perry's workmanship and articulate presentation of the craft, and performance of the art of shakuhachi's living history. 

Perry provided the following insights reprinted with permission in response to my embouchure questions via email:

"As for the different embouchures for the various schools, I will certainly need to write a book on this. This is no easy discussion; that's why I do not get into it on my blog entry. The main thing is that each school has a desirable sound - timbre - and those who are steeped in that school will find not only flutes that fit that sound, but will learn how to blow those instruments for that particular ballpark sound. What makes it difficult to write about is that there are endless variables in the individuality of instruments and teachers. (This is, of course, what makes it interesting to begin with!)

So everything I say is general. If I try to get specific, I can easily find an example to disprove what I am saying!

In Dokyoku, in the way it was shown to me through Kinya, there is an obvious musical arc to a piece of Honkyoku when performed. This means the player is aware of a specific journey that somehow moves from a beginning to an end, from loud to soft etc.... The player has to play dynamically and to do that he must use a wide variety of embouchures. The embouchure changes from inside blowing (uchi buki) to outside blowing (soto buki). Soft to loud. The lips have to constantly and minutely adjust to the changing velocity and the player has to understand the dynamic range.  No other school uses Komi buki - big breath for an explosive, jolting sound. They also play into silence. The range is huge and is up to the player's ability.

In Kinko (Chikumeisha) from Ralph, the embouchure is somewhat static in comparison as the tone color and music stays more in a "mood" as opposed to an obvious dynamic journey with an arc. The tone color of Goro Yamaguchi constantly rides the overtones. And even when playing a melody, the notes move within the rich overtones. This requires the player's lips to be somewhat fixed.  For me, this is the most difficult and closest to meditation (zen is not easy).

In Jin Nyodo's Kinko, this is not the case. Jin Nyodo's Kinko seems to be a little of Dokyoku and a little of Myoan. Not as dynamic as Dokyoku and without the sublime or elegant overtone that is a trait of the Chikumeisha Kinko. So the player's embouchure moves somewhat in between. Jin Nyoko's Kinko players do not have the same overtone core sound of Chikumeisha players.

In the Myoan pieces I learned from Nancy ( I chose to learn the basics to get a solid grasp from the very beginning - Kyorei, Choshi, Hi Fu Mi Cho and Hachigaeshi), I sense that the pure tone is more important. The pure tone meaning the fundamental note without the obvious Yamaguchi overtones or the constantly shifting Dokyoku embouchure. A wider, more relaxed embouchure produces a clearer fundamental. Once the lips bear down (as they do for Chikumeisha) they produce a higher velocity airstream, which produces the overtones. According to
Nancy, the embouchure stays more open and farther away from the blowing edge. She pointed this out as my lips were rather tight and close for the Kinko overtone sound I was using.   As the lessons progressed, she pulled out a photo of her first teacher's embouchure. That of Fukumoto Kyoan. It was as she described, wider, more relaxed and farther from the blowing edge. Nancy's sound was different from that of Kinya, Ralph and Keisuki Zenyoji (my Jin Nyodo teacher). Of course her flute was different, but her blowing style was consistent and her tone was clearly her own. She played different flutes through out our lessons for demonstration. Each time, she had her own sound. Which is something Kinya and Ralph has also.  It takes many years to have this skill...(something I'm working on ;).

Again, this is just my impression of the differences in embouchures required for these schools. There are so many ways to play the flute. What blurs these distinctions are the gifted individual players of each school. Any great player will most likely say they use all the ranges of embouchure shapes regardless of the style of music they play.

True artists, or, seekers of truth will grow on their own unique path whether they like it or not. That's how all healthy art lives, traditional or not. Just my two cents!"

Sunday, October 16, 2011

1,600 year old Embouchure

Cave #46, a painting of a Buddhist Angel playing a shakuhachi-like instrument from the 4-5th century.  From a set of 236 Buddhist rock-cut caves located near Kizil Township (克孜尔乡) in Baicheng County, Xinjiang, China. The site is located on the northern bank of the Muzat River 75 kilometres (by road) northwest of Kucha. This area was a commercial hub of the The Silk Road. 
The caves are said to be the earliest major Buddhist cave complex in China, with development occurring between the 3rd and 8th centuries. Although the site has been both damaged and looted, at least 1000 square metres of wall paintings remain.

From the same area and period, a reliquary with an angel playing a shakuhachi-like flute, and a four string biwa still played in Japan today.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Ears through the Eyes/Eyes through the Ears

It is true that the eyes dominate the ears in our time. --Karlheinz Stockhausen

A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears. --Gertrude Stein

What should a musician do?

The world is never quiet, even its silence eternally resounds with the same notes, in vibrations which escape our ears. As for those that we perceive, they carry sounds to us, occasionally a chord, never a melody. --Albert Camus

Play your story...

Thursday, October 6, 2011