The Asian Connection

Who could have imagined that the seemingly simple bamboo flute of Japan could become so attractive to American performers and composers? Actually, the instrument is quite demanding, requiring a split air column and an intense focus to capture both the nuances of the ornamentation and the shakuhachi‘s inner essence originally embodied by Japanese “priests of nothingness.”

Ralph Samuelson wanted to place the Japanese shakuhachi in context, so he went to Japan to explore not only the music, but a “way of life, a focus, a humanity, and a powerful simplicity of lifestyle.” That’s what he found in his studies with Zen priest Kyozan Tomimori. Samuelson, currently a performer, teacher and the director of the Asian Cultural Council, reminds me that the instrument – which he plays virtuosically – is intended for spiritual practice and loss of ego. He laments that many people study shakuhachi for the “wrong reason,” wanting to promote themselves.

Some American composers look to Japan for new ideas and focus on microtonal pitch continuity, tone color, and a free rhythmic sense outside meter. Samuelson, who is the director of the Asian Cultural Council agrees it is possible to look beyond the alluring patterns of ornamentation to integrate spiritual and aesthetic concerns without trivial exoticism. Some composers who have studied the instrument seriously include Elizabeth Brown, who wrote “Migration” for shakuhachi and string trio, and Tania Cronin, who composed “Fixed Stars” for shakuhachi, double bass, harp and piano. Ned Rothenberg, who is known for his sax and clarinet playing in a new jazz/experimental music context, also plays shakuhachi and has written pieces for solo shakuhachi as well as mixing them with other reeds.

Brown, a composer and freelance chamber musician who has played the Western flute with Orpheus, Speculum Musicae, and Philharmonia Virtuosi, describes her compositions as “quiet, intimate and personal.” Her involvement with the shakuhachi stems back to when she was touring Japan in the mid-80′s with a Western chamber group. After hearing the shakuhachi in a temple in Tokyo, she “wanted to make that sound.” To her surprise, studying the shakuhacki influenced everything. “Things that made it easy to learn Western music, made it difficult to learn shakuhachi. I had to unlearn things and not rely on my perfect pitch.” Brown is also influenced by birdsong, theremin, and the Vietnamese monochord (dan bau), and she speaks of the profound impact of the Japanese flute. “It broadened my sense of what was possible in terms of timbre, pitch, and everything.”

Richard Teitelbaum has been involved with Japanese traditional music for shakuhachi, gagaku, shomyo and Noh. He is also interested in mixing instruments and cultures to create new works and his World Band, a collective improvisational music-making group dates back to 1970 at Wesleyan University. Although he is primarily known for his live electronic and interactive computer music compositions, Teitelbaum often draws on traditional Japanese instruments as in his 1998 work, “Reibo Universe” for shakuhachi, computer, and visual projections.

Some serious American shakuhachi players have moved to other countries. John Neptune lives in Japan where he combines modern jazz improvisation with traditional aspects of Japanese music. Riley Lee—now living in Sydney, Australia—was the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of grand master. He plays both traditional and new works, some stretching out to pair the shakuhachi with the didgeridoo. Lee, who is widely recorded, also commissions composers to write new pieces for shakuhachi.

Whether coming from a classical Western, jazz, world, or electronic background, the traditional Japanese bamboo flute remains a source of inspiration to many American composers and performers. I will always remember the pivotal moment I heard an early Nonesuch recording of the shakuhachi and switched schools so I could study ethnomusicology and Asian flutes, followed by an extended trip to Asia. Along with those mentioned here (and many who are not mentioned), I feel the power of the shakuhachi to open and cleanse the ears and soul.

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