Shakuhachi: Fighting Flute, Meditation Tool, Musical Instrument

Last week, I went to a lunch talk in a series running at the university where I work on the subject of “Globalization and the Artist.” This particular talk was by James Schlefer, one of the few non-Japanese people to be recognized as a Grand Master player of the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute. He played two pieces and talked about the history of the instrument and how it has changed over time. (The title of his talk, after all, was “The Evolving Shakuhachi.”)

Like many cultural items in Japan, the shakuhachi originally came from China, in the form of the xiao. The xiao, though, traditionally has six finger holes, whereas the shakuhachi has only five. When asked when and why the sixth hole disappeared, Schlefer said that there is about one hundred years (or more, I forget) of lost history between the arrival of the flute and its first real appearance in Japanese writings.

The shakuhachi was originally predominantly used in Japan as a Buddhist meditation tool. Schlefer described the practice as one that encourages the player to concentrate on breathing, individual notes, and the silence between the notes and phrases. The Buddhist monks who used the shakuhachi the most were also itinerant monks, and many of them were ronin, or samurai who had lost their masters, but were still required to keep up their status as members of the samurai class. Becoming a monk was allowed, but they might still need to defend themselves, and for this, the shakuhachi was handy. The end of the flute is the root end of the piece of bamboo the flute is made from. Musically speaking, this is because the hollow inside the flute needs to taper toward the end, which bamboo naturally does at the root. But practically speaking, the type of bamboo used to make the flute is quite thick, and if you leave the root end unshaved, you can get a nice club. A manly flute, it was.

Eventually, though, the Meiji emperor instituted a big crackdown on Buddhist practices and the playing of the shakuhachi was banned until the monks managed to convince the government that they were playing music for the entertainment of their patrons, not meditating. This marked a huge change, with the shakuhachi shifting from strictly a meditation tool to a musical instrument, used in ensembles with the shamisen and koto. Schlefer identifies himself with this mindset, because he sees the shakuhachi definitely as a musical instrument, but appreciates the older, set pieces passed down through the monasteries.

The traditional music for the shakuhachi, once it started being written down, rather than passed on through memorization and rote repetition (it was meditation practice, after all), was very precise, and remains so today. The musical score he showed us looks almost like sentences of description of what should happen when. It tells the player finger positions, breath styles, how many notes should be played per breath, everything. Because it came out of breathing meditation, all modulations are done with the fingers and never with the lips or tongue, as that would interfere with a smooth exhalation. The only thing that the music notation doesn’t indicate is the length of time each individual note and pause should be, because that will vary from player to player, depending on their lung capacity and rate of breathing. As Schlefer put it, some of the older master players who smoke a pack a day are going to have very short phrases and pauses because their lung capacity is rather, um, limited. He also noted that when he plays for meditation groups, his playing is much different than when he plays for a musical audience, because his approach to the piece is so much more focused on breathing and longer periods of silence.

For the more recent stage in the evolution of the shakuhachi, it seems that the instrument is falling out of popularity in Japan. Many of Schlefer’s friends who teach in Japan say that most of their students are retired salarymen, who, at 60, are not exactly in the prime of their musical learning years anymore. Outside of Japan, though, the shakuhachi is booming. More and more English-language websites about the shakuhachi are showing up every day, people are emailing Schlefer asking about how to teach themselves techniques, and of course, people have begun to write modern shakuhachi music and improvise with it in entirely new musical genres. Schlefer isn’t entirely sure he always approves, as he thinks a lot of the modern shakuhachi music being written is less than superb, but he acknowledges that many would argue this is keeping the instrument alive, and even in Japan, the music industry has started touting more pop versions and artists in an effort to increase modern appeal. (And he does compose his own music, too.)

It doesn’t seem like globalization is going to be all bad for the shakuhachi, though. Western musicians now have the opportunity to learn the instrument, and for all the bad New Age recordings that come out of it, there will also be many more potential students who will be interested in preserving the history and traditional forms of the shakuhachi as well. Like Schlefer himself, for example, who is doing his part to bring that history to the rest of us.

For a more in-depth look at his thoughts on playing the shakuhachi as a Westerner, read this interview.

-posted by Dana

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One Response to Shakuhachi: Fighting Flute, Meditation Tool, Musical Instrument

  1. […] how to tie music with meditation? The Shakuhachi flute. (Which ironically, has a history of being used as a weapon! The word Shakuhachi is also slang in Japan for fellatio.) Last week, I bought an entry level, root […]

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