The sound of the Shakuhachi
Sorry for the silence on this side
I’m making a joke of course since we shakuhachi players often play with silence as part of the music. I just wanted to share this artwork that my friend Paul Gardner in the UK made for me. Silence is the Ma, the negative space that is conceptually used to define the energy of many classical Asian arts, especially in Japan and China. It is the Ying to the Yang, dark to the light, movement to stillness. Much of Taoist thought is played out in older Shakuhachi Honkyoku music. I saw a great concert where the Ma was heard throughout the evening. Here’s a review of it.
One String, One Breath: new and traditional music for shakuhachi and ichigenkin. Tenri Cultural Institute. New York City June 8, 2015
This was a concert of the rare Japanese one string zither and two shakuhachi flutes. The program was a perfect blend of traditional and new music: Shakuhachi Duets from Isle Royal (composed by Elizabeth Brown, 2005), Hakuseno (Taimu Tokuhiro, 1897), Yakaika (Isshi Yamad, 1963), Juniper (Alexandra Gardner, 2013), Sagari Ha no Kyoku (traditional, c 1800’s). Intermission: Under the rose (Frances White, 2013), Hi Kaeshi Hachi Mi Fu (Richard Teitalbaum, 1974), Moyou (Issui Minegishi, 2012), Aki Meguri Kite (E. Brown, 2015)
These accomplished veteran composers come from dispirit disciplines - from electronics to post modern and beyond. But, they are perfect compliments to the traditional world as they understand very well the instruments they are writing for. And we are fortunate to have them composing for the shakuhachi.
I love traditional Japanese shakuhachi music and even more so when it is performed by seasoned performers. Elizabeth Brown, Ralph Samuelson and Issui Minegishi are spectacular virtuosic musicians, each capable of opening a secret universe with the exhalation of a simple breath, or in Minegishi’s case, a nimble pluck from the wrist. In the hands and breath of these masterful musicians, we are transported to a cultural landscape where the music evokes a sense of stillness. Minegishi captures this perfectly when she gently stated before playing her own composition Moyou, “Please listen to the silence after the notes.” As a student of traditional Japanese shakuhachi and culture, I was reminded that hearing this music in a live performance is an indispensable experience. It is like Laurie Anderson once said, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Tradition is alive and the life blood is best passed on in oral transmission. In the case of Minegishi, her lineage comes directly from her mother and grandfather. She is the fourth generation iemoto of Seikyodo ichigenkin. I can hear her ancestors in her playing. For Elizabeth Brown, it is over 30 years of studying Kinkyo Ryu from Samuelson. Although Brown has her own sound, I can easily hear the influence of her teacher’s. And from Samuelson, the Kinko ryu streams through Goro Yamaguchi, Shudo Yamato and Kodo Araki V. Because we have youtube, I can hear Yamaguchi’s sound in Ralph’s. Traditional arts are passed on through the hands of artist who respect and practice the stylistic elements of their lineage. However, the new and old component mentioned in the concert’s title brings to mind history and evolution. What is the thread from one to the other? Tradition is not a single moment in time. It is constantly evolving and great artists are inherently part of the evolution, their undeniable life experience lived in every passionate note. I even interpreted some of Minegishi’s playing to be very post modern, avante garde and even punk rock in fact. From her own piece Moyou, written for bass ichigenkin, her deft shifts from a meditational and minimal dirge to a thrashing of the string reminded me of Sid Vicious strangling his electric bass. Moyou encompassed a living tradition perfectly. I heard her ancestors, yet felt the world she lived in today. From piece to piece, her voice remained the same, only her story changed.
The last piece was a world premier by Brown for two shakuhachi and ishigenkin/speaker - Aki Meguri Kite/ Autumn comes around again. This piece uses poetry from Voices of Japan, written in response to the 2011 tsunami and and originally published in the Asahi Shinbun. Here is the first poem:
my home place
has become a town
without voices, without humans
it is as distant
as the end of the earth.
- Keiko Hangui, Fukushima, May 2011
A reading alone of this poem evokes a feeling of destitute, but the piece itself had bright gems of hope planted within the six movements. It opened with Samuelson playing a rich dance of shifting tone colors and silence evocative of classical Kinko ryu honkyoku, yet there was an immediacy that made it fresh. Maybe it was the poem, the content allowing us a moment for reflection. But when Minegishi’s first note erupted gently like a fish jumping in a still pond, the piece moved into new music territory. Brown’s entrance also pushed the piece further in to contemporary music and performance by playing from behind the audience. This created an awareness of space that allowed the music to swell. The three moved together beautifully, enveloping the audience with wide vibrations of harmonies and playful rhythms. It was like being in a large body of water, gently pushed by energetic tides. It was exciting. When the second poem came, we were graced with light.
the souls of the dead
sheltering in the moon
descend to the lone pine
autumn comes round again
- Shoichi Hirai, Saitama, October 2011.
New and traditional music. For me, it was Ying and Yang - one does not exist without the other.
June 9, 2015
Enjoy the silence in your day! - Perry