This review on the new Hankyō recording by Araki Kodō VI, also known as Hanz Araki, was meant to be short and sweet, but this work is beyond just a recording of new music. There is history, culture, identity and (for me especially) flute making. After repeated listenings, first from my laptop then to headphones, the layers of form peeled away to reveal the essence of Hankyo. It is a personal journal, each track an entry to the ancestors.
This release contains four pieces in the honkyoku (original music) genre of solo shakuhachi music – the largest body of solo flute music in the world created anonymously by zen monks. However, the first piece on the recording, Tsuki no Kyoku (Song of the Moon), is one of those rare pieces whom the composer is known and it happens to be Hanz’s great great grandfather Araki Kodō II (Araki Chikuo) who was head of the Kinko-Ryu Kodo-Kai, an important iemoto, or school, in the historical development of shakuhachi music. This makes Hanz the sixth generation to carry on the family’s musical tradition and legacy. With Hankyō, none of this matters. Anyone can simply take a deep breath, press play, close their eyes and become part of the journey through the natural world. Nearly all honkyoku pieces are based on nature with cranes, wind, valleys, mountains, waterfalls and more in the titles. With Tsuki no Kyoku, I can imagine a sultry evening with the moon slowly rising. The sound of the flute gently guides us through the shifting colors of the sky. Then with the introduction of a slightly, more forceful blowing technique called komi buki (big breath), a more vibratory note energizes the flow of music and we get the sparkle of light beaming from the moon as it emerges from the evening mist. Finally, we feel the awe of the full moon and get a sense of what moon viewing must’ve been like back in the day. Shakuhachi students and practiced musicians alike can appreciate the fluid ease in Hanz’s handling of the subtle and elegant playing techniques associated with Kinko-Ryu. One of the most basic concepts revolve around what are called the Meri and Kari notes – flats and sharps, or dark and light from the Myoan-Ryu whose home is called Myoanji – Temple of Dark and Light. In shakuhachi music of the past, especially in honkyoku, the quality of a note often overrides the Western concern for absolute pitch. A meri note is somewhat muted due to a closer embouchure, finger shading and quarter or half-holing techniques. It is generally softer in volume, but in experienced hands such as Hanz’s are no less powerful compared to the Kari notes. Each are incomparable metaphors in nature and can not be measured digitally through the hertz or cents systems. And if you try, you’re missing the essence of the shakuhachi’s language. How the handling of this interplay between meri and kari is the high art of traditional shakuhachi playing, especially in Kinko-Ryu. One of my teachers once describes a technique of blowing a note where it swirls then gradually fades. I had trouble grasping the nuances then he asked, “Have you ever looked at incense burning? It’s like that.”. On Hankyō, Hanz plays with authority and ownership. Having inherited this music from the previous five generations, one can say it’s in his DNA, or his life spirit. Whatever it is, it is exactly what it is. The inherent tension in Honkyoku music is ubiquitous throughout the recordings but Hanz’s playing has an undercurrent that invites the listener to eavesdrop on their conversations. I catch myself wondering what Araki Chikuo is whispering to Hanz, through the flute he made over a century ago.
The second piece Akita Sugagaki has a bit of folk quality to it. Akita is a prefecture in Northern Japan and can be translated as Autumn Field. And Sugagki can simply refer to shakuhachi pieces not related to Fuke, the mythical monk who brought the shakuhachi to Japan from China in the 7th Century. This piece also showcases many of the familiar Kinko phrases and stylistic elements that produce the classic introspective quality of Kinko-Ryu music, but here Hanz offers us a bit of rhythm and a hint of playfulness. It has a nice flow following Tsuki no Kyoku. Going by the title for context, I can feel the morning sun rising on an expansive field. I can see a village of Japanese farmers harvesting the rice together, heartened that they are not laboring alone. According to the album liner notes, Hanz performed this piece as a duet with his father in a final concert before leaving Japan.
Dōkyō (Copper Mirror), the third piece on the CD was composed by his father Araki Kodō V. Dōkyō travels into new territory with sprinklings of Twentieth Century classical music. I even detected a hint of Leonard Berstien’s musical theater. The way the Western pitches intertwine with the Kinko phrases and tone color feel quite natural and seamless. In less capable hands the piece might come off as an East meets West experiment, but here I’m reminded of the success stories such as the French Impressionists’ use of Japanese wrapping paper patterns in their paintings, Martha Graham’s modern dance technique based on “Asian dances” or the American Abstract Expressionists’ use of the positive/negative space found in traditional Asian scroll paintings. I wonder if Araki Kodo V was interested in pointing out how Honkyoku was already playing outside of the constraints of fixed time signatures and a 12 tone scale centuries ago? Or, being that Hanz’s parents were an interacial couple, the piece may simply be about a blending of cultures. In this case, it’s beyond experiment. The conversation between father and son is fascinating.
The last piece Kumoi Jishi (Song of the Clouds) refers to the mythical lion or dog-like creatures Jishi dancing in the sky. You’ve seen them in front of buildings and homes in Asia, usually a pair guarding the gates. The piece is often played at a faster tempo and due to it’s folkier, playful melody is often the “go to” piece performed in celebratory events such as weddings. Interestingly enough, while many players perform this piece with overt exuberance, Hanz’s recording has his fingers gently on the reins. His version is a duet in which he plays both parts and retains a bit of the introspection felt in the other pieces. It’s almost like hearing Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode as a ballad. I found this interpretation refreshing and deeply moving. Very little in solo shakuhachi music is ever clearly defined. The music is always teetering on a tightrope balanced between dark and light as mentioned before. In Kumoi Jishi, Hanz does not cater to the inherent joy the piece asks for, but instead invites the listener to feel that joy is within reach. From the liner notes, “This is the first piece my father taught me and I love it to this day. For those who know traditional Japanese culture (and Chinese), love is often expressed indirectly, like in a mother’s cooking or a father’s teachings. Love between father and son is no less complicated in Japan.
Now for the instrument nerds. As a shakuhachi maker, I am always listening to the flute before I hear the player. I can tell right away if a flute is a JINASHI natural bore shakuhachi, or a JIARI contemporary tuned bore instrument. I had the opportunity to meet Hanz at a zoom workshop recently organized by my Kinko-Ryu teacher Ralph Samuelson. We learned the Araki Kodo version of the classic honkyoku Hi Fu Mi Hachigaeshi. During the lesson, I was fixated on the sound of Hanz’s flute. Before the lesson started, Hanz read some inscriptions on the flute including the date of completion – 1908. This was near the beginning of the golden age of Kinko-Ryu instruments, considered by some to be the finest examples of well-made classical shakuhachi. This period represents a time before commercialization and commodification of the instrument, when the best flutes were crafted by the best teachers and only their students were able to obtain fine instruments. A shakuhachi shop with an array of flutes to choose from most likely did not exist in 1908. Much of the lesson was spent in awe of the fact that the Hanz was playing a flute his great great grandfather made by hand. So when the stars are aligned, when we are offered a glimpse into the golden age of the shakuhachi instrument played by a fine player of its lineage, we have to take notice. It is a rare teaching moment. It is an opportunity to recognize the good things to hang onto when change comes too quickly. After the workshop I got my nerves up to ask Hanz more about his great great grandfather’s flute. He kindly sent measurements and pictures of the bore, which was an incredibly generous gesture. I saw that his flute was JIMORI, a transition instrument between JINASHI and JIARI. Most of the bore had Ji for tuning and some parts were left natural. It had a rich, organic bamboo texture in it’s tonal quality yet offered a clean sublime musical tone. It’s not always easy to pinpoint exactly what makes an instrument objectively good as the player is half the equation. This is part of the magic of Hankyō, it captures a rare moment where we are invited to participate on a journey through an unbroken lineage of traditional craft, spirituality, art and finally music. Come breath with Hanz and five generations of his ancestors. Get this CD, press play and close your eyes.