John Cage and the Shakuhachi

CageAs a fan of John Cage’s music, I found it very interesting to hear Brian Tairaku Ritchies recording of his piece Ryoanji. I feel that the shakuhachi is ideal for this work.

I went in search of links between Cage and the shakuhachi and have so far found two mentions of the instrument. The first was in a letter written around 1948 to his friend Peter Yates, where he mentions the instrument. The backstory to this is that Kitaro Nyoko Tamada, a friend of Henry Cowell, ran a fruit stand in the area of Los Angeles where Cowell lived. When Cowell found out that Tamada played the instrument, he decided to take it up and ended up comparing The Universal Flute (recorded here by Ralph Samuelson). Cowell organized a concert by some local Japanese-American performers, and Cage later organized a concert for Tamada at Cowell’s home on April 13, 1035.

For many reasons, I would prefer to offer again this year the Sonatas and Interludes, and without other music on the program. In the first place I find “programs” no longer useful, because they stand in the way of the proper use of music which is to quiet and concentrate the mind, and not to giddify it with entertainment, no matter how intellectual. In relation to the shakuhachi music, which is so marvelous, there must be no other music. It is against proper being, unnatural. The same is true of these pieces of mine, and I say it in no spirit of self-praise, but simply in simple thought about what music is and does. I am not interested in success but simply in music. I am fairly certain however that there are a number of people in Los Angeles who have not heard the Sonatas, but heard of them, who would like to hear them. I intend to resist recording these pieces and yet I want to offer them to be heard and used. Having heard them once is a very good beginning for hearing them again. I myself have heard them countless times, and I find them more and more useful, rather than less and less so.

Cage also mentions the shakuhachi in For the Birds (page 200), which is a book of interviews with Daniel Charles. In it he says the following. While it’s not clear that the music he describes is indeed shakuhachi music, it certainly sounds like it:

Just a few weeks ago, I had a very odd experience in a Japanese restaurant in New York. In this restaurant, there was a tape recorder playing Japanese music. Usually, rhythm is stressed, and I don’t particularly like it. I prefer Korean music. In terms of Japanese music, I prefer shakuhachi music, the flute suits me better than the koto. We were conversing while the music was playing. Little by little, during the gaps in our conversation, I realized that the silence is included in the music was extremely long, and that the sounds that occurred were very different from each other. I was surprised by my discovery, because the extent of the tape was absolutely unusual, it was very long. And I had never run across that in traditional Japanese music. This piece wasn’t destined uniquely for Japanese listeners, but for the entire universe, exactly in the manner of the music that [Christian] Wolff writes and plays. In fact, it wasn’t very much different from a work by Wolff. There were sounds, which floated in an immense space, a space of time — and doubtless also in space in general — coming from all parts of space at once, so it seemed to me. Wolff’s pieces certainly convey that explicitly. But here there was only one tape recorder. Everything was coming from it. And it was very, very beautiful. I was unable to recognize any tempo, any periodicity at all. All I was able to identify was the arrival of a few sounds from time to time. I was transported to natural experiences, to my daily life, when I am not listening to music, when sounds simply happen. There is nothing more delicious!

In Silence (page 162), Cage says:

And it seems to me I could listen forever to Japanese shakuhachi music or the Navajo Yeibitchai or I could stand near Richard Lippold’s “Full Moon” any length of time.

In M: Writings ’67-’72 (page 144), Cage says:

And I was attracted by the
natural noises of
breathing in Japanese Shakuhachi
playing. However, instead
of studying with
an oriental master, I chose to study
with Arnold

Each Sound Is Really Itself

More so than in western music, the shakuhachi is an instrument where the sound of each note is important. Part of this comes from the fact that, at least in honkyoku, it is a solo instrument, and the only musical sound you hear is these notes. But this is also the case because of the philosophy of playing the shakuhachi. When approached as a tool for meditation, as well as music, then each note needs to be played as truly as possible. I don’t think this means that each note needs to be perfect, because imperfection is part of the music, but that each note needs to be played as if it is the only note to be played at that time.

I was recently reading For the Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles, and Charles was discussing a performance of Cage’s Song Books. Cage said, “They gave a very beautiful performance of it I think.”

Charles asked, “In what sense was it a beautiful performance?”

Cage replied: “In that they performed with great care to make sure that each sound was really itself.”

The Single Tone

As I have been exploring ro-buki, or blowing ro, I have been very attentive to the timbre, duration, and decay of the notes I play. I have come to appreciate how blowing that single tone can be a meditative act, though, for me, those tones are not very satisfying. (But, to paraphrase a Zen commonplace, “when you’re blowing, just blow.”)

I came across an interesting article entitled The Shakuhachi: Aesthetics of a Single Tone. Written by Christopher Blasdel, and published in the Asahi-Shimbun in Japan in 1984, this article discusses the use of the shakuhachi, and the focus on the “single tone,” in meditation.

The author looks at the “purity of sound within the Zen-related arts,” such as the tea ceremony, and even the Japanese garden, then the presence of the shakuhachi in the poetry of Ikkyū. He also says that “For a single tone to enlighten, it must be a microcosmic existence unto itself; ‘the only song in the universe.'”

This is similar to the idea of shikantaza Zen, where the act of sitting zazen should be the only thing to do in the entire universe, and that act is complete unto itself.

He closes by saying, “If we learn to search out the profundity that even one tone can hold, it means we have found within ourself a richness that is reflected in the tone.”

Frustration and Just Blowing

I came across this today:

Part of the discipline of mastering the Zen flute is learning to deal with the frustrations inherent in learning to play it. That is why much of its study is dedicated to “forging the mind-body” – developing the intuitive, spiritual side of the performer as much as the musicianship itself. Playing the shakuhachi in this context is called suizen, or “blowing Zen”. To blow Zen, one requires great breath control; yet, after years of training and practice, the shakuhachi player strives not to try to control the breath at all. Instead the breath is observed. The player “watches” the breath with a concentration that consumes both the observer and that which is being observed – the player “becomes” the breathing.

This mirrors my experience. There is a lot of frustration in getting the embouchure right and getting consistent sounds from the instrument. But if one approaches the shakuhachi as one might approach shikantaza (“just sitting”) meditation, then that frustration becomes the seed of discovering the instrument, and the relationship between player and instrument. Just blowing; that’s all we need to do. The rest will come.

My Shakuhachis

The shakuhachi seems to be an instrument that inspires acquisitiveness. From what I’ve seen among other players, they tend to have multiple instruments. In some cases, this is more or less necessary; there are pieces that are supposed to be played on instruments of different lengths.

A different length shakuhachi has different tones; not exactly like western keys, but since shakuhachi music is scored using a sort of tablature, and you play the same fingerings for a piece on a flute of any length, this means that the same piece of music on a different length flute is effectively in a different key.

So far, I have purchased four shakuhachis.

My flutes

From bottom to top:

  1. This is the first flute I bought, a 1.8 jiari by Jem Klein. It’s a bit heavier than I would like, but I very much like the feel and the sound of this instrument.
  2. This is Jon Kypros’s Bell shakuhachi. It’s a 1.8 copy of a jinashi flute, and I very much like it. It’s very inexpensive, and would be the ideal flute for a beginner. If it had existed when I started playing, I certainly would have gotten this first.
  3. This 1.8 jiari is the second flute I bought; it’s a student model by Motny Levenson. I bought it used on eBay; I wasn’t looking for a second flute, but I got this at a nice price so I couldn’t turn it down. It’s lighter than the Jem Klein, and narrower, and I haven’t really gotten comfortable with it.
  4. Finally, this is a 2.2 jinashi by Jose Vargas. I wanted a longer flute, but it’s a bit long for me to play with my limited skills. The right-hand position is a bit hard for me to get used to. (I should probably have gotten a 2.0 to start with longer flutes.)

Right now, the two flutes I play are the Jem Klein and the Bell. I find that I can play well enough with both of them. The narrower bore of the Monty Levenson is a bit problematic for me right now, and, as I said above, the length and finger position of the Jose Vargas is not within my current skills.

Note that since I don’t really play the Monty Levenson shakuhachi, I’d be willing to sell it to anyone in the UK (where I live) for a reasonable price. If anyone is interested, get in touch.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Perhaps the most difficult thing to discover when I started playing the shakuhachi was finding where the sweet spot was; that spot where the space between my lips, through which I blow air, was right in line with the utaguchi. Finding this sweet spot – I don’t know if there’s a Japanese word for this term, but it is used frequently – is the key to being able to make sounds consistently.

Unlike with other instruments I have played – guitar, piano, and viola da gamba, where there is no such position that needs to be found – the relationship between my lips and my instrument is organic and changes daily, even from moment to moment, making it difficult to maintain this consistency. It changes according to the way I breathe, and according to the atmosphere: is the air humid or dry, affecting the lips, or is there pollen, causing my lips to swell a bit because of my allergies?

Blowing leftAnother element I discovered fairly early on is the fact that I don’t blow from the center of my mouth. I had known from seeing myself in a mirror once, years ago, that when I whistle, the space in my lips is a bit to the left of center. If you’re new to the instrument, and are trying to find that sweet spot, whistle in front of a mirror; this may help you.

At first, I assumed that this was a mistake, but after watching videos of a number of performers, I have seen that it is not at all uncommon to blow from one side of the mouth. It’s quite visible in this still from a video of Fukuda Teruhisa, to the left. Not only does he blow a bit left of center, but when he plays meri notes, he tilts his head even further in that direction.

But finding and maintaining this sweet spot is the key to making consistent sounds, and the reinforcement of the lip muscles is essential to achieve this. (And ro-buki helps strengthen those muscles.) So this is a long process, but awareness of how to find the sweet spot and how it varies over time is essential.

Book Notes: Blowing Zen by Ray Brooks

Blowing zenRay Brooks was a gaijin teaching English in Tokyo who decided to check out Zen meditation in a temple one day, when he heard the sound of someone playing the shakuhachi. He went toward that sound and chatted with the player, who explained a bit about the instrument. This began his journey learning the instrument, and becoming a shihan, or master of the instrument.

This memoir tells the story of that early period when he started playing a cheap, plastic flute, then got lessons from a first teacher before a chance meeting with Katsuya Yokoyama, who agreed to teach him. He then studied and performed with Nakamura Akikazu, and has made several recordings since.

The most interesting part of the book is where Brooks tells about being a shakuhachi busker, a sort of modern komosu, walking up mountains to play for tourists, performing in parks in cherry blossom season, and even doing impromptu performances for yakuza.

The book is a short read, but quite enjoyable; it is motivational for those wanting to learn the instrument, but it doesn’t discuss any technical aspects of the shakuhachi or how it’s played. But it tells the story of a man who was determined to master this instrument after he was smitten by its sound one day in a temple garden.

Buy from,

Apple Music Playlist of Long Shakuhachi Songs

I compiled this playlist of shakuhachi pieces on Apple Music that are more than ten minutes long. I chose this arbitrary length because I like longer tracks. At this time, it contains about 18 hours of music, but I’ll add more as I come across new recordings.

Here’s another limited to pieces 15 minutes or longer. This is currently about five hours long.

If you subscribe to Apple Music, you can sign in here and play them on this page. You can also add them to your Apple Music library. If not, you can listen to brief excerpts of each piece.

Fukuda Teruhisa plays Shika-no-Tone

You can find lots of videos of shakuhachi players on YouTube, but probably the one that has the best quality is this video of Fukuda Teruhisa playing Shika-no-Tone. It’s pro shot, with multiple cameras, in black and white, and it has lots of close ups so you can see his fingers and his mouth as he plays. I wish there were more videos of this quality to see how the great shakuhachi players perform.