Tuesday, 1 April 2008


Shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute)

Back in my early teens, when my ears were being bombarded with the fast & furious overloaded anthems of the first new wave / punk boom, it was a scratchy old LP of Shakuhachi music from the library in town that offered up an alternative more alternative than all the alternative music I was being sold as alternative ! I ended up buying the LP along with one of Shomyo chanting (click here for a very interesting essay on Shomyo by Hiroshi Nakagawa) when the library had a sale (using them in some early attempts at what I later discovered was called 'tape music'). It wasn’t world music to me, it wasn’t ethnic music – these were terms that didn't register with me at that age & I just thought of it as music. I didn’t see the point in restricting myself to definitions. In a sense I feel that that released me from what seemed to be heavily weighted cultural arguments that would no doubt have sent me running in the other direction at that time. It was that freedom that eventually allowed me to find my own way to look deeper into various traditional forms. I remember being struck not only by the sound of this instrument, as struck as I was by the image on the cover of the player with a round woven basket covering his entire head (the Tengai), but by the spaces & by the way that each piece contained so few notes & yet no more or less than was needed. The sense of space possessed a commanding and intense power that was a revelation to someone who was at that time firmly under the influence of a music industry that had led me to believe that volume equaled power, speed equaled precision.

The shakuhachi tradition has always valued equally not only the notes produced by the player but also the spaces between them and the sound of the environment in which the music was played. It is also one of the most successful at that very difficult balance and despite the band of tie-dyed mysticism junkies attempting to reduce it to nothing more than background music, it is a music that resolutely exists without concern for the transitory fads and fashions of our time.

For those wanting to explore further, releases featuring 'new' or non-traditional music for the instrument are still fairly limited, however the essential starting point has to be: 'in an autumn garden' - Toru Takemitsu (DG). Featuring works for Shakuhachi, Biwa & gagaku orchestra composed between 1966-1973, Toru displays consistant evidence of his unobtrusive, subtle yet deeply inspiring musical language. I could go on & on about these pieces & Takemitsu in general, but i'll save that for another time. All that's to be said about this cd in particular is that it comes very highly recommended & well, just buy it !

In recent months there have been two releases issued on the ‘another timbre’ label featuring the Shakuhachi in both composed and improvised settings:

At03 – Frank Denyer – ‘Music for Shakuhachi – played by Yoshikazu Iwamoto’
At08 – Clive Bell & Bechir Saade (Ney) – ‘An account of my hut’

The Denyer disc is notable for the inclusion of the 45 minute solo composition ‘Unnamed’ which has been something of an elusive landmark in new music for the instrument. Shifting from the barely audible to occasional, somewhat jarring vocal interjections (perhaps destined to unfairly date the work in some circles), this is a composition that stretches the space around the notes to breaking point and leaves one with a distinct sense that Denyer put into this piece only what was essential for him at that time. A master of the instrument, Yoshikazu Iwamoto was also a member of Such, alongisde John Tilbury & Eddie Prevost, whose 1998 double cd on Matchless marked an important step for the Shakuhachi's inclusion in contemporary improvised music.

On the 1991 continuum disc devoted to Denyer’s music, ‘Monkey’s Paw’ (now deleted) , the pieces featuring shakuhachi are strong, but there is much to be gained in devoting a complete cd to this aspect of his output and for that alone another timbre should be applauded.

Kamo no Chomei, the 13th century Japanese poet and buddist monk wrote ‘An account of my hut’ in praise of the isolation and tranquilty he found living in a small hut on Mount Hino as compared to the turbulence of city life. Who knows what he’d have made of an album named after his most famous text & yet recorded in the less than tranquil surroundings of Ealing, London ! (not that one can tell, thanks to the quality and clarity of the recording). Regardless of that the combination of Ney & Shakuhachi is, on paper, not that suprising & with two musicians of this calibre the pairing leads to some nice interplay in these improvised pieces. Bechir is also featured on the earlier ‘Hum’ album, also on another timbre, alongside Rhodri Davies, Matt Davis and Samantha Rebello – well worth checking out. Clive, for those of you who don’t know already, has been playing the shakuhachi (along with the Khene and other Asian wind instruments) for many years and also writes for The Wire. I have to say though that this isn’t an easy disc by any means and will need several more plays to finally reveal all of its intent (nothing wrong with that !). There was something strangely familiar about it on first hearing and due to the almost scientifically precise close-micing (I assume) I found that listening at lower volumes allowed the 'music' to emerge from within the sound of the techniques employed (which are, of course, interesting in thier own right). This is one of only a handful of releases that places the shakuhachi, & the Ney for that matter, firmly within the current flow of improvised music. It makes one eager to hear more.

So, two more interesting releases from this new-ish label, however I’d like to finish this post with some other personal recommendations for those who are unfamiliar with the shakuhachi:

Takemitsu‘In an autumn garden’ (DG) – essential cd of Toru’s music for Shakuhachi & Biwa
Yoshikazu Iwamoto – ‘The spirit of wind’ (Buda)
Yoshikazu Iwamoto – ‘The spirit of silence (Buda)
Such (Yoshikazu Iwamoto, John Tilbury & Eddie Prevost) - 'The issue at hand' (Matchless)
‘Japanese masterpieces for the Shakuhachi’ (Lyrichord)
Various – ‘Music of the shakuhachi’ (JVC/Victor)
Kohachiro Miyata – ‘Shakuhachi – the Japanese flute’ (Nonesuch)
Goro Yamaguchi & Judo Notomi – ‘Le shakuhachi’ (Auvidis)
Goro Yamaguchi – ‘Great masters of the shakuhachi flute’ (Auvidis)
Katsuya Yokoyama – ‘Zen – classical shakuhachi masterworks’ (Wergo)

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