After a 30 year romance with the shakuhachi, this is my first release exclusively devoted to compositions for the instrument. Why so long? When I say ‘romance’, I mean the word in its full literary compass, love and hate, ardor and betrayal. The root attraction has always been its depths of sound, capable of tonal colorings unsurpassed in the flute world, which can create musical expressions of great weight. The darker side? It is maddeningly difficult; compared to my beloved saxophone, it is a most fickle partner. On good days the breath and the sound are one, on bad ones, one flounders about searching for the illusive center, blowing no Zen, just hot air.
As a musical and cultural outsider, this duality is also a reflection of my relationship with Japan itself. This recording represents my embrace of that outsider status and the perspective it affords. I have had the opportunity to study with 2 of the preeminent masters of the instrument, the late ‘living national treasure’ Yamaguchi Goro and an artist whose power and dynamism has made him a true legend, Yokoyama Katsuya. I believe, because of cultural factors, there are no native Japanese who have been able to do this. This is because the traditional music world there is rigidly divided into schools, each of which demands allegiance. Different schools focus more or less on particular aspects of the instrument. Musical approaches with various relationships to phrasing, vibrato, pitch and tone color, become the guarded property of the various factions. The positive result is a wealth of varied style but the negative is a system of rules, which can sometimes be quite arbitrary.
My writing for shakuhachi seeks to lead from the instrument’s strengths, those special aspects, which are owned by no particular school. At the same time, I have no interest in ‘westernizing’ the instrument. I am a multi-instrumentalist and if I want the fleet angular, capabilities of a flute or a clarinet, I will play those instruments, not an ungainly end-blown bamboo flute with just 5 holes. The result is that listeners who are only a bit familiar with shakuhachi will think that this music sounds very Japanese, quite ‘traditional’. It draws largely on the aesthetic of honkyoku, the zen-based solo music that Yokoyama-sensei’s teacher, Watazumido, described as a kind of breathing meditation, rather that music. But musical it is, and the 2 solo pieces on this cd and Cloud Hands, the shakuhachi duo, arise from this domain. However, all the phrases are of my own invention and do not follow the rules of any particular school. For instance, a central element in honkyoku is the nayashi, a note which is started flat and bent up to pitch. In Yokoyma’s school, this bent interval is always a whole step, followers of Yamaguchi and other Kinko school teachers play a half step. Cloud Hands uses as one of its central themes side-by-side nayashi of a half and whole step. Thus, listeners who are well acquainted with Japanese traditional music will hear that these compositions constantly try to stretch traditional constrictions on the instrument.
Naki Tokoro Nite (Where there is neither).. uses the traditional pairing of shakuhachi and jiuta shamisen, central instruments in the sankyoku tradition of Japanese classical music. Again, the music is in some ways traditional, and I am pleased to have my original shakuhachi teacher, Ralph Samuelson performing, as I have always deeply admired his way with this music. Here I have tried to retain sankyoku’s aesthetic profile while combining it with the more complex contrapuntal and rhythmic designs I utilize in my works for western instruments. Most notably, I frankly have long found the endless 2/4 meter of most Japanese traditional music quite tiresome. Japanese poetry, on the other hand, such as haiku and tanka are based on phrases of odd lengths. This piece utilizes the meter of tanka poetry, 5-7-5-7-7, for much of its rhythmic structure. The opening and closing tanka, beautifully sung by Yoko Hiraoka, expresses the frustrations of the poet, Toki Zenmaro, with the pitfalls of the Japanese language:
To live in Japan and say
In the language
of the Japanese people
What’s on my mind
(written 1912 (!))
(Suffice it to say that the composer shares the poets feelings!)
There are other elements, like canonic and contrary motion, in Naki Tokoro Nite and Dan no Tabi (Journey on a Staircase) which are mainstream compositional devices in the west but foreign to traditional Japanese music. So it might be fair to say I am doing some ‘westernizing’ of the compositional approach to shakuhachi but always while trying to maintain its core sonic strengths.