The shakuhachi is a traditional Japanese flute made from a single piece of bamboo 54.5cm long.The name ‘shakuhachi’ refers to its length: one shaku (a measurement corresponding to a foot long), and one hachi (corresponding to 1.2 inches). The shakuhachi is end-blown, has no mouth-piece and has a sharp cutting edge called tsuno where the breath strikes, making the air inside the tube resonate. The instrument looks very natural but is in fact highly crafted - the inside of the tube or bore is carved to a conical shape that is narrower near the bell and painted with many layers of lacquer. There are four finger holes on the front and a thumb-hole on the back. When all of the holes are covered the shakuhachi makes the fundamental pitch D4 (the D next to middle C). There is a larger shakuhachi that is 70cm long and deeper in pitch but it is unusual and the majority of musicians play instruments that are tuned to a concert D.
The standard shakuhachi has a range of two octaves. The five holes produce the pitches of the minor pentatonic scale: D F G A C (Ro Tsu Re Chi and Ri) but much of the music is based on the Japanese In scale which consists of two sets of fourths (D to G and A to D) with a semitone added above the resting note - D Eb G and A Bb D. If the angle of the breath is changed by head movement, a player can produce pitches of up to a third apart on one fingering. Half-holing can also be used to flatten a pitch. This gives a wide variety of expressive tone colours and makes it possible to have several ways of playing one pitch that produce varying timbres and qualities. Consequently, in shakuhachi repertoire one cannot simply state that the character Ri is the pitch C because there are four different types of Ri.
This ancient instrument has been played in Japan for at least twelve hundred years. A similar instrument is thought to have migrated to Japan from China at around the time of the 6th century. There are records that state that the shakuhachi has been played by Buddhist monks as a solo instrument and to accompany religious services in Japan since the 13th century. It was considered to be a meditation aid because the discipline of learning the instrument involves controlling breathing. This kind of breathing was described as suizen or ‘blowing Zen’. Daily practise and meditation on the themes of the solo pieces were thought to be a way of finding enlightenment. Pieces were created as part of an aural tradition and each school of playing sought to preserve its repertoire and pass it on to the next generation.
The Fuke-Shu sect were a school of shakuhachi players who followed the teachings of Zen master Fuke (who allegedly lived from 770-840AD). The Fuke-Shu were particularly known for playing shakuhachi from the 13th century until the late 19th century. Notation based on Japanese music characters is very basic and has only been used for the last two hundred years or so. The music was taught by a master to a student by playing, listening and imitating – there was no written music - until a shakuhachi player called Kurosawa Kinko (1710-1771) created a set of thirty-six pieces based on the Fuke-Shu repertoire called Honkyoku (which means Original Pieces). The notation contains very few references to rhythm or tempo. Ornaments are notated and are very distinctive: meri is a pitch with the same fingering but played a semitone lower, ori is a glissando pitch bend down, suri is a glissando pitch bend up, nayashi is a glissando down and up again, ru is a percussive finger hit on the next uncovered hole, muraiki is a rough breathy sound and koro-koro is a trill that imitates the sound of the crane.
There are three main schools of playing in Japan: Kinko, Tozan and Myoan. During medieval times the players of the Kinko school became known as komuso or ‘priests of nothingness’ because they relinquished worldly goods and devoted their lives to prayer and meditation. They travelled around Japan begging for alms dressed in a traditional priests costume with a wicker basket over their head. The basket was a symbol of detachment from the world and served to hide their identity. Many of the ronin (or disbanded samurai warriors) became shakuhachi players and members of the Fuke-Shu sect during the 17th and 18th centuries. Shakuhachi performers occasionally wear this costume for performances in the present day.
There are three types of music that are played by the shakuhachi: the traditional solo repertoire – honkyoku, chamber music for shakuhachi, koto and shamisen ensemble – sankyoku, and contemporary music for shakuhachi (influenced by Western music of various styles) - shinkyoku.
An example of one of the thirty-six honkyoku pieces is Honshirabe, (which means Fundamental Piece or Original Tuning). Honshirabe literally is often translated into English as ‘Beginner’s Piece’ - but that is not really what it means. The title Honshirabe indicatesthat the simplicity of this pared down music allows for revealing the player’s true state of mind at a particular time of playing. It is usually the first of the honkyoku to be taught and comes from the Kinki region, Japan’s main island of Honshu.
Dr Helen Thomas