Following the Flute to Kyoto

Washington Post Staff Writer Patterson Clark had a passion for the Zen instrument, so he sought its master in Japan.
Sunday, August 4, 2002; Page E01; Streaming Video

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Willits, California

With tweezers, Monty Levenson strategically places a tiny scrap of wet paper inside the bore of one of his shakuhachi. The soggy bit of newsprint, half the size of a sesame seed, will have a significant impact on the sound of the flute at loud volume, says Levenson. Sure enough, when he plays it, the low note jumps an octave--not what you want to happen when blowing hard.

In his solar-powered workshop on an arid mountaintop in Mendocino County, Levenson machines the insides of his flutes to within a hundredth of a millimeter of his specifications. Using a laser-guided lathe, he creates a mandrel that he inserts into the flute's bamboo shell before pouring epoxy resin around it to form a cast bore. The dimensions of the bores are derived from measurements he's made from some of the world's best-souding shakuhachi.

"Traditionally, makers would apply a grout-like material made of stone dust and lacquer to the inside of the flute, and then would painstakingly remove the excess until they had the right dimensions inside," he explains. "The process could take months."

Levenson's innovative techniques allow him to accelerate the first stage of the process, but the fine tuning and compensation for each bamboo stalk's idiosynchracies could require dozens of hours more. The initial time savings allows Levenson to sell a high-performance instrument for much less than a traditional Japanese flute would cost.

Some players, however, balk at the idea of playing a flute lined with plastic, preferring instead a traditional urushi lacquer coating for the inside walls of their shakuhachi.

But many aren't bothered by Levenson's use of polymer resin. "What I care about is the sound," says shakuhachi master Barry Nyosui Weiss, "and the one that I play [made by Levenson] sounds great."

- Patterson Clark


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