Shakuhachi Master - John Singer
In Search of the Magic Flute
Finding Superior Shakuhachi
By John Singer
A flute becomes magic only by being played so much it becomes a part of the player. Most of the great shakuhachi players favor one particular instrument, which is also the case with Western classical musicians. This one instrument, their very best, is used most often over all others in their possession. Over the years this special instrument becomes a part of them. Thus, the magic evolves from a union of the instrument and its player.
My aim here is to share some of my own experience and knowledge of how to understand and judge instruments with those who are interested in what makes a great shakuhachi. I'll also touch upon the difference between contemporary shakuhachi, and those made in earlier generations, especially from the late 1800's to around 1960. Over the years many shakuhachi players with less than superior instruments have come to me for assistance in their search for a truly superior shakuhachi, and in this regard I've been asked repeatedly to discuss my views on what constitutes a great shakuhachi based on my experiences in the United States and in Japan.
I began playing shakuhachi in 1975, and I've been devoted to the instrument ever since. I've been fortunate to be able to visit Japan once or twice a year for the past 30. And what I do there is study, play, buy and sell shakuhachi, and in the process I've handled literally thousands of instruments. These have been, for the most part, from the Kinko school, since I'm a Kinko player. For me, finding great shakuhachi for other players is a gratifying experience, especially if it's an older instrument. Many older shakuhachi are treasures, and it's a shame so many have been put away, burned or buried. Since shakuhachi become magic only when they're used, I look on my "brokering" activities as a service to my students, other serious players, and the instruments themselves. Fine shakuhachi should be played and appreciated, not left to dry out in someone's cabinet. I deal almost exclusively with high-end shakuhachi - the very best!
During the seven years I lived in Japan, I was able to look closely at many shakuhachi. I've repeatedly played the personal instruments of my teachers Yamaguchi Goro, Matsumura Homei, and Inoue Shigeshi as well as those of many other great masters. I've also had the fortune of playing and examining some of the finest older Kinko shakuhachi, such as those of Kurosawa Kinko, Tsunemasa, Hattori Kanshi, , his son and grandson (Kinko 2 and 3), Hisamatsu Fuyo, Araki Chikuo, Araki Kodo the 3rd, Araki Baigyoku, Miura Kindo, Yamaguchi Shiro, Aoki Reibo I, Notomi Judo, Inoue Shigemi, Momose Hodo, Mizuno Rodo, Iida Sesshu, Orito Nyogetsu, Hayashi Kogetsu, Mutano Shinryu the 1'st, Kondo Soetsu, and many others. Most of my experience has been with Kinko-ryu shakuhachi and makers, but this isn't exclusively so.
There are many who feel that the instrument itself isn't very important, and that we should instead focus on practice and study only. I believe that both are important if we are to make a truly beautiful sound and move in the direction of our teacher's sound, or the particular sound for which we are striving. It has always made sense to me that if I want to strive for the sound quality and style of my teacher, then perhaps I ought to try and get a shakuhachi made by the same maker and of the same quality as his, which is by no means an easy task. This doesn't mean that practice isn't important. Practice is exceedingly important. For without practice, study and dedication, no matter how good the instrument is, the potential of both the player and the flute cannot be realized.
Each instrument is made according to its particular maker's understanding of what shakuhachi is and what one should sound like. If you look at those made by the different great makers, excluding most contemporary shakuhachi, each has its own strong character. Even though each instrument itself is subtly different, a group of instruments made by the same maker possesses a special quality imparted from that maker. Each shakuhachi player and maker has a particular understanding of what shakuhachi is as well as what constitutes a great shakuhachi flute. The depth of this understanding is derived from the degree to which each person has practiced, studied and mastered shakuhachi, and also to the extent of his or her overall experience with the instrument.
I believe that many of the very best shakuhachi were made from the end of the 19th century to about 1960. I feel there's a great difference between those made during that period and those I call "contemporary" shakuhachi. In past generations, great shakuhachi players were also shakuhachi makers. But during recent times this has come not to be true. There is now a division or split between makers and players. These days people make shakuhachi as their business without necessarily being great players, sometimes making up to thirty instruments per month to sell. In earlier times, the great master players made their own and their students' instruments, and put much more time and effort into creating each. The traditional view, which is mine too, is that a shakuhachi can only be as good as the maker's playing abilities.
Today in Japan, the differences in the price of contemporary shakuhachi have more to do with the look of the bamboo and popularity of the particular maker, than the instrument's sound quality. Price is usually determined by the bamboo's coloring and shape, and the position of its different nodes. There is a rigid conception in contemporary Japan of what a shakuhachi should look like, and if an instrument possesses the requisite appearance, then it's usually very expensive. I've heard of contemporary shakuhachi selling for as much as $100,000 primarily because of the instrument's appearance and the fame of the maker, and not at all due to its having a great sound.
When I talk to contemporary Japanese shakuhachi makers about their new products, they often tell me this is what people want, so they make it. I call this the "Gold Rolex Watch Syndrome," where form is valued over substance. Basically, modern shakuhachi makers judge their instruments by the volume each note makes, and the balance between the different notes to make sure that everything plays similarly. Recently, volume, or how loud one can "honk" into the instrument, has become a very important factor in determining its value. Of course, note balance and volume are important. In the past however, additional criteria were used in judging the invisible aspects of shakuhachi.
Great shakuhachi were judged by very different standards than they are today. In earlier generations, one of the most important qualities examined was the instrument's tone color, which could be bright, dark, deep, round, shallow, sweet, severe, etc. Also, clarity of tone or the tone's particular character was important. There are many Japanese words used to describe and judge a shakuhachi's tone: akarusa (brightness), kurasa (darkness), fukami (depth), marumi (roundness), asasa (shallowness), amasa or amami (sweetness), ne-iro (tone color), sunda neiro (clarity), ochitsuita (stable), and shibumi (subdued), for example. It can be said these tonal qualities are subjective, and indeed they are. This, however, does not mean that they are not genuine criteria for judging shakuhachi. It takes a great deal of experience and skill to make these judgments. Further, another point of inquiry is how easy or hard the instrument is to play. Some instruments can be very difficult to play, but have wonderful tone color. One needs to be able to determine whether an instrument is hard to play because it's poorly made or whether it's well-made but nevertheless difficult to play -- kind of like taming a wild horse.
Another very important invisible quality examined when judging shakuhachi is called "chikuin" -- the way the instrument vibrates when you play. You should be able to feel the bamboo vibrating in your mouth, down to your fingertips, past your wrists and arms, and into your whole body. Some shakuhachi have more chikuin than others and it is understood that the quality of the bamboo used plus the amount and type of material making up the instrument's bore make this difference. In earlier times, bamboo quality was determined differently. For example, many of the older makers have told me that the bamboo from the mountains around Kyoto was the best, and there were several grades of this bamboo. Simply put, bamboo quality and the materials used inside the bore affect the flute's tone color.
Some truly extraordinary instruments, made by the great makers and others during the first half of the century, can cost from $5,000 to $30,000. Finding such instruments requires more than just the ability to pay. It requires good human relations, contacts, timing and luck. Many times I've been told of the availability of a fine instrument by the family of its former owner. Many superior instruments have been put into coffins before cremation (which is a custom in Japan). Therefore, there are a very limited number of these instruments remaining. There are some, especially Americans, who find older shakuhachi to be very expensive. I am, however, talking about the finest ones available. But if you're truly serious about study, and are intending to play for the rest of your life, the price of a great instrument is not really so high. Imagine having to buy a great violin! As for more "ordinary" shakuhachi, they generally cost from $300 up. Not particularly expensive in comparison to Western instruments.
It's beyond the scope of this article to discuss the specific characteristics of shakuhachi made by individual makers. I'd be happy to share my knowledge and experience with anybody who is seriously interested. Other players or makers may hold views different than mine because our experience and study may have been different, however, several concert violinists with whom I've spoken share my feelings and beliefs on this subject. Therefore, what I hold to be true about the great shakuhachi seems to hold true for the great violins.
A superior instrument is alive when you pick it up! It responds in a way that is wondrous and has a certain feeling which is very difficult, if not impossible, to describe. No matter the musical or physical theories used to craft or explain a shakuhachi, the fact of the matter is that, in addition to bore shape, the bamboo and the material used to make the bore are extremely important in determining the quality of the instrument. For me it's not a theoretical question, it's just a fact. My teachers and many other great shakuhachi players share my views. You can put this view to the test by blowing shakuhachi old and new and comparing. But keep in mind: to really discern the subtle, living difference in shakuhachi, you must devote yourself to its study and practice. A first-time player could hardly be expected to tell the difference between a "Stradivarius" shakuhachi and one mass produced for the contemporary marketplace. The more you master the instrument, the more masterful your ability will be to discern a great shakuhachi from an "imposter".
Note - A word about more ancient shakuhachi:
The finer Edo period insturments, in playable and undamaged original condition are extremely rare having a purity of tone which is superb and in my opinion, unmatched by almost all later instruments. However, they are difficult to control requiring great skill, and are usually not suitable for ensemble purposes. It seems to be the case that only a few special experienced and flexible players are able to use and appreciate the Edo Shakuhachi.
SOME TERMS USED TO DESCRIBE TONAL AND OTHER QUALITIES BY WHICH SHAKUHACHI ARE JUDGED
1. Utsukushisa = overall beauty of tone
2. Miyabi = elegance/richness of tone
3. Shimari = tonal closure
4. Fukami = tonal depth
5. Asami = tonal shallowness
6. Akarusa = brightness of tone
7. Kurasa = darkness of tone
8. Amasa/amami = sweetness of tone
9. Marumi = roundness of tone
10. Shibumi = severity of tone
11. Yawarakasa = softness of tone
12. Katasa = hardness/harshness of tone
13. Zarazara = Dryenss/roughness (a type of harshness) of tone
14. tsumeasa = coldness of tone
15. Atatakasa = warmth oftone
16. Wabi/sabi = qualities of loneliness in the overall sound
17. Haba = sound width/bigness/reach/volume
18. Karumi = lightness of flute and tone
19. Omomi = heaviness of flute and tone
20. Yasashisa = kindness of tone
21. Joseiteki/Danseiteki = femininity & masculinity of tone
REGARDING EDO AND OTHER ANTIQUE SHAKUHACHI: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN
John Singer is a Bay Area shakuhachi player and
John is also an avid collector of Edo shakuhachi and
John is highly opinionated and there are few people
Check it out,
Brian: Besides your musical credentials you are well known for your obsession with the flutes themselves. What difference does it make what kind of shakuhachi someone plays? Isn't a flute a flute?
John: I have a great passion regarding the different shakuhachi. I've found in my own experience that it is important to me what kind of flute I use, as each instrument has its own voice. This is also expressed usually in terms such as tone color and overall sound. And these qualities can be subdivided into numerous other qualities such as depth (fukami), brightness (akarusa), Darkness (kurasa), softness (yawarakasa), harshness (yakamashisa), hardness (katasa) etc. So, in terms of the overall sound produced, the flute makes a huge difference. In addition, the way each instrument vibrates and affects one's body differs not only between the flutes of different makers and periods, but also in those different instruments made by the same person. This quality is sometimes referred to as "Chikuin" but it goes much deeper than that. The concept of Chikuin is really too generalized. Now, after having said all this, the importance of one's own development in blowing shakuhachi cannot be over-emphasized. One must have a pure intention both when practicing and performing shakuhachi. Different people of course, have different intent regarding shakuhachi. I'm only concerned with and responsible for my own, and to a much lesser extent, with that of my students' intent. Mine is always to find out how each instrument wants to be played and to produce the purest sound I can. This is a process and a never-ending goal or focus. If one loves this process, then one loves shakuhachi. I have noticed that those who simply love the process of picking up the bamboo and blowing it are the ones whose intent is pure and these people never quit. And those who have other intentions such as showing off, fame, mastery, whatever, are those who, in my opinion, tend not to essentially love shakuhachi and are using it with some other agenda in mind.
Brian: Could you explain what you mean when you say pursuit of mastery is contrary to the love of shakuhachi?
John: In and of itself the desire to improve oneself on the Shakuhachi
can be compatible with a true love of the process. Usually, however, I've
found empirically (from my own 20 years of teaching experience) that the
focus on "Mastery" has more to do with a person's fantasies
and ego, and wanting to attain some status or power, and this can be counter-productive
to shakuhachi practice and study. And, I believe it, is counter to the
spirit of the instrument to have an obsession with a mastery of it. I
often receive inquiries about shakuhachi study. If someone asks, "how
long will it take to master it? " then I can be reasonably sure they
have a motive which really has nothing to do with a love of shakuhachi
and the process it involves, which, by the way, never ends. The term "Master"
is mis-understood by most westerners to mean that one has complete control
and dominion over something. Rather, in the context of shakuhachi it should
mean a certain degree of competency. Someone who received their black-belt
in a martial art
Brian: When did you develop an interest in Edo period flutes?
John: I developed an interest in the Edo period Shakuhachi from the time of my very first lesson with Yamaguchi Goro Sensei. He had a few Edo period Shakuhachi which were his father's, and he very generously repeatedly loaned them to me and let me try them. I noticed that many shakuhachi made by his father, Yamaguchi Shiro, had many (but not all) of the qualities of those Edo instruments. This was some 25 yrs ago and I was not to be introduced to Edo period instruments again to any meaningful degree until around 6 or 7 yrs ago when I met a very avid collector. At this time I often would bring different Edo period instruments to Yamaguchi Sensei to show him. He really enjoyed seeing and playing them and always encouraged me to pursue my passion regarding the ancient Shakuhachi. Then he passed away and I have continued to move in this direction, studying different historical shakuhachi and visiting collectors and antique dealers all over Japan. Inoue Shigeshi Sensei (the iemoto of the Kinpu Ryu) also in possession of the very special "Soke" ( most important Edo period Kinpu Ryu Shakuhachi to be possessed only by the iemoto) often let me play this instrument and encouraged me to learn as much as possible about the Edo and Meiji period Shakuhachi. I believe that both Yamaguchi Sensei and Inoue Sensei used their Edo period instruments privately for their own education and pleasure.
Brian: Do you teach with Edo period flutes? Why or why not?
John: Only in recent times have I begun to teach my more advanced students using Edo period Ji-nashi instruments when I teach honkyoku. This has developed naturally as I no longer like using the more modern shakuhachi for honkyoku and neither do my more advanced students, though I sometimes use my shakuhachi made by Yamaguchi Shiro for Kinko Ryu honkyoku . I've been able to acquire some very fine Edo and Meiji Ji-nashi shakuhachi for some of my students and others who want to use these special instruments which were made for the specific purpose of playing honkyoku by great Kinko & Myoan players (some of whom were Komuso as well).
Brian: You underwent extensive training in the Kinko Ryu and also studied Kinpu, Myoan and Tozan. To what extent do the Edo period flutes relate to these different styles?
John: I've had extensive training in Kinko and Kinpu styles. To a lesser degree I have learned Myoan and Tozan pieces but not in large number and very carefully so as to not just collect a large volume of work. I'm more interested in trying to catch the essence of the Myoan Shimpo and Myoan Taizan styles or spirit and the Tozan spirit as well. To me, quality has ALWAYS been more important regarding the music, practice (in terms of practice time I believe it is always better to put everything you have into a shorter focused practice than to just practice half-heartedly for hours & hours), and the instruments I use. The Edo period instruments are the precursors of all later shakuhachi. It is interesting that nobody can duplicate the qualities of the Edo period instruments. Edo refers to a period of time between 1600 and 1868 ad before the introduction of western culture into Japan. The purity of tone color of the Edo shakuhachi reflects this time period when Komuso priests actually roamed Japan and shakuhachi was practiced for the most part as a form of Zen practice (Sui-Zen), where the shakuhachi was used for different Buddhist functions (The shakuhachi was also secretly used as accompaniment with the Shamisen and Koto as early as the late 1700's (probably even earlier) as depicted in many Ukiyo-e prints by Kiyomitsu, Kiyonaga, Koryusai, Harunobu and others as well as other Japanese historical works of art).
Brian: Obviously the term "Edo" refers to a historical period, not an aesthetic approach. Nevertheless flute construction changed quite a bit in the years immediately following the Edo period. How would you describe the differences between Edo period shakuhachi and those of later eras? Besides the time period in which it was made, what makes an Edo shakuhachi unique?
John: In words it would be an injustice to try and describe completely the real differences between fine Edo shakuhachi (there were poor ones just as there were poor later shakuhachi made by every maker no matter how famous). They must be compared carefully by being played and heard. Only, I believe, in this way can the differences be fully understood. In a way it's fortunate for me that most Japanese and foreign shakuhachi players haven't had a chance to do this (these instruments are extremely rare) as I'm sure those who are of the same intention as I would be shocked at how much more responsive and pure the fine Edo instruments are. To me performing honkyoku on a fine Edo Shakuhachi is like coming home!
There are also fine Meiji and later instruments. To make it simple for others (though not complete) I make a distinction between Edo and early Meiji shakuhachi made primarily for honkyoku and fine concert shakuhachi (most of which began with Araki Chikuo who lived thru the late Edo and Meiji periods. There are finer differences of Edo and Meiji instruments of different time periods within Edo and Meiji times and instruments from the different areas of Japan, later of different shakuhachi of different schools and different time periods within each respective school. To know these differences takes a great deal of study and exposure to hundreds of these shakuhachi which I fortunately have had. This, I believe, can only be learned experientially.
John: My performance of Honkyoku changed when I began using ji-nashi historical shakuhachi. I believe with these flutes the performance must be more precise and delicate with less emphasis on volume and power.
Regarding the recording, "Zen Music with Ancient Shakuhachi", I did this because nobody else was willing or able to do it (with the exception of Mr. Satoshi Shimura who recorded only 4 pieces using two instruments on cd as an attachment to his fine book on Kokan (ancient) shakuhachi). It was a great learning experience for me to use 11 different great Edo and early Meiji shakuhachi to perform 16 honkyoku of four different styles. This type of recording needed to be done, I feel, in order to expose the wonderful sound of the ancient shakuhachi. This concept has been employed in western classical music and needed, I think, to be carried out with the shakuhachi. The photos and liner notes make it possible for the listener to see and find out about the specific flute as they are hearing the piece. The Edo and early Meiji Ji-nashi shakuhachi, if you are receptive, will communicate to you how it wants to be played. If you exert your will too much, the instrument will not respond well. So for me the adjustment is always to be receptive to the flute. This is also the case, by the way, with shakuhachi of later times but to a lesser degree.
Brian: Are Edo period flutes in tune with modern shakuhachi, in tune with themselves, in tune with the tuning systems of a bygone age, or just plain out of tune? What would you say to a modern player who tries one of your flutes or hears your CD and says, "That's out of tune!"? Are you sacrificing musical accuracy for tone in any instances?
John: If I'm sacrificing musical accuracy in pitch for tone quality it is, in my opinion, well worth it, as a good player can make any necessary pitch adjustments. However, I have Edo shakuhachi tuned at D440MHZ and others pitched differently. Hisamatsu Fuyo and Araki Chikuo definitely worked toward a more uniform tuning. The great shakuhachi are of course always in tune with themselves more or less but one must remember, even with the most modern of shakuhachi, tuning in part always depends on the player. One must be careful in judging shakuhachi according to pitch. Almost always, adjustments in performance must be made. Sometimes each note must be played differently and this takes receptivity and skill, which few seem to have. This is less so with shakuhachi made with cement in the bore but still so nevertheless. To play the early ji-nashi instruments well the player must be extremely flexible and open to change in addition to being very skillful.
Brian: The difference between modern, fully lacquered shakuhachi and jinashi Edo period ones is fairly obvious. How would you describe the differences between Edo period jinashi flutes and jinashi flutes constructed by modern makers? Wouldn't it be possible to construct shakuhachi with the same methods today and get similar results?
John: The great shakuhachi makers of the early 20th century had some direct exposure to Edo and early Meiji shakuhachi from their teachers and others. The players and makers today, for the most part, have had no such experience. I believe, for them, this is a great handicap. The difference between modern and Edo and Meiji period Ji-nashi shakuhachi is in the quality of the tone color and overall character, which is lacking in the modern Ji-nashi instruments. When comparing instruments in general from both periods this both huge and subtle difference in quality is obvious to me but difficult to describe to the inexperienced. It is like trying to describe what it feels like to swim in the ocean to someone who has never been there. Remember, the bamboo & urushi is much different in quality to what is being used today to make Shakuhachi as is the mind-set and perception of the world of the Edo period shakuhachi maker/player. This, I believe, greatly affects all aspects of the sound and response of the instrument. To those who believe that the material makes no difference I say that they are ignorant and refuse to cultivate or lack the necessary receptivity to tell the difference. To those who can, it's quite obvious how important the material is.
Brian: Is the bamboo used in previous eras different in any way than the bamboo available today? If so, why? Do you think this affects the tone of an instrument?
John: The bamboo of previous eras was different in quality to that which is used today. There is no question to me that the earlier bamboo is of much higher quality. Even my teacher, Inoue Shigeshi (one of the great Kinko shakuhachi makers of the mid to late 20th century), had many ways that he graded the bamboo and this knowledge was passed down to him by his Father, Inoue Shigemi. The criterion used today by modern shakuhachi makers is much different, having more to do with coloration on the outside surface and shape so as to make it sellable as a goods for sale instead of a masterpiece of art.
Brian: Your CD has extensive liner notes describing the origins and makers of the shakuhachi. Why is this important to you?
John: It's important to me in that it helps me share the flutes and music more completely with the listener. The emphasis of the recording is the concept behind using the Ancient flutes to perform the Ancient Honkyoku, and not necessarily on John Singer.
Brian: When you play a flute made by a certain historical player how does this affect your performance? Is it something you think about?
Whenever I play a shakuhachi made by a certain player (if I know who that person was, all the better) it is valuable to me in that it reveals that makers understanding and perspective of shakuhachi at the time that particular flute was made. This adds another deeper dimension to my own practice and enriches my life immensely.
Playing a flute made by a certain historical player provides the opportunity to find out that persons intention and understanding of Shakuhachi. This is a great gift. And this is an example of another great gift of Japanese history being ignored by the modern Japanese just as Ukiyo-e prints were ignored by them and taken away by foreigners until the Japanese realized, after it was too late, just how much they lost in their ignorance. The term meaning to "ignore". It is lucky for me that this is the case as it has allowed me to collect some very fine historical shakuhachi.
Brian: You have played shakuhachi for close to thirty years, speak Japanese, know many people in the shakuhachi world in Japan and have the means and access to acquire Edo period shakuhachi. Most shakuhachi players, particularly in the West will never see or play these flutes. You can't just walk into a store and buy an Edo period flute, or order one on the internet. Do you ever think that you are involved in a pursuit that is overly esoteric or out of the shakuhachi mainstream? What would you say to people reading this who say, "Good for you John, but who cares? I couldn't follow this path even if I wanted to. I think I'll stick with what I'm doing"? Do you think playing Edo period shakuhachi has any relevance for modern players? What would they gain from it?
John: With regards to your last long set of questions, yes, I guess I could be considered to be out of the Shakuhachi mainstream. Regarding anyone who might say, "good for you, but who cares" of course the answer must be and is, "I do!" You see, anyone who knows me understands that I'm not involved with shakuhachi to please anyone but myself. If I can share and assist other serious people along the way, that's fine. I don't care if anyone "follows" this direction or not. That has nothing to do with me and is not my responsibility. In the natural course of things those who are meant to be drawn to this aspect of shakuhachi will be, and vice versa, which is as it should be. I believe there is great relevance for modern shakuhachi players to re-connect with the rich historical past even if, god forbid, it might take some great effort of their part. It is my feeling that most modern shakuhachi players are concerned with showing off technique or volume and trying to impress others (a complete waste of time from my point of view) and becoming famous. Most Shakuhachi makers are concerned with making a living and putting their kids thru college, sometimes at the expense of creating really fine shakuhachi.. You say that most shakuhachi players in the west may never see or play the Edo or Meiji flutes. My response is, "not if I can help it!". As you know, I've been and will continue to bring in for sale the quality antique shakuhachi I can find for others to enjoy and learn from. And I will continue in this direction of recording, teaching and performing with ancient shakuhachi, I hope, as long as I breathe.
Copyright 2001 John Singer. All rights reserved.