Q1: What makes a "good" shakuhachi?
A: The notion of "quality" in relation to musical sound is by definition somewhat vague and subjective as acoustical perceptions vary with the individual and environment. Evaluations of tone border closely on personal taste. In regard to the shakuhachi, however, we can, talk about timbre or, in Japanese, neiro which loosely translates as "tone color" - a concept that implies both refined sensibility as well as empirical factors.
Approaching this idea from the perspective of acoustical physics, timbre can be objectified and measured through a process called spectral analysis which breaks down a single tone into its harmonic components. Several frequencies of sound called harmonics or partials can be given numerical values, the combination of which comprise a single tone on any musical instrument. The harmonic structure of sound for a given instrument is like a fingerprint having a unique configuration which is clearly identifiable. Blindfolded, we can easily identify a variety of different instruments playing the exact same pitch as each one has a unique harmonic structure.
Quality with regard to shakuhachi is linked to this idea of harmonic balance and - as my research and interviews on the subject confirm - the issue of tone color is central to master players of the instrument. A maker carefully chooses his materials and painstakingly fabricates the bore of the shakuhachi in order to affect this balance toward certain ends. Resonance, sensitivity, ease of blowing, power, acceleration, clarity and balance of tones all come into play in defining "quality" in shakuhachi.
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