Bells Ringing in the Empty Sky of Boulder:
World Shakuhachi Festival 1998

by Stuart Goodnick

When I first began to play Shakuhachi, it was a very personal experience. I had one friend who had introduced me to the instrument, but few others that could even pronounce its name. I was drawn to the instrument partly for its roots in the Fuke Zen meditation tradition, and I envisioned myself sitting alone on a mountaintop playing soulful sounds to the wind. As my practice matured, I was fortunate to become involved in Koga Sensei's Japanese Music Institute (JMI), and was delighted to be exposed to a larger number of fellow Shakuhachi enthusiasts, an expanded repertoire of music, and a masterful teacher. Even this left me little prepared for the power and impact of the World Shakuhachi Festival 1998 held in Boulder, Colorado, the week of July 5 - 11.

World Shakuhachi Festival 1998, emerged as the largest and most historic gathering of world-renowned Shakuhachi players, professionals and amateur performers, scholars, and enthusiasts ever held. In all there were 336 participants ranging from a designated Japanese Living Natural Treasure to very beginning students from all parts of the world. Five special guest Shakuhachi masters topped the billing: Reibo Aoki II, Kodo Araki V, Goro Yamaguchi, Hozan Yamamoto, and Katsuya Yokoyama. In addition there were over 50 invited artists including my own Sensei, Masayuki Koga, and such names as John Neptune, Riley Lee, Akikazu Nakamura, John Singer, Marco Lienhard, Yoshio Kurahashi, Teruo Furuya, Larry Tyrrell, and Ichiro Seki.

The festival consisted of master classes given by the five special guests and a wide variety of workshops covering various topics such as specific performance techniques, effective practice methods, improvisation, breathing, and flute construction. The master classes focused on a number of advanced traditional pieces and provided an opportunity for master level students and even beginners to gain insight into playing technique and philosophy. Many of the workshops covered specific pieces from Honkyoku, Sankyoku, and modern traditions, and participants at whatever level could focus on playing techniques and tone. When participants might want a break from the intensive practice workshops, they could attend any of a series of on-going concerts given by festival invited artists. There was also a parallel track of scholarly seminars tracing the history and musicology of Shakuhachi.

The festival offered three main evening concerts in Boulder and Denver featuring many of the invited artists and special guests. Shakuhachi Odyssey offered a variety of traditional and modern pieces often accompanied by dance and Taiko. Koga Sensei performed an impressive improvisation as part of this concert. Shakuhachi at Chautauqua offered Jazz with John Kaizen Neptune, contemporary works by the Tokyo Modern Shakuhachi Ensemble, Katsuya Yokoyama and his Chikushin-kai group, and several others. This concert featured an unprecedented performance of the honkyoku piece, Tamuke, by over two hundred Shakuhachi festival participants, as well as the Stravinsky inspired orchestration of Pentagonia by Ichiro Seki featuring five Shakuhachi soloists and two hundred accompanists! The final concert in this series was Living Treasures of Japan, in which the five special guests all performed their signature works in solo and ensemble. The closing of this concert was both inspirational and poignant as the five great masters shared the stage together to acknowledge that their lifetime dedication to Shakuhachi was alive in the hearts of the many festival attendees.

As a beginning player and festival participant I found myself more deeply immersed in the world of Shakuhachi than I could ever have imagined. The festival was held at the University of Colorado campus (CU), and most participants stayed in the dormitories. In these close quarters we were constantly surrounded by bamboo music. The first evening as I lay to go to sleep, a multitude of players were giving voice to the distant cry of deer. Each evening as we would return to the dorms after one of the concerts, different groups of players would be gathered around the walkways and ponds in the warm summer evenings practicing and performing. During the days it seemed as though everyone on the campus was carrying a Shakuhachi with them. We took our breakfasts, lunches, and dinners together, and we walked the same paths to the various buildings in which the workshops were held, all moving in sync with the schedule of the festival organizers.

The task of accommodating the needs of such a wide variety of players was handled extraordinarily well. Morning sessions each day featured a master class session in which one of the special guests would perform such pieces as Shika no Tone (Distant Cry of Deer), Tsuru no Sugomori (Nesting Cranes), and Sanya. After the performance, participants could stay and go over the piece in detail or adjourn to a special beginners class also given by another one of the special guests. This way both master level players and beginners could gain great benefit from a wide variety of masters. The festival organizers even adapted after the first day to create two beginner tracks in the morning session to address the needs of participants that were still organizing their sound and learning basic notation as well as the needs of advanced beginners. A couple of these advanced beginner classes were challenging enough with Reibo Aoki reviewing Sanya Sukagaki and Goro Yamaguchi reviewing Hi Fu Mi. Katsuya Yokoyama and Hozan Yamamoto focused more on very basic practice and tone production.

Even as a beginner, I found great inspiration in attending the master class given by Katsuya Yokoyama in which he reviewed the honkyoku piece, Sanya. Of all the special guests, I felt that Yokoyama had the most expansive spirit. He and his top students, members of his Kenshukan, struck me as among the happiest participants of the festival. This spirit came through in his performing and his teaching. He first had all the master class participants play Ro no Otsu for 10 minutes as a warm up. He explained that to play Ro, the note on the Shakuhachi in which all finger holes are closed, is to cause the entire flute to vibrate, and in this way, Ro contains all of the rest of the notes. He said that his teacher told him if one were to play Ro no Otsu for 10 minutes each day one would become a great master (he also confessed humbly that he had not followed this advice but wanted to offer it to all of us for our benefit).

After his solo performance of Sanya, Yokoyama led the group through the piece phrase by phrase. The most profound aspect of this experience for me came when he explained that this piece was to played in the spirit of a Buddhist chant. As he led us through the piece, he would chant the names of the notes with his very accomplished singing voice and imbue them with the depth and resonance of deeply devotional religious music. His chanting resonated with me and communicated an understanding about this piece that would be impossible to receive in any other way. He kept this same spirit alive when he led the two hundred festival participants in the performance of Tamuke at the Chautauqua concert later that week. His approach of singing Sanya to the class taught me more deeply about the expressive potential of micro-tonal melodies than could any abstract discussion of keshi technique.

After the morning set of master and beginner classes, festival participants could attend a group rehearsal for the ensemble portion of Pentagonia. People were also free to explore the concession area where such master flute makers as Monty Levenson offered a wide variety of instruments for sample and sale. After lunch there were a variety of workshops held each day. The one complaint about the festival that I heard consistently was people's frustration that there were so many wonderful workshops to choose from but that many of them were happening at the same time.

Before the festival, I had asked Koga-Sensei what he was going to teach in his workshop. He said that many people were planning to teach music, but that he wanted to teach people how to breathe. Sensei's first workshop was simply entitled "Breathing." He began by introducing the class to his understanding of the necessary breathing methods for strong and clear sound production. Many of these methods are detailed in his book, Extract of the Master Techniques for Shakuhachi. He reviewed for us the proper posture of leaning forward slightly to place one's weight on the front part of one's feet, such that one can make one's spine more straight. He emphasized that one of the keys to allowing the sound within one to emerge is to relax the abdominal muscles, and he explained how to internally "lower one's heart" so that the diaphragm has less resistance to movement. The most compelling aspect of this teaching was Sensei's perspective that one's sound is not simply the product of an air stream resonating with a piece of bamboo, but that real sound arises from deep within oneself and that the physical manifestation is merely a reflection of a subtler activity of one's being. With proper posture, we can remove some of the physical obstacles to allowing our true sound out. By relaxing our abdominal and neck muscles we remove still more constraints on our true expression. By breathing into our center and out from our center, we allow our sound to follow naturally from our breath. And so we practiced breathing in this workshop and worked on one or two notes.

The next afternoon, Sensei gave another workshop on "Beginner Techniques." Here he elaborated on the themes he laid forth in his breathing workshop. In addition, he focused on how to keep one's lips and face relaxed and not cramped up in the effort to make a note. Part of this involves the relaxing of the neck muscles and the exercises he teaches to aid in this process. Part of this involves his image of one's mouth cavity as holding a ping-pong ball. He instructed workshop attendees to imagine this ping-pong ball in their mouths and to try to move it as far back in one's mouth as one could (even out the back of the head!). But in addition to proper posture and proper breathing, Sensei emphasized in this workshop proper attitude. What is one's mind doing while one is playing? Is one thinking about playing or is one simply playing. He discussed how our attention can be on our thoughts about our playing (the cause of effort), or our attention can be on the source and the destination of our sound.

When our attention is on the source of our sound, we are well centered and opening ourselves up so that our spirit can emerge through the instrument of the Shakuhachi. When our attention is on the destination of our sound, we put attention on our audience. We are playing for someone as though we are giving them a great gift. We are attempting in this practice to give our audience everything we have. Everything. As part of this practice, Sensei would have students imaging a dear friend whether dead or alive, and then he would instruct them to play for this friend, to make this friend smile. He provided some dramatic demonstrations of this technique by inviting volunteers to step before the class to work on their sound. First a volunteer would play a note, then Sensei would instruct the volunteer in how to stand, relax, and imagine their friend to whom they should play. With each attempt, the volunteer's tone became smoother and warmer. Everyone in the room could see the pathway to perfecting their sound.

Throughout the week, I attended a number of other workshops in which very accomplished players would work on particular pieces of music. After learning Kurokami with Sensei over the past year, for instance, I found it useful to attend a Sankyoku class on this piece and to play with a Shamisen accompanist. But the lessons from Koga's workshops stayed with me. I met people at the festival that were very technically proficient, but lacked a depth to their sound, and I met many people whose tone in even simple notes could stop me and hold my full attention. During the festival I found my mind greedy for technical knowledge and technique, yet I could not shake the impression that what truly separated the great players from the lesser players was the depth of their tone. In fact, the lessons of many of the other masters echoed the same instructions that Koga Sensei gave in his workshops and gives to members of JMI. One must build one's practice on a firm foundation of sound and breathing.

Having been exposed to a wide range of teachers, schools, techniques, and music at the World Shakuhachi Festival 1998, I came away richer in my understanding of the history and repertoire of this instrument. I was especially impressed with the quality of festival that the executive committee were able to pull together and delighted with the spirit and energy of all of the participants. But I also came away with a sense of gratitude for the teaching I am fortunate to receive on an ongoing basis from Koga. Of all the teachers and schools represented at the festival, I found Koga's teaching style and emphasis on essence over technique to capture most closely the Zen-like character of the Shakuhachi to which I was originally attracted. Technique, just like the physical vibrations of the air stream through a piece of bamboo, follow from the emanation of a deeper tone within our very beings. It is the cultivation of this tone that begins our practice of Shakuhachi.

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