The Sound of Breath Through Bamboo
by Elliot Kallen
When Mahatma Gandhi first heard the sound of the shakuhachi, he supposedly wept and said he had finally heard the voice of the dead. This story epitomizes the ethereal quality that many people experience when they first hear the sound of the traditional Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi. The inimitable sound and the primal nature of the shakuhachi appeal to our sense of the divine, the mystical, and the timeless. An empty bamboo tube with five finger holes, the shakuhachi embodies a simplicity and focus which is matched only by meditation.
The name shakuhachi comes from a unit of measure which came from China about 1400 years ago called the shaku. There were several variations in the shaku in Japan over the centuries, including one used in carpentry and another in kimono making. Nowadays, one shaku is generally defined as about one foot (30.3 centimeters or 11.9 inches). A shaku is further divided into 10 parts called sun, a unit slightly larger than an inch. Thus the word shakuhachi means one shaku, eight sun, (hachi meaning “eight” in Japanese).
The shakuhachi is made from a variety of bamboo called madake which, for the purpose of shakuhachi-making, only grows well in Japan. It is both a solo instrument as well as an integral part of ensemble performances, including the 3-stringed banjo-like shamisen and the 13-string zither-like koto. However, it is as a solo instrument that the unique voice of the shakuhachi is best appreciated. For both the traditional and modern styles, tone production is a critical part of playing the instrument. The musician, through a complex combination of fingering, breathing, and manipulating lip and head position, is capable of producing any pitch over a range of almost three octaves (as opposed to the 12-tones per octave found in Western music). This flexibility in pitch, tone production, and dynamics makes it one of the most expressive instruments in the world, second only, perhaps, to the human voice.
The physical dexterity necessary to produce shakuhachi music extends beyond the mouthpiece all the way to the player’s diaphragm. An old Japanese expression, “Kubi furi, san nen”, or “It takes three years just to learn to shake your head properly” (to produce vibrato), highlights the difficulty of learning the physical mechanics of playing the instrument. Since the body of the musician is completely involved in producing the unique sound of the shakuhachi, the sound of each flute is as individual as the musician playing it.
There are several distinct musical styles in which the shakuhachi has played a part during Japanese history: Gagaku (the Heian-era court music); the meditative pieces called Honkyoku of the Komuso monks; min’yo (folk music); sankyoku (ensemble music); as well as the broad field of the modern-era including orchestral music, film soundtracks, pop music, and the avant-guard.
When the shakuhachi first came to Japan in 752 it was used exclusively in Gagaku (court music) ensembles. Within a century or two, it disappeared from the Gagaku ensemble, possibly because the original small, thin version of the shakuhachi was so quiet as to be overwhelmed by the strident sounds of the hichiriki flute and other Gagaku instruments. Some of these original, six-holed shakuhachi can be seen in the collection of national treasures at the Shoso-in museum in Nara.
A few hundred years later the shakuhachi came back, now as a tool for collecting alms for wandering monks called komoso (bed-mat monks). A few hundred years later it reappeared yet again, now in the hands of Rinzai Zen monks of the Fuke sect now called Komuso (“Monks of Emptiness”) as a significantly longer instrument capable of producing a more powerful sound (and with one less finger hole than the Gagaku shakuhachi). This era saw the development of the Honkyoku – Zen pieces that were never meant for public performance as “music”, but rather were used by the Zen monks for their own individual meditative practices. Toward this end there developed a repertoire of Honkyoku which were transmitted from teacher to student orally. The pieces were meant to direct one’s focus on breath, particularly the out breath, (much like the practice of seated Zen meditation), to help one’s ability to quiet the internal chatter of the mind.
It was in the late Edo period that the Fuke sect saw an influx of ronin (masterless samurai) members in its ranks. Through falsified documents they obtained the government-approved privilege of being able to move about Japan without having to produce papers identifying themselves, as well as exclusive permission to play the shakuhachi in public for the explicit purpose of begging for alms. By the 18th century government spies were well-entrenched in the ranks of the Fuke Komuso. At their height, there were more than 125 Komuso temples throughout Japan.
In the hands of the Komuso monks, the music of the shakuhachi developed and took a form that has survived to this day. Since the alms-seeking music was played outdoors, some of these pieces became more melodious, louder, and more dynamic (as reflected in the thicker walls and wider bore of the shakuhachi as it, too, evolved over time). This flowering of the Honkyoku form was formalized by a Komuso monk named Kurosawa Kinko who, in the mid-19th century, traveled all over Japan collecting Honkyoku from different regional Komuso temples, and which he put together in a repertoire of 36 pieces. This became the first notated music for shakuhachi. Today, the music is still being taught in the form preserved by Kurosawa.
After the 1868 revolution, the victorious new government disbanded the Fuke sect of Komuso because of their obvious clandestine connection to the former feudal government. No longer the exclusive use of the Zen monks, the shakuhachi became a secular instrument available to the public.
By the 1890s, schools of instruction began appearing, (without religious affiliation), several established by former Komuso. The repertoire collected by Kurosawa Kinko became the core of the Kinko-ryu school (which also emphasized traditional ensemble music with koto and shamisen). The government’s drive toward Westernization informed other schools, like the Tozan-ryu, which incorporated Western musical elements (counterpoint, harmony) into their repertoire. Shakuhachi became commonplace in a wide variety of musical contexts including traditional koto and shamisen ensembles, as well as with western-style orchestras and folk music.
Today, the music of the shakuhachi is enjoying something of a rebirth. In Japan’s rush to Westernization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, traditional instruments and musics all but disappeared from the public consciousness, replaced by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and the like. If not for a dedicated push in the mid-20th century (with many foreigners at the helm), traditional Japanese music might have become extinct. Even now, the vast majority of Japanese have probably never heard a shakuhachi in person, but only as background accompaniment in Enka songs or anime themes on TV. That, fortunately, is changing – traditional instruments are once again part of Japan’s educational system, and the shakuhachi is finding new homes throughout the world as players and listeners awake to its spiritual and expressive possibilities.
Pictures 1 and 2 show a modern bamboo shakuhachi – note the root end and presence of seven node structures. The appearance or alteration of the natural root end is almost entirely an aesthetic choice. After the interior node structures are knocked out, the inside of the flute is coated in urushi lacquer to protect it from moisture. The thin blowing edge is usually an inlay, traditionally horn. Four holes in front, one in back. The joint in the middle is optional – a convenience for those who want to make it more compact for travel.
**Contains a few parts from an article written by Peter Ross in the early 2000's for The Kyoto Diary, which Kallen has updated, expanded and further clarified.