The shakuhachi is an end-blown bamboo flute. It first arrived in Japan in the 8th century as one of many instruments in the court ensemble imported from Tang China. Amazingly, nine shakuhachi from this period have survived the ensuing thirteen hundred years.
Within a few centuries after its arrival in Japan, it disappeared from official lists of Japanese court musical instruments, to resurface in an entirely new social context and with a totally different function. From being one of many instruments in a court orchestra, which provided ceremonial and entertainment music for the rarefied society of the emperor and his aristocratic courtiers, it became a solo instrument (to this day, it is the only traditional Japanese musical instrument played primarily solo); it began to be played by lowly wandering beggar priests; and it functioned primarily as an instrument of spiritual practice. The contrast could not be greater!
The shakuhachi experienced another major change sometime around this period, which while not as dramatic, was equally enigmatic. All nine instruments preserved from the 8th century have six finger holes; five in front and one in back. Shakuhachi from at least the 17th century and probably much earlier have only five finger holes; four in front and one in back. Think about that for a minute. Losing one finger hole, when there were only six holes to begin with, is a very dramatic change in construction. It changes the flute’s most obvious scales or modes, the ‘open hole’ tunings, as well as other acoustic properties. Also, it is a simplification in construction. What other musical instrument has become less complex over time? For example, compare the baroque flute with the modern flute; the early keyboard instruments to the modern grand piano.
The shakuhachi is made of bamboo, a logical choice of material for flute making, as it is already hollow and it was plentiful in Japan. The bamboo used for shakuhachi is called madake - ‘true bamboo’). A single madake grove may contain hundreds, or even thousands of other stalks, nearly all of which are as tall as a six storey building. The entire grove is a single living creature. Each stalk (called a culm) has its own clump of roots, yet all culms in a grove are connected by a fantastic network of runner roots or underground stems (rhizomes). Every culm contributes nourishment to the entire grove.
Master craftsmen are still the only source of quality instruments. Because each piece of bamboo is unique in dimensions, density and bore, getting a shakuhachi to play well is mostly an intuitive process. Individual shakuhachi, even those made by the same instrument maker, can differ greatly in tone colour, ease of playing, dynamics and in other ways. All of my flutes were made especially for me. Master craftsman Gyokusui Konô made my three oldest shakuhachi, in the 1970s, when he was nearly 80 years old. Gyokusui made flutes all of his life, so my flutes benefited from at least six decades of experience. I remember Gyokusui admitting to me, while walking in his garden near Osaka, that he still didn’t know how to make good flutes. All of his ‘good shakuhachi’, he asserted, were flukes...
The term, “shakuhachi” derives from the length of the standard instrument. One shaku is 30.3 cm, about one foot. The standard instrument is 1.8 shaku. “Eight” in Japanese is hachi. So, shakuhachi literally means “1.8 feet”. Even though there are theoretically an infinite number of lengths (I own well over a dozen flutes ranging from 1.1 shaku to 3.1 shaku in length), they are all called shakuhachi.
The oldest repertoire for the shakuhachi is called honkyoku. This term means “main” or “original piece”. Honkyoku were created, transmitted and performed within the context of Zen Buddhism. Their musical function was subservient to their primary one, spiritual practice. Nevertheless, they are still music! As meditations, honkyoku aid the practitioner in developing the ability to concentrate and eventually contemplate the present moment with an awareness that transcends everyday experience. Easier said than done!
Honkyoku are, for the most part, solo pieces. Almost all of them were anonymously composed, as is the case with most oral music. Most of them date at least from the 17th century, with evidence that they may have existed in Japan in the 14th century. Honkyoku do not have a beat, much less meter. Their primary compositional unit is the phrase. Frequently, each phrase is complete in itself, that is, a single phrase can seem like a “mini piece”, with a beginning, middle and ending. Phrases, in turn are informed by the breath. If one is playing honkyoku correctly, the performer is by definition, breathing correctly. The music is, in a sense, subordinate to the breath rather than the other way around. This contrasts with the music of most wind instruments. The breath of the shakuhachi performer influences the internal rhythm and the overall length of many honkyoku phrases, as well as the dynamics. The honkyoku performer pays as much attention to the inhalation part of the breath as to the exhalation. The inhalation is neither rushed nor ‘hidden’ within the music. Even the moments of transition between inhalation and exhalation, and between exhalation and inhalation, are treated with care and frequently become silent pauses to be savoured as much as the sound.
Nowadays, makers tend to make flutes with fundamentals that correspond to the standardised pitches used in most music heard on your local radio. The modern 1.8 shaku flute are made to produce, with all holes closed, the pitch D above middle C. Typically, shakuhachi players acquire additional flutes whose fundamentals are also pitches found, for example, on the piano. This however, is not always the case. Flutes made exclusively to play honkyoku solo may, even today, be any length, producing any pitch. For example, I have a very long flute whose fundamental is sort of a sharp F (or a very flat F#) below middle C. With honkyoku, it doesn’t matter what the absolute pitches are, so long as the relative pitches determined by the finger holes are correct. In pre-modern Japan, that is, before the theoretical foundations of European art music entered Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this disregard for absolute pitch existed even in ensemble playing. The shakuhachi player would chose a flute length that played in a range comfortable for the singer, after which the traditional stringed instruments, usually the zither-like thirteen-stringed koto and the banjo‐like three‐stringed shamisen were tuned accordingly.
As mentioned above, in contrast to the indifference shown absolute pitch, shakuhachi players and makers were and continue to be mindful of relative pitch. The pitches produced on a modern 1.8 shaku‐length flute with the five finger holes alone are D (all holes closed), F, G, A, C and D (all holes opened). While a few Japanese folksongs consist of only these five pitches, no traditional shakuhachi honkyoku or ensemble piece is composed with only these pitches. Furthermore, even though pentatonic modes frequently form the melodic basis for most honkyoku, they are never the five notes of the open holes. For example, the two most common modes in honkyoku, if played on a 1.8 length flute, are D, E flat, G, A flat C, and D, E flat, G, A, B flat.
In order to produce the pitches between those made by finger holes, e.g., the E flat and E natural between D (all holes closed) and F (bottom hole open), the shakuhachi player uses a combination of two techniques: 1) partially closing finger holes and, 2) a technique called meri-kari. Of the two, the meri-kari technique is by far the most important.
This technique exploits the ‘open’ mouthpiece of the shakuhachi. The top end of the shakuhachi is always at a node or joint of the bamboo. The blowing edge is created by cutting the edge at an angle outwards. Imagine a recorder if one sawed off the top part of the mouthpiece, or the duct, leaving only the angled blowing edge. One can change the pitch of any fingering position by changing the distance between one’s lips and the blowing edge. The further away from the blowing edge, the higher the pitch; the closer the lips to blowing edge, the lower the pitch. By doing so, the top hole of the flute is partially opened (pitch goes up) or partially closed (pitch goes down). Generally speaking, pitch can be raised by at least a minor 2nd and lowered by at least a minor 3rd this way. Raising the pitch is called kari and lowering the pitch is meri.
For example, all finger holes open on a 1.8 shaku flute produces the fourth line D on treble staff. With the same fingering position, one can produce any pitch from D sharp (or even higher) to B natural (or lower). The fundamental of a standard 1.8 shaku flute is D, but middle C is a very common note in honkyoku. This pitch could not be produced without the meri technique In other words, the shakuhachi player can produce all pitches in the chromatic scale, plus all of the microtones in between. To play the “D, E flat, G, A flat, C” mode, one can use the fingering for F and A, and bend (meri) them down to E flat and A flat respectively. The range of most shakuhachi is about two and a half octaves.
The open construction of the mouthpiece also allows the performer to control timbre or tone colour. In traditional shakuhachi music, the tone colour of a pitch can be as important as the pitch itself. Most pitches can be played a number of different ways, using different fingerings, with or without meri or kari, etc. Each way gives the pitch a different tone colour. One could say that there are no ‘alternative’ fingerings; all are equally important.
Traditional shakuhachi notation corroborates both the ambivalence shown towards absolute pitch and the emphasis on tone colour over pitch. There are three or four main shakuhachi notation systems and many derivatives, but all are basically tablature. Symbols represent fingering positions, or more precisely, fingering positions with the required meri-kari “setting”. In other words, there are as many ways to notate a particular pitch, as there are ways to play that pitch, all of which have different tone colours. Staff notation tells the musician what pitch to play; shakuhachi notation tells the musician how to play the note. The same symbol can represent any number of pitches, depending on what length flute was being used.
The shakuhachi is becoming ever more popular outside of Japan. One reason for this may be that one doesn’t have to start learning it at an early age – agility of fingers is not as important as with many other musical instruments. It’s a very good instrument to start on as an adult, whatever one’s age. Interested? It’s not as difficult to learn to play, at least to the point of being satisfying to the player, as this article might suggest.