Embracing both past and present, shakuhachi gala blows up a storm

by Catherine Pawasarat

KYOTO — A gala concert by shakuhachi grandmaster Genzan Miyoshi Dec. 3 at the Kyoto Concert Hall promises something for everyone: An array of traditional and modern pieces performed as solos, “hogaku orchestras” and everything in between.

Shakuhachi grandmaster Genzan Miyoshi

Besides this unusual chance to hear many of Kansai’s best hogaku artists on the same stage, the concert will also feature several special guests from Kanto: shakuhachi master Hozan Yamamoto, renowned shamisen artists Seikin Tomiyama and Koji Kikuhara, as well as a performance by John Kaizan Neptune and his Take Dake ensemble of bamboo instruments. Shizuo Yamagawa will be the concert presenter.

Miyoshi is of the Tozan school of shakuhachi, especially strong in Kansai since it was founded in the 1800s by Nakao Tozan of Osaka. As one of the newer schools of shakuhachi, it was particularly marked by the influences of the 20th century — namely, a secular approach to the artistic process and socioeconomic transformation. After the Kinko school, it has become the second largest shakuhachi school today.

Once in a decade, Miyoshi produces a large-scale concert to try out things that are impossible on the usual intimate scale of most hogaku performances. This concert (his fourth such in 40 years) will feature about 200 performers, with two pieces incorporating an astounding 100 shakuhachi players. One of these pieces is the world debut of the piece “Miyako,” written especially for the concert’s 100 shakuhachi and a pipe organ.

“The Kyoto Concert Hall has a pipe organ, which is such an unusual instrument,” Miyoshi says. “I wondered what it would sound like with so many shakuhachi, so I commissioned this composition.”

The theme of the concert is the proverb “onko shinking a lesson from the past).”

“Kyoto is a very old city,” Miyoshi says, “so people here naturally try to protect tradition. Sometimes, though, these traditional things become just form, without any understanding of the essence.”

The Dec. 3 performance’s 14 pieces offer an excellent overview of some of the Tozan school’s classic repertoire, as well as modern pieces with a more international sound.

“The older compositions are great as they are,” Miyoshi notes, “but older and newer ones need to be played together, to give them both value and to match the present age.”

The performance by Neptune, who was Miyoshi’s student in Kyoto many years ago, with his Take Dake (“bamboo only”) ensemble is sure to be a special treat. The group’s baliphone (a xylophone-like instrument), bambass (an instrument similar to giant panpipes), congas, a drum kit and other instruments have all been created entirely from bamboo from countries across Asia.

“Take Dake is interesting,” says Miyoshi. “They’ll be playing for a half hour, though they really merit their own concert.”

Though still quite young, Genzan Miyoshi is one of the patriarchs of the Tozan school of shakuhachi. His mother, Atsuko Miyoshi, was a famous koto player, and encouraged him to learn the koto. When he balked, she pushed the shakuhachi. He finally caved in to his mother’s wishes at age 12.

“I wasn’t interested,” he remembers. “I wanted to play basketball. But my mother thought that by studying the shakuhachi I would learn some manners,” he says with a laugh.

Four and a half decades later, Miyoshi has performed in more than 23 countries around the world, and regularly performs a diverse repertoire that includes Western classical, rock and jazz.

“If you know other kinds of music, you understand hogaku better — a spirit of fun is the most important thing,” he says.

In the last few decades, the popularity of the shakuhachi has blossomed overseas, particularly in the United States.

“If they like the sound of the shakuhachi, non-Japanese will learn to play it, even if it takes a long time,” Miyoshi says. “These days, Japanese people think the shakuhachi is too difficult to learn, and they give up before they start.”

As Japanese musicians and audiences gravitate more and more to Western music, is the shakuhachi an endangered species in Japan?

“The shakuhachi wasn’t born in Japan; it comes from China, via Korea,” he says, unperturbed. “If people playing shakuhachi decrease in Japan, they’ll probably increase in America. It’s a global flow.”

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, however, the Education Ministry plans to include the shakuhachi among musical instruments to be taught at Japanese junior high schools. Miyoshi sees this, plus the growing interest overseas, as sure to effect a profound transformation on the shakuhachi world.