Commemoration of a musical pilgrimage

“A Shakuhachi Odyssey — Enchanted by Timbres of Heaven” is a collection of autobiographical essays, cultural musings, musical stories and more. It beat out over 200 competitors to receive last year’s Rennyo Sho, a nonfiction literature prize sponsored by the Honganji Temple Foundation and supported by Kawade Publishing.

Author, research musicologist, teacher, composer and performer of shakuhachi music in genres ranging from the classical to the avant-garde, Christopher Yohmei Blasdel brings multiple facets of his award-winning book to life in a recital of the same name June 23 at Suntory Hall.

The shakuhachi, Japan’s vertical bamboo flute with the profound and haunting sound, has a history in both fact and legend that dates back over 1,000 years to China and beyond. Blasdel’s autobiography presents a life that is a microcosm of the history of the shakuhachi, as told in the legend presented in “Kyotaku Denki Kokujikai (The Transmission of the Empty Bell)”:

There was a pilgrimage. The traveler, in search of the great truths, left his homeland and traveled across the seas to a foreign land in the west, on a long journey that, while rare for his time, was not unthinkable. There he discovered the bamboo flute that is now known throughout the world by its Japanese name, the shakuhachi (qiba in Chinese).

The traveler, according to legend, was Hotto Kokushi, a student of Zen Buddhism in medieval Japan who journeyed west to China and learned to play the shakuhachi, which was also called “empty bell,” in reference to Zen master Fuke’s bell, which he rang to express his enlightenment. A student of Fuke re-created the sound of this bell on the flute and then played it as a religious expression.

It was this tradition that Hotto learned, brought back to Japan and transmitted to his disciple, Kichiku, who became the first of the komuso, mendicant Zen priests who traveled the Japanese countryside playing the shakuhachi as a form of “blowing Zen.”

So the story goes — only one, perhaps, of many shakuhachi odysseys. Here is another, parallel, pilgrimage.

The traveler, according to fact, was Christopher Blasdel. Blasdel was a college student in 1970s America who journeyed to Japan on a study-abroad program, and during his prolonged stay, learned the shakuhachi from the greatest master, the late Living National Treasure Goro Yamaguchi.

Blasdel’s study of this difficult instrument still continues, as does his dissemination of learning, which has been an important factor in the worldwide fame of the shakuhachi today. He has released his own solo CDs (“Night of the Garuda,” “Voices From Afar, Voices From Within”), collaborations (“Zen Reveries” with synthesizer, “Heart of Bamboo” with poetry and koto), as well as the shakuhachi study text in English, “The Shakuhachi: A Manual for Learning.” He has an active recital career and has performed in collaboration with musicians and dancers in countless different styles.

Blasdel was also a central figure in the organization of World Shakuhachi Festival 1998, which brought over 300 foreign and Japanese shakuhachi players to Boulder, Colo. Until the explosion of travel and communication in the 20th century, the tradition of the shakuhachi had reached a limit, the terminus of eastward travel in Asia. Blasdel’s activity over the past decade and a half has helped to spread the shakuhachi in the West.

By publishing “Shakuhachi Odyssey” in Japanese, Blasdel brings his journey full circle to the fountainhead of the classical traditions of the shakuhachi, and to a reading public that has for the most part ignored its own musical culture for over half a century. This concert likewise takes the listener on a journey through two histories — that of the shakuhachi and Blasdel’s own — and features pieces representative and central to both.

One recurrent theme in his book is the importance of the intersection of lives and ideas through human contact. This is perhaps why none of the pieces in the program are performed solo, but always in ensemble with his special invited guests, Ramli Ibrahim, Mika Kimula, Hirokazu Fujii and Hiroe Yonekawa.

Right out of the legendary tale of the Zen masters Fuke, Hotto and Kichiku comes the classic “Flute on the Misty Sea,” supposedly revealed to Kichiku in a dream. Malaysian dancer-choreographer Ramli Ibrahim has come to Japan to choreograph and perform this work with Blasdel.

This is followed by the modern piece, “El Rey Quiche” for shakuhachi and voice. Soprano Mika Kimula adds her voice to this and to the next piece, “The Song of Atitlan,” one of Blasdel’s first compositions for shakuhachi, inspired by the lake of that name which he visited on a journey to Mexico.

Finally, “Zangetsu (The Lingering Moon)” is one of the masterpieces of the classical ensemble of voice, shamisen, koto and shakuhachi. Often performed as a memorial work, “Zangetsu” was the piece that Blasdel’s teacher, Goro Yamaguchi, performed at World Shakuhachi Festival 1998. It turned out to be one of the last performances of Yamaguchi’s life.

For this memorial performance, Blasdel is joined by Hirokazu Fujii (voice, shamisen) and Hiroe Yonekawa (voice, koto), the leading artists in classical string performance of his generation.

This window into the musical world of Christopher Yohmei Blasdel also offers glimpses into the ever-expanding world of the shakuhachi.

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