In the summer of 1972 Christopher Blasdel first came to Japan. He was from West Texas, “a landscape dominated by strip malls, sprawling gasoline stations and gigantic billboards advertising rattlesnake meat and a free 72-ounce steak dinner to anyone who could eat it in an hour.”
Even on the bus trip from Haneda into the city he was struck by both similarities and differences. A big contrariety was the intensity of Japanese space. “Space in Texas was a nuisance to overcome with wider highways, bigger cars and faster travel. Tokyo space was an exclusive commodity where every square inch throbbed with vitality. Though jumbled, everything fitted perfectly together and followed a kind of pattern.”
The elucidation of this pattern became the life work of the young Texan. During this process he discovered that it was aural as well as visual. “I began to realize the value of actively listening to sounds, rather than just hearing them,” and he discovered and took to heart the famous Zen dictum: “Enlightenment through the single tone.” This single tone possesses, he discovered, a great range of complex, interlocking timbres. “All we had to do was quiet ourselves and listen.”
The instrument chosen was the shakuhachi, Japan’s “bamboo flute,” an instrument with which Blasdel’s name has now become synonymous. Very early on in his stay in Japan, intent upon the pursuit of the pattern, he was so fortunate to find the perfect teacher, Goro Yamaguchi, a master later to earn the prestigious title of “Living National Treasure.” It was comparable “to a young Japanese going to New York to study piano and, without any knowledge or particular qualifications, receiving an introduction to a great performer like Artur Rubinstein.”
Among the many things Blasdel learned in these early years was the reverence given to form in Japan. He learned that “form does not follow content; one must first consecrate oneself to the form — through years of discipline — and only then can content be allowed.”
Form is learned through the practicing of kata, the structural support for most of the arts of Japan — from the art of the shakuhachi through the arts of calligraphy, aikido, and much else. These kata at the same time “foster growth and provide a vessel for tempering one’s abilities.” And when they are truly mastered they become a tool to express content. As Blasdel learned: “Traditional forms of music can be negated only after they are fully internalized, and this take years of practice and discipline.”
Blasdel’s years of study under Yamaguchi were rewarded by both a mastery of his instrument and a professional name. All of Yamaguchi’s students were given the Japanese character mei, meaning “alliance,” taken from the shakuhachi guild name, and were then allowed a character of their own choosing. Blasdel chose yoh meaning, “from afar,” and the completed professional name he was given was Yohmei.
His choosing to emphasize his distant origins had many reasons. One, certainly, was to suggest the lifelong search for form in the country where he was to spend his adult life. Among the others was the fact that “as a non-native one is able to acquire aspects of a culture while maintaining a detached objectivity.” This was something he learned from another treasured teacher, the late Fumio Koizumi, who pointed out that an outsider can objectify and discern aspects of Japanese music that insiders cannot see. “The secret, he said, is to internalize, or subjectify, the shakuhachi yet remain detached from it.”
It is this discovery that has resulted in this valuable and interesting book that Blasdel wrote, originally, in Japanese. Titled “Shakuhachi Odessei,” it was published in 2000 by Kawade Shobo and went on to win the prestigious Ren’nyo Award. The author later translated it into English and this handsome new volume has just this month appeared.
I don’t know of any other book quite like it. It is both an autobiography and a guidebook, both the coming-of-age of an expatriate and a study of Japanese music. It contains an informed account of the history of the shakuhachi and at the same time personal reminiscences of those by whom the young Texan was befriended (such as the sculptor Isamu Noguchi).
It is also an extended commentary on the international growth of Japanese music: “I teach around the world, and find myself in the unusual position of helping to transmit Japan’s traditional culture to both Japanese and non-Japanese students.” Blasdel has learned that “at a certain point the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappears, and all that matters is the music: the wheel comes around and we discover we are in the world together, regardless of nationality.”
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