Best notes for the bamboo flute


THE SHAKUHACHI MANUAL FOR LEARNING, Revised Edition, by Christopher Yohmei Blasdel. Printed Matter Press, 2008, 202 pp. with many illustrations, musical notations, and an attached CD of practice exercises. ¥3,990 (paper)

The shakuhachi is a vertical bamboo flute with five finger holes and a notched mouthpiece. Originally imported from China in the late seventh century, it early assumed its Japanese province.

Due to its association with religion, in particular its mastery by Buddhist mendicants, the shakuhachi began, under the protection of the Tokugawa authorities, to take on a more clearly religious aspect.

Among the results has been a repertoire of spiritually oriented solo shakuhachi pieces and a unique attitude toward performance. This has been well defined by Ralph Samuelson, himself an adept:

“As a music based on meditation, breath is the primary element . . . the performance practice may focus on the cyclical breathing pattern of sitting Zen meditation, on the development of each individual sound from nothingness to fullness and return, or on the sound of breath and air itself.”

Phrases are long, full, the rhythm defined by the breathing pattern, and each individual tone (with all of its subtle variations in pitch, quality and dynamics) is firmly and unmistakably presented.

In his excellent treatise on the shakuhachi and its meanings, both social and personal (“The Single Tone,” Printed Matter Press, 2005), Christopher Blasdel speaks of the spiritual quality of this music. “In an age where intense commercial hype and slick materialism continually seduce and draw us away from ourselves,” there is in shakuhachi music the single tone, something that is “the most meaningful and also the most simple and available.”

At the same time, as both performer and pedagogue, Blasdel is quite aware that mastery must be achieved. He quotes the Zen aphorism, “The shining jewel lies in your own hand,” and then reminds the shakuhachi aspirant that their hands “don’t automatically pour forth jewels.”

With this in mind he wrote the now well-known “Shakuhachi Manual for Learning” (1988), a book that has educated many all over the world. Of it, Blasdel’s teacher, the late Yamaguchi Goro (accorded the title of “Living National Treasure”) wrote that “the book gives a detailed introduction to proper shakuhachi-playing techniques and theory.” Understanding this from the inside, “Blasdel is able to explain it thoroughly [and] the knowledge and experience he has gained through the years are evident in this book.”

In the two decades since this manual was first published, much has changed. There are, under the auspices of renowned shakuhachi player Yokoyama Katsuya, shakuhachi festivals and study meetings in many different countries. The shakuhachi is taught on various foreign campuses, and the history, thanks to efforts such as those of the historian Kamisango Yuko, is now much better known. Toward this gradual dissemination of the shakuhachi and its music, the efforts of Blasdel himself have also played a major part.

This new, completely revised edition of the manual will ensure that the next decades are as fruitful as those past. New are important pages devoted to the transmission of the shakuhachi ethos abroad, and the fingering methods of certain repertoire pieces are redefined. In addition many of the “scores” included in the original are redone. The original tablature notation of the practice pieces was juxtaposed with Western stave notation. Now a compromise has been reached in which proper tablature learning is more likely. While some sections are kept as was (including the invaluable historical section, written after Blasdel’s translation of Kamisango’s notes), much is brand new.

Of particular interest to the student, or to the casual reader, is the addition of a CD that allows one to hear the exercises as they should sound, played by the author himself. In his new edition of the manual, Blasdel also stresses the ideas that have made it so valuable.

Foremost among these is his awareness that proper playing is not merely a matter of manual dexterity and breath control. Rather, he insists, “the shakuhachi still remains a tool that provokes awareness and enlightenment, but in a way appropriate for our times.”

Copies of this new edition can be found in some local bookstores and can be ordered through Mejiro Co. (www.mejiro-japan.com); or in the United States, through Taihei Shakuhachi (www.shakuhachi.com). In addition it is available locally by mail order through the author’s Web site: (www.yohmei.com)