Music

Ned Rothenberg: Crossing the Pacific with bamboo flute in hand

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Composer and performer Ned Rothenberg has spent his career traversing different musical worlds.

He has worked extensively as both a composer and performer in the jazz and improvisation scenes, playing alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute.

Rothenberg, 62, has also trained and played with traditional performers and taken part in the improvisation, new music, jazz and hōgaku (traditional Japanese music) scenes.

His skills with the shakuhachi have taken him back and forth between Tokyo and New York, but he didn’t always travel in a straight path.

“I was into the Zen origins of shakuhachi as an instrument of meditation, rather than performance — I didn’t play it in public for six years,” he tells The Japan Times. “I didn’t want to play in public because it was kind of like meditation practice for me, and as soon as you start playing it in front of audiences, that changes.”

The Boston-born Rothenberg became interested in the shakuhachi while he was studying the saxophone at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

“I was into all kinds of weird music,” he recalls. “One of my teachers had a shakuhachi that he had made, and he played a piece with electronics. I went to the library to learn more about the instrument and found the famous 1971 record, “The Mysterious Sounds of the Japanese Bamboo Flute” by Watazumido-Shuso. I listened to it, and it changed my life.”

Later, Rothenberg tried to acquire his own shakuhachi from a man in San Francisco who was selling similar instruments, but soon found it was far from the real deal. He ended up crafting his own after seeing an article on how to make the instrument.

Without an actual shakuhachi in hand, Rothenberg moved to New York in 1978.

“I asked around, ‘Are there any real shakuhachi players here?’ I was pointed toward Ralph Samuelson,” says Rothenberg. Samuelson is a shakuhachi performer and student of Goro Yamaguchi, who has been designated a living national treasure in Japan. Rothenberg acquired his own shakuhachi and began studying with Samuelson.

Rothenberg began traveling to Japan to study with other teachers.

Though by this time Rothenberg was performing regularly in lower Manhattan venues in the experimental music scene, he was not interested in performing the shakuhachi in public. John Zorn, a fixture of the experimental downtown New York music scene, was the first to change his mind. Eventually, he was persuaded to play the instrument on Zorn’s 1985 album, “The Big Gundown.” Rothenberg says it was his first shakuhachi performance in public.

Once he began playing shakuhachi professionally, his work in experimental music and the Japanese hōgaku scene began to collide. Rothenberg traveled frequently to Japan and took advantage of Japan’s booming economy in the 1980s to perform in a wide range of venues.

“When I first came here, it was part of my livelihood,” he says. “Into the early ’90s, companies had serious cultural budgets, it was part of their promotional efforts. The biggest one for music was with Seibu (department store). In those days, every decent sized Seibu had a museum and concert hall.

“In these venues, I managed to play with both traditional musicians, like Yokoyama, and with people like (composer) Yuji Takahashi and (reed player) Kazutoki Umezu — new music and improv people.”

He says this approach to performance soon changed, however.

“Suddenly coming to Japan was about playing door gigs (where musicians get a cut of the admission, instead of a guaranteed minimum fee). The Japanese term is ‘charge-back’. As a funny misuse of English, it says a lot.”

Still, Rothenberg kept visiting Japan, and Japanese music was part of his career.

“The fact is, by the mid-’90s, in commercial music areas, I was probably making more money playing shakuhachi than anything else because I would occasionally do jingles,” he says.

Rothenberg acknowledges the contrast between his performance activities and the philosophical reasons why he first became interested in shakuhachi.

“That’s the irony of it all. All us shakuhachi musicians talk about meditation. But those who use it only for meditation can’t really play in the musical sense, because that’s not the point,” he says.

Rothenberg keeps coming back to Japan, even though his relationship with it is complicated.

“I have a love-hate relationship with Japan,” he says. “There are things that I think are amazing, and things that I think are just horrendous. In the hōgaku world, one of the things I find problematic is that the student is bound to the teacher for life, which can inhibit their creative growth and development. At some point the teacher should be like a parent who lets their offspring leave the nest. The teacher is just a guide. But in many Asian musical traditions there is no real graduation. That means that performers are expected to keep playing like their teachers for the rest of their lives. They aren’t encouraged to create their own style.”

And while he wishes that the way music was taught here would change, the layers of musical culture keep him coming back.

“I get to observe this as a fly on the wall, because as a Westerner I’m a bit different. I’m part of these two worlds, hōgaku and sokkyō (improvisation). I tread in both,” he says. “But still, for the most part, these scenes are separate. Maybe that’s changed a bit now. There are traditional musicians like (koto player) Michiyo Yagi, or sho (Japanese reed instrument) player Ko Ishikawa who play their own music as well, and who might play one night in a traditional concert and the next night at (Shinjuku jazz venue) Pit Inn.”

In the end, wherever the gig and whatever the genre, it all comes down to personal voice.

“I have the jazzer’s perspective. The goal is to make a musical voice. And while I am far from the most highly skilled player, nobody plays the shakuhachi like I do. So, in this sense, its mission accomplished. This doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to write new music and grow creatively. My goal is to become a player with a personal identity.”

For more information on Ned Rothenberg, visit www.nedrothenberg.com.