My life in music with all its contrasting musical forms, with all the people, places, performances and projects, is an ongoing, unfolding journey of discovery and healing in which music is the guiding light, music is the medicine, and music is the beating heart and soul. Through this journey I have found that I am naturally drawn to the music of sacred traditions, music of ritual and ceremony, music for meditation, music of devotional practice and of spiritual enquiry, music of the mountain temples and forest clearings, music played in the stillness of the dawn and the magic of the full moon, music that penetrates the veil – a transcendental acoustic music of the heart.
I was born in Leeds in the North of England in 1962. From the earliest age music held a fascination for me above all other things. I started piano lessons at age five, violin at seven and trumpet at nine. The strongest early musical influence I remember was seeing a TV program about the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong when I was about 8 years old. Following that I became obsessed by the trumpet and spent the remainder of my school years playing in jazz bands, brass bands and orchestras. I loved the big band sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Maynard Ferguson.
When I was 13 my parents took me to a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 10th Symphony in Leeds Town Hall, conducted by Simon Rattle. This was a powerful experience that awakened in me a love for classical orchestral music that grew from Mahler to include Stravinsky, Stockhausen and Xenakis. I also loved the piano music of Bartok and Debussy.
In 1980 I went to Manchester University to study music. There I studied composition with Robin Walker and Geoff Poole, and I became intrigued by the avant-garde scores of Cornelius Cardew and John Cage. It was also at this time that I first encountered the sounds of Japanese traditional music, in particular the eerily dissonant strains of the ancient Japanese Gagaku Orchestra.
Graduating from Manchester University I received a bursary from the Centre Archanthes in Paris to study composition with the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who was a pioneer in the use of mathematical models in music composition and was an extraordinarily inventive and original composer of new music for orchestra and chamber ensembles.
On returning to the UK I became immersed in studies of Baroque instrumental music. Like most children I had been introduced to the recorder in the school classroom, but in my case, that rudimentary introduction developed into a passion for the chamber music of the 17th and 18th centuries and, together with like-minded musicians on the Manchester early music scene, I played recorder sonatas with harpsichord, viola da gamba, lute and other Baroque period instruments. In stark contrast, I also at this time played the drums in an experimental rock band, The Old Men, with Edward Barton and Patrick Mooney, performing at the Haçienda and other Manchester clubs.
In 1985 my love for Baroque music and the recorder took me to postgraduate studies in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. My teacher was the Dutch virtuoso recorder player Pieter Holtslag. I collaborated in recitals with other musicians including Pamela Thorby, James Johnstone and Taru Takeuchi, and formed a new group – the Salaverde Ensemble. I also continued my composition studies with Robert Saxton.
I lived in London for several years and during this time I was active on the avant-garde music scene, performing experimental and improvised music at the London Musicians Collective (LMC) and other venues. I was a founder member of the contemporary chamber music ensemble City Garden, giving performances of music by Steve Reich and Luciano Berio and other modern composers as well as our own new music. In 1986 we performed Goldstaub by Karlheinz Stockhausen which required the musicians to live completely alone in silence for four days without food or sleep!
All this time my interest in Japanese music was growing. Together with musician friends who shared a similar interest, a new group was formed, Tortoises in Heaven – The London Gagaku Orchestra. This was an unusual ensemble, creating distinctive-sounding arrangements of 8th Century Japanese orchestral court music on a mixture of Oriental and Western instruments. I played a Korean version of the ancient Japanese double-reed hichiriki. Several years later I was to have the opportunity to study authentic hichiriki in Japan with the Tenrikyo Gagaku Orchestra.
It was around this time that I discovered the shakuhachi, Japanese zen flute. The first time I heard this instrument I was astonished by the unique sound and expressive power of such a simple bamboo flute, and thus began a life-long love affair with what was to become my main instrument. I began my shakuhachi studies in London with Clive Bell, who was at that time one of the very few shakuhachi players outside of Japan.
In 1987 I moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the North East of England where I began to work as a composer and musical director for theatre, including projects with Northern Stage, Northern Sinfonia, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Dodgy Clutch Theatre. I created soundtracks for short films for Tyne Tees TV, and helped devise music for community street theatre projects.
Throughout this period I was continuing to commute from Newcastle to London for sporadic shakuhachi lessons from Clive Bell, but at a certain point I realised that I needed to go to Japan to deepen my studies into the ancient shakuhachi repertoire. I had a Japanese friend translate a letter to the renowned shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya, asking whether he would take me on as student. To my surprise Yokoyama wrote back and invited me to go to Japan to study with him. Thus in the summer of 1990 I found myself living in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was to become my home for the next eight years.
With Yokoyama-sensei I commenced my studies of the shakuhachi in earnest, in particular the ancient honkyoku repertoire which originated with monks of the Fuke school of Zen over 500 years ago. I also began to study minyō, Japanese folk music, with Kadoya Kōzan, whilst learning Gagaku music with Tenrikyo Gagaku Orchestra. In 1993 I received a Japanese government scholarship to attend Kyoto Arts University as a research fellow, to compose new music for shakuhachi and other traditional Japanese instruments.
Other musicians I collaborated with during this period included Kyokusei Katayama, Hiroki Okano, John Kaizan Neptune, Esoh and Ema, Paul Winter, Matsumoto Montz and Joshua Pearl. I also worked extensively as a composer with Japanese Butoh dancers and choreographers, including Yurabe Masami, Katsura Kan, Atsushi Takanouchi and Nobutaka Kishi, creating and performing music for Japanese contemporary dance. I composed soundtracks for two short Butoh films, Tracing A Vein and Curtain Of Eyes, directed by the Chicago filmmaker Danièle Wilmouth.
I began working as a sound recordist for the Canadian filmmaker Christopher Fryman, making documentaries in Japan for the BBC, CBC and the Discovery Channel. We travelled the length and breadth of Japan, making films about earthquakes and volcanoes, sumo wrestlers, the Japanese Space Station, the Nagano Winter Olympics, the Kodo Drummers and other things. I also wrote the soundtrack for the short film Rain Is Heaven On Earth, directed by Christopher Fryman. On one of my frequent trips back to London I also contributed music to the soundtrack of the film The Garden by Derek Jarman
In August 1991, whilst travelling through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express a chance encounter in the restaurant car on the train led to the formation of the folk-fusion group East Whistle, featuring Joe Townsend (violin), Hugh Nankivell (guitar) and Melissa Holding (shamisen and accordion). I played penny whistle, shakuhachi and percussion. We first performed at the Wrocław Folk Festival in Poland and over the next few years went on to record several albums and to perform concert tours in Japan, Europe and the US, including at the Black Mountain Folk Festival in North Carolina.
In 1996 I met my wife Noriko at a spiritual retreat in the foothills of Mt. Fuji, and we were married six months later. You can see Noriko’s artwork on the covers of my CDs and books, and other places on this website. The event where we met was a sacred ceremony guided by musicians and singers from Brazil and consisting of meditation, prayers, songs and ritual dancing. The Brazilian musicians leading the ceremony became firm friends of ours, and in 1998 Noriko and I left Japan for Brazil, where we spent most of the next three years living in small forest communities in the Southwestern Amazon region and across other parts of Brazil, immersed in the simple songs and rhythms of these sacred forest rituals.
We came back to live in the UK in 2002, settling in Cornwall, where both our children were born in a cedarwood cabin by the ocean. I became the Musical Director for Kneehigh Theatre and Wildworks Theatre, composing music for a series of site-specific productions that were staged in Malta, Cyprus, France and Cornwall. In the course of this work I came to work with Cypriot folk singers, French jazz musicians, African gospel singers, Maltese brass bands, youth orchestras and community bands.
I formed a creative alliance with Scottish/Cornish composer Jim Carey and together we co-wrote many pieces for music ensembles and theatre productions around Cornwall, including several at The Eden Project. Jim and I also put together the 10-piece brass-funk band Bombrassa, giving performances at Golowan, Port Eliot and other Cornish festivals.
In 2007 our family moved across the border from Cornwall to the village of Dartington on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park in Devon. For a couple of years I withdrew from the helter-skelter of musical collaborations that had occupied me for so many years to focus on my shakuhachi practice and other contemplative pursuits.
In 2009 I began a collaboration with the classical cellist Matthew Barley that has culminated in a suite of new pieces and a soon-to-be-released album; Night Journey, Odes for Shakuhachi and Cello. In 2010, a long-held dream came to fruition with the creation of The Anjali Orchestra – a 12-piece acoustic ensemble of exceptional multi-instrumentalists from a variety of musical styles who share the twin passions of spiritual practice and world music. The musicians bring together a huge range of musical influences, particularly from world music, but including bluegrass, classical and jazz.
The duo Two Rivers, featuring shakuhachi and kora, was formed in 2011 with Justin (Ravi) Freeman. Ravi was one of the first Western exponents of the African kora, and he is also a pioneer of overtone throat singing in the West. He has collaborated with violinist Nigel Kennedy, Senegalese singer Baba Maal and blues legend Dr. John amongst others. Through the vehicle of the Two Rivers project, Ravi and I are exploring the synergy of shakuhachi and kora in an ongoing series of concerts and recordings.
Within the context of the Brazilian spiritual rituals and sacred ceremonies that I have been participating in since 1995, I have over the years received a set of over 100 original songs and chants. These songs are very simple in character compared to the subtle nuances of shakuhachi music – simple melodies and rhythms, and simple accompaniment mainly for acoustic guitars and maracas. The Eternal Heart Band is a group of singers and musicians that come together occasionally to sing and play some of these songs and chants at small festivals of sacred music and Bhakti devotional singing.
Other current or recent projects include collaborations with the singer Chloë Goodchild, the drumming group Kagemusha Taiko, Andy Barlow of the electronica group Lamb, tabla player Sanju Sahai, Japanese shamisen player Hibiki Ichikawa, Okinawan singer Kyoko Tadaoka, Belgian storyteller Iwan Kushka and singer songwriters Lua Maria, Ayla Schaeffer and Kuahtli Vasquez.
I still make regular trips to Japan where I have been giving a series of solo shakuhachi recitals in the temples and gardens of Kyoto, and developing new music with Japanese ambient music pioneer Hiroki Okano, didgeridoo player Kenji Mikami and others. In 2014 I was invited to play shakuhachi for his Holiness the Dalai Lama in Kyoto.
Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the soul, flight to the imagination, charm to sadness and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate and eternal form.
Plato (427 – 347 BC)