The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute from Japan with a unique history stretching back over a thousand years. When looked at few instruments could appear more simple – a hollow bamboo stalk with only five holes and a notched mouthpiece, yet it has a reputation as being one of the most difficult instruments to master, and can produce an extraordinary range of sounds.

I first heard the shakuhachi played by Clive Bell back in 1987 when I was a member of the London Musicians Collective (LMC), an organization devoted to the support of experimental and improvised music. Clive, who at that time was one of the very few Western shakuhachi players, was also a member of the LMC and I heard him play on several occasions. On the shakuhachi he conjured up a bewitching array of magical flutterings and penetrating tones unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I asked him if he could teach me, and so began my personal odyssey with this instrument.

After studying for a while in London with Clive I began to meet other musicians with an interest in Japanese music, and to play shakuhachi in various ensembles and performance projects including the English Gagaku Orchestra. There came a turning point when I heard a recording of the celebrated Japanese shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya and I was electrified by his playing. Literally it felt like electric shocks going all up and down my body. Although clearly coming from another time and space, the music seemed intimately familiar and echoed in my heart like a call from some unknown universal depths of knowing and longing. I knew I had to go to Japan and study with Yokoyama if at all possible.

Through the International Shakuhachi Society I managed to track down the address of Yokoyama sensei in Japan, I then wrote to him, getting a Japanese friend to translate, and asked if he would teach me if I came to Japan. Amazingly I heard back from him within a short space of time, and he invited me to go and study with him. I went for an initial year in 1990, and ended up staying until 1998. Yokoyama did not speak any English, and my Japanese in the beginning was minimal, but he was able to communicate directly and powerfully through his music.

At first I found myself so nerve-wracked in the lessons with him, bathed in sweat, trying to decipher the Japanese score as well as remembering all the subtleties of fingering I been shown, that often any progress I might have made in private would be lost in a haze of fluffed notes and strange unintended sounds. But Yokoyama sensei was a very compassionate teacher, and I guess it meant something to him that people like myself would travel so far determined to learn the shakuhachi.

The shakuhachi has an ancient and venerable history. Zen monks known as komusō used the instrument in a meditation practice known as suizen (blowing zen). It was considered that the development of spirit breath (kisoku) would lead to absolute sound (tettei-on), in which “a single tone contains the entire Universe”. 

Komusō translates as ‘monks of emptiness and nothingness’. The traditional pieces played by the komusō were called honkyoku (original music). Some honkyoku pieces are serenely meditative and picturesque, others are more powerful and dynamic. These pieces have been passed down in an oral tradition since the 14th century, with different playing styles emerging at different times in different parts of Japan.

The legendary shakuhachi master Watazumido commented

If you go deep into the source of where the music is being made, you’ll find something interesting. At the source, everyone’s individual music is made. If you ask what the deep place is, it’s your own life and it’s knowing your own life.

The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute from Japan with a unique history stretching back over a thousand years. When looked at few instruments could appear more simple – a hollow bamboo stalk with only five holes and a notched mouthpiece, yet it has a reputation as being one of the most difficult instruments to master, and can produce an extraordinary range of sounds.

I first heard the shakuhachi played by Clive Bell back in 1987 when I was a member of the London Musicians Collective (LMC), an organization devoted to the support of experimental and improvised music. Clive, who at that time was one of the very few Western shakuhachi players, was also a member of the LMC and I heard him play on several occasions. On the shakuhachi he conjured up a bewitching array of magical flutterings and penetrating tones unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I asked him if he could teach me, and so began my personal odyssey with this instrument.

After studying for a while in London with Clive I began to meet other musicians with an interest in Japanese music, and to play shakuhachi in various ensembles and performance projects including the English Gagaku Orchestra. There came a turning point when I heard a recording of the celebrated Japanese shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya and I was electrified by his playing. Literally it felt like electric shocks going all up and down my body. Although clearly coming from another time and space, the music seemed intimately familiar and echoed in my heart like a call from some unknown universal depths of knowing and longing. I knew I had to go to Japan and study with Yokoyama if at all possible.

Through the International Shakuhachi Society I managed to track down the address of Yokoyama sensei in Japan, I then wrote to him, getting a Japanese friend to translate, and asked if he would teach me if I came to Japan. Amazingly I heard back from him within a short space of time, and he invited me to go and study with him. I went for an initial year in 1990, and ended up staying until 1998. Yokoyama did not speak any English, and my Japanese in the beginning was minimal, but he was able to communicate directly and powerfully through his music.

At first I found myself so nerve-wracked in the lessons with him, bathed in sweat, trying to decipher the Japanese score as well as remembering all the subtleties of fingering I been shown, that often any progress I might have made in private would be lost in a haze of fluffed notes and strange unintended sounds. But Yokoyama sensei was a very compassionate teacher, and I guess it meant something to him that people like myself would travel so far determined to learn the shakuhachi.

The shakuhachi has an ancient and venerable history. Zen monks known as komusō used the instrument in a meditation practice known as suizen (blowing zen). It was considered that the development of spirit breath (kisoku) would lead to absolute sound (tettei-on), in which “a single tone contains the entire Universe”. 

Komusō translates as ‘monks of emptiness and nothingness’. The traditional pieces played by the komusō were called honkyoku (original music). Some honkyoku pieces are serenely meditative and picturesque, others are more powerful and dynamic. These pieces have been passed down in an oral tradition since the 14th century, with different playing styles emerging at different times in different parts of Japan.

The legendary shakuhachi master Watazumido commented

If you go deep into the source of where the music is being made, you’ll find something interesting. At the source, everyone’s individual music is made. If you ask what the deep place is, it’s your own life and it’s knowing your own life.

 

My teacher Yokoyama was originally a student of Watazumido, and he went on to become one of the great shakuhachi masters of modern times. Yokoyama played a key role in introducing the shakuhachi to international audiences, performing in concert halls around the world in the 1960’s, at a time when the shakuhachi was more or less unknown outside of Japan. As well as the traditional repertoire he performed new pieces by contemporary composers such as Toru Takamitsu with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. Yokoyama was a true heir of the ancient shakuhachi tradition transmitted down through centuries, and at the same time he pioneered a revolution in modern music for Japanese instruments.

Yokoyama wanted his students to learn the traditional honkyoku pieces from him as precisely as possible, in keeping with the orthodox transmission from master to student, but he also encouraged me to find my own voice within the music. Towards the end of our time together, when I played a Honkyoku piece in the manner I had learnt from him, he said, ‘no, no I want to hear Adrian’s Honkyoku”.

I think the most important lesson I learned from him was not anything to do specifically with the shakuhachi, rather it was that every time you play, it should sound like it’s the one and only time of playing. It never ceased to amaze me the intensity with which he would play. In all the lessons I had with him I don’t think I ever heard him play a single note or phrase that didn’t sound as though his life depended upon it, from the most thunderous blast of sound to the softest whisper on the edge of silence.

These pieces represent an infinite source of wisdom to be tapped. The more you think and feel the depths of this music the more you realise your own depths and that of the universe. These pieces are a way to penetrate inside, to find something true in the depth of the being. Not only something from the past, ancient, old things … it has to emerge from the bamboo as a living, breathing spirit.

Yokoyama Katsuya (1934 – 2010)

Studying for those years in Japan with Yokoyama sensei was an extraordinary privilege, and even though he passed away in 2010 I still feel his presence each time I pick up my bamboo flute. He encouraged me to open my heart through my music, to feel the emotion of the soft passages and to understand that the more active, dynamic passages are preparations for the silence that follows. He seemed to love his foreign students and I felt that our encounter took place in a space beyond national cultures, where the universal vibrations sound.

Since leaving Japan I have taken my music around the world and collaborated with jazz musicians, Celtic musicians, traditional musicians from India, Turkey and Brazil and other countries. I have played on film soundtracks, and used the shakuhachi in my work as a musical director for theatre companies, as well as incorporating it into education projects for schools and colleges.

But I still come back each time to the pure essence of sound and spirit in the ancient practice of ‘blowing zen’ – the deep, unfathomable vibration of this simple bamboo stalk that continues to awaken universal, transcendental echoes in my soul.