Today, I had the privilege of hearing shakuhachi played for the first time at Haverford College by James Nyoraku Schlefer. Professor Hank Glassman, professor of East Asian Studies at Haverford College, started the program by introducing the idea of the shakuhachi and giving a little background on Mr. Schlefer. Then, Schlefer jumped straight into the program with a traditional piece titled “Kumoijishi”.
Starting from the back of the audience, Schlefer winded through the aisles and gradually wandered to the front of the stage in an unhurried manner. Covering his head was a large basket, setting the scene for a very surreal performance. The sound of the shakuhachi is very different from what I’m used to – it sounds much more natural and breathier than the western flute.
After the first piece, Schlefer introduced the shakuhachi. A flute created from bamboo, the root end faces away from the player and four holes are cut into the front of the flute while one hole is cut into the back. The inside of the shakuhachi is covered with lacquer, but other than that, few other modifications are made. I was astonished by the incredible range of notes that Schlefer was able to produce with such a simple instrument. Also, vibrato was created by a head-shaking movement, which was very interesting to me. Schlefer explained that the shakuhachi was primarily used as a tool for meditation by monks in olden times. This explained the basket he wore in the first piece – during meditation, one seeks to empty oneself of thoughts, or as Schlefer called it, “ma”. The basket represented an emptiness of the ego, rendering the shakuhachi player anonymous.
Schlefer continued with his repertoire, interspersing more history about the shakuhachi along with his own experiences with learning it. Schlefer first encountered shakuhachi while he was in graduate school and has been awarded a dai-shi-han grandmaster’s license. He also performed one of his own compositions, titled “Brooklyn Reibo”, a composition containing traditional honkyoku elements while also adding contemporary sounds.
Personally, my favorite piece of the night was “Matsu Kaze”, a piece from Aomori in northern Japan. A unique style of playing called “komibuki”, or “crowded breath”, is very effectively employed in the piece. Pulsating breaths are used instead of a typical vibrato, creating a hauntingly beautiful echoing effect.
All in all, I really enjoyed the performance and am very glad I was able to hear shakuhachi for the first time today!
Shakuhachi sheet music is relatively new, as in the past, compositions were passed down by ear. I’ve never seen sheet music like this before!