Gary Warner finds the shakuhachi Japanese flute evocative not only through its music when played, but also through the sounds produced in its making.
Every form of making has its distinctive sonic typology, consequent to its particular materials, tools and processes. Some sounds of making are diagnostic, aiding the skilled maker who has listened to learn and learnt to listen. Other sounds are meditative, rhythmic, familiar, holding the maker in the creative space of flow where listening shifts from conscious attention to subconscious intuitive responsiveness. Yet other sounds require being protected from, pushing against our human limits, threatening pain and injury through excessive amplitude or at frequencies that are difficult to process physiologically, such as the infrasonic and ultrasonic registers.
The ethereal uplifting sound of a shakuhachi being played with skill borne of experience, dedication and feeling in the moment is captivating for the open-hearted listener. For the Japanese or informed non-Japanese listener (there are many shakuhachi players, makers and listeners outside Japan), layers of cultural reference and resonance add further nuance to the listening encounter.
But before the sound of its playing, what are the sounds of a shakuhachi’s making? Those sounds known only to the maker – relegated by others perhaps as noise, unexamined sounds, a sonic by-product with little perceived value. And where might that catalogue of sounds—making a shakuhachi—begin?
In the wind-rustled bamboo grove, tall hollow-chambered columns clack together and intone their eery creaking to the night. The skilled maker knows where the slower-growing, more resonant columns thrive. Only those with the correct development of span between nodes can be used. A saw rasps, a small crescent shovel is knocked carefully but forcefully into the earth. Chopping at thick fibrous roots, pulling clinging root fibres until the four to five-year-old culm is finally removed, tearing in separation from the ground.
Cleaning the freshly selected sections, wiping, brushing and carrying them, bundled, back to the workshop. Soon after harvest, a charcoal fire crackling below the stems, a barely perceptible hiss of evaporating oils and moisture. The slow weeks of outdoor drying, crackling from the energy of the sun as it rises. Then years in a cool, dry place. Each time the moving and stacking offer characteristic hollow clunks, a variety of tones relating to length, density, and width. The maker hears them, subconsciously noting predictive sonic qualities.
A length of bamboo collected years prior is brought into the workshop. Hardened roots projecting from the base are progressively snipped and smoothed. Any unwanted curvature is corrected by heat and tension. The length must be opened end to end to carry its player’s breath. A kiri, a long shafted hand-augur, is used to slowly bore into the solid base and through the four or five membranes separating the air cells within. These new openings are gradually shaped with garibo rasps. Other specialised tools might be used to create a uniform bore. The sounds of these actions resonate within the gradually hollowing tube, giving clues to the sonic potential of the developing instrument.
The shakuhachi is an end-blown flute. It requires a resonator—the utaguchi (“song mouth”)—a surface to turn breath into a wave of oscillating air through the hollowed tube. A fine-toothed saw is used to carefully cut a sharply defined bevel from the top edge of the tube. The bevel is traditionally notched and inlaid with horn, ivory or bone to provide a secure, long-lasting utaguchi. Here, the maker’s skill is paramount in shaping and fixing the inlay. Different shapes and materials of utaguchi point to different lineages of making.
The shakuhachi is now ready to produce a first note—the ro, a fundamental tone determined by length. Fine adjustments are made at the lower end—shaving, opening out – to achieve a desired fundamental. Each of the five finger holes, four on top and one below, is then carefully marked and drilled out, sometimes to suit the maker’s hand, who will also be the player. Later, as the shakuhachi is finely tuned, slivers of bamboo will be carved out within these holes to anchor the basic notes of ro, tsu, re, chi and ha.
Shakuhachi comprising two pieces connected by a tightly sealed mortise-and-tenon-type joint are nakatsugi kan; nobe kan are one piece. Many shakuhachis are coated inside with ji paste, a traditional mixture of clay powder and urushi lacquer—these are jiari; others are left in their natural state – these are jinashi. Whatever the type, the instrument is constantly tested, worked and re-tested throughout the making processes to achieve optimum sonic qualities according to the subjectivity of the maker. Finally, the unique heard-by-few sounds of the instrument’s formation make way for the familiar sounds of its formal purpose, a mystical vehicle to carry a sonic poetry of breath. But the bamboo will continue to change and may need further attention years later to hold its tone and tune. In this way, a shakuhachi is always becoming and never really completed.
The shakuhachi originated centuries ago as a humble instrument of an itinerant Japanese Zen Buddhist sect whose monks used it for meditation and collecting alms. They did not consider the sounds they made as music but rather as a form of sutra chanting.
In the late 1960s, Japanese avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to write a new work. The result was “November Steps”, a piece for shakuhachi, biwa (Japanese 4-string wooden lute) and Western orchestral instruments. From there, the shakuhachi has become an instrument made and played by like-minded people of different cultural heritages worldwide.
Further reading, listening and viewing
Kodama Hiroyuki shows how to make jinashi shakuhachi, 2021.
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