The Battle of the Embouchure

It’s been more than a year since I started learning the shakuhachi. It took a few months to get reliable sounds, and then, last summer, I learned my first piece: Kyorei. It’s a relatively simple piece, though there are a couple of tough notes (that tsu-no-meri, which my teacher calls “the soul of the shakuhachi.”)

I played that for a while, started learning bits of two other pieces, then, in the fall, I realized that something was wrong. There was a lot of tension in my lower jaw. In short, I was pushing my jaw out and downward to get a sound, and this was certainly not a good idea.

Embouchure is the word for the position of your mouth on the shakuhachi (it’s used with other instruments that you blow into as well). It’s the most important thing you learn, because it’s how you get sound, regulate your notes, and add nuances, such as meri (flat) notes.

Well, my embouchure was simply wrong. I had to start over. And this was very frustrating. It took months of trial and error, of looking in a mirror, of trying different lip positions and different ways of blowing. I discovered that have a central vermillion tubercle, as well as an overbite. (See this forum post from 2006 by Perry Yung discussing the former, and some others in the thread discussing the latter.) This meant that I needed to learn how to get around these two impediments. (It’s worth noting that I also have pollen allergies, and this spring, there has been very high pollen where I live. When my allergies are active, my lips swell a bit, complicating things even more.)

I think I have finally figured this out. It involves placing the flute a bit to the left of center against my lips, because I blow out air to the left of my tubercle, and, today, my teacher helped me discover the additional thing I needed to do to get sound. I have to turn the shakuhachi about ten degrees to the right, so I’m not blowing straight against the utaguchi, but on a slight angle. It’s possible that as I progress, I’ll be able to adjust this and hold the flute straighter – it’s barely noticeable if you watch me play – and I’m sure as I get more confident in my sound, it will become easier.

I’m sure many people can learn to get good sound out of the instrument more quickly than I have. But for me, it has been a long, yet interesting experience learning how to feel my lips and jaw, and learning how to face the frustration of taking one step forward and three steps back.

Chiku Za Plays Honte No Shirabe

Honte no shirabe is a fairly simple piece for shakuhachi, and I’m starting to learn it myself. It’s quite slow, but in the hands of an expert, like Chiku Za, there is a wide range of subtle dynamics and pitch changes. Listening to his performance here, you can see that there is a lot of bad-assery in his playing, but there is also a firm grounding in what it takes to get the most out of each sound.



John Cage and the Shakuhachi

CageAs a fan of John Cage’s music, I found it very interesting to hear Brian Tairaku Ritchies recording of his piece Ryoanji. I feel that the shakuhachi is ideal for this work.

I went in search of links between Cage and the shakuhachi and have so far found two mentions of the instrument. The first was in a letter written around 1948 to his friend Peter Yates, where he mentions the instrument. The backstory to this is that Kitaro Nyoko Tamada, a friend of Henry Cowell, ran a fruit stand in the area of Los Angeles where Cowell lived. When Cowell found out that Tamada played the instrument, he decided to take it up and ended up comparing The Universal Flute (recorded here by Ralph Samuelson). Cowell organized a concert by some local Japanese-American performers, and Cage later organized a concert for Tamada at Cowell’s home on April 13, 1035.

For many reasons, I would prefer to offer again this year the Sonatas and Interludes, and without other music on the program. In the first place I find “programs” no longer useful, because they stand in the way of the proper use of music which is to quiet and concentrate the mind, and not to giddify it with entertainment, no matter how intellectual. In relation to the shakuhachi music, which is so marvelous, there must be no other music. It is against proper being, unnatural. The same is true of these pieces of mine, and I say it in no spirit of self-praise, but simply in simple thought about what music is and does. I am not interested in success but simply in music. I am fairly certain however that there are a number of people in Los Angeles who have not heard the Sonatas, but heard of them, who would like to hear them. I intend to resist recording these pieces and yet I want to offer them to be heard and used. Having heard them once is a very good beginning for hearing them again. I myself have heard them countless times, and I find them more and more useful, rather than less and less so.

Cage also mentions the shakuhachi in For the Birds (page 200), which is a book of interviews with Daniel Charles. In it he says the following. While it’s not clear that the music he describes is indeed shakuhachi music, it certainly sounds like it:

Just a few weeks ago, I had a very odd experience in a Japanese restaurant in New York. In this restaurant, there was a tape recorder playing Japanese music. Usually, rhythm is stressed, and I don’t particularly like it. I prefer Korean music. In terms of Japanese music, I prefer shakuhachi music, the flute suits me better than the koto. We were conversing while the music was playing. Little by little, during the gaps in our conversation, I realized that the silence is included in the music was extremely long, and that the sounds that occurred were very different from each other. I was surprised by my discovery, because the extent of the tape was absolutely unusual, it was very long. And I had never run across that in traditional Japanese music. This piece wasn’t destined uniquely for Japanese listeners, but for the entire universe, exactly in the manner of the music that [Christian] Wolff writes and plays. In fact, it wasn’t very much different from a work by Wolff. There were sounds, which floated in an immense space, a space of time — and doubtless also in space in general — coming from all parts of space at once, so it seemed to me. Wolff’s pieces certainly convey that explicitly. But here there was only one tape recorder. Everything was coming from it. And it was very, very beautiful. I was unable to recognize any tempo, any periodicity at all. All I was able to identify was the arrival of a few sounds from time to time. I was transported to natural experiences, to my daily life, when I am not listening to music, when sounds simply happen. There is nothing more delicious!

In Silence (page 162), Cage says:

And it seems to me I could listen forever to Japanese shakuhachi music or the Navajo Yeibitchai or I could stand near Richard Lippold’s “Full Moon” any length of time.

In M: Writings ’67-’72 (page 144), Cage says:

And I was attracted by the
natural noises of
breathing in Japanese Shakuhachi
playing. However, instead
of studying with
an oriental master, I chose to study
with Arnold
Schoenberg.

Each Sound Is Really Itself

More so than in western music, the shakuhachi is an instrument where the sound of each note is important. Part of this comes from the fact that, at least in honkyoku, it is a solo instrument, and the only musical sound you hear is these notes. But this is also the case because of the philosophy of playing the shakuhachi. When approached as a tool for meditation, as well as music, then each note needs to be played as truly as possible. I don’t think this means that each note needs to be perfect, because imperfection is part of the music, but that each note needs to be played as if it is the only note to be played at that time.

I was recently reading For the Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles, and Charles was discussing a performance of Cage’s Song Books. Cage said, “They gave a very beautiful performance of it I think.”

Charles asked, “In what sense was it a beautiful performance?”

Cage replied: “In that they performed with great care to make sure that each sound was really itself.”