- Visionary Tones: Traditional and Contemporary Kinko Style Shakuhachi Music by Christopher Yohmei Blasdel
The Japanese shakuhachi presently leads a dual existence. On the one hand, the shakuhachi functions as an important mainstay of Japanese traditional, "classical" music (hôgaku) as both an instrument of solo performance and an ensemble instrument [as well as serving] in modern composition[,] as it can be easily adapted to Western tonality and play numerous extended techniques. . . . On the other hand, the shakuhachi is perceived by many players as an instrument of Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice. . . .
So opens Jay Keister (2004, 99–100) in his recent article, "The Shakuhachi as Spiritual Tool: A Japanese Buddhist Instrument in the West," in which he considers this "dual character" of the shakuhachi, encompassing traditional vs. contemporary musical styles, as well as spiritual vs. Western associations, with a particular interest in the use of the instrument in spiritual practice as pursued by the many non-Japanese devotees of this evocative instrument.
Christopher Yohmei Blasdel is just one such musician/scholar who has devoted his life to the study of shakuhachi, and indeed, his own writings on the topic serve as a valuable resource for Keister's article. According to the liner notes to Blasdel's latest recording, Visionary Tones: Traditional and Contemporary Kinko Style Shakuhachi Music, and his website (www2.gol.com/users/yohmei), Blasdel began his study of shakuhachi over thirty years ago with master performer Gorô Yamaguchi, receiving an MFA in ethnomusicology from Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 1982, and his professional name, "Yohmei," from Yamaguchi in 1984 (liner notes). He has continued to be an active performer both in Japan and around the world, with an impressive discography (see his website for the full list of releases), while also composing original works and writing "the foremost English language book about the shakuhachi" (liner notes), The Shakuhachi, A Manual for Learning (Ongaku no Tomo-sha, 1988), as well as Shakuhachi Odyssey (Kawade Publishers, 2000), in which he describes his life-experience with the shakuhachi, and received the Rennyo Award for non-fiction. Blasdel also assisted in organizing the World Shakuhachi Festival [End Page 143] '98 and is the artistic director of the Fukuoka Gendai Hôgaku Festival, once again demonstrating his commitment not only to his personal pursuit of the shakuhachi, but also his desire to spread the study of the instrument globally. Blasdel continues to teach Japanese music at International Christian University and Temple University in Tokyo.
Just as Keister describes, Blasdel clearly has a passion for the spiritual potential of the shakuhachi, an arguably unique quality of the instrument when compared to other traditional Japanese instruments such as the koto (Japanese zither) or shamisen (Japanese three-string lute), which do not have such strong religious associations (Keister 2004, 99–100). The connection of the shakuhachi with religious practice has roots dating back to the Tokugawa period (1600–1867) when komusô, unemployed samurai who took religious orders, proliferated. Linda Fujie, in "East Asia/Japan" from Worlds of Music (1989), argues that komusô established what would become known as the honkyoku repertoire. She explains that "komusô (literally, 'emptiness monks') were Buddhist priests who wandered the countryside, playing the shakuhachi and begging. . . . These samurai-turned-priests made their mark on the shakuhachi repertoire [as] the honkyoku, or main solo repertoire for the instrument, derives from the pieces played by the komusô [who] were organized into the Fuke sect of Buddhism, which propagated a Zen basis for shakuhachi playing" (339). However, in the twentieth century, the religious connection diminished with increased emphasis on musical pyrotechnics. According to Blasdel, "the pieces played by the komusô. . . were originally simple, unadorned meditations on sound [but] most styles of shakuhachi playing have become secular and emphasize musical rather than religious aspects. Of these, the Kinko style has developed a repertory of subtle, highly complex ornamentation, creating musically refined honkyoku that . . . still appeal to our sense of mystery" (liner notes).