Friday, June 24, 2011

Resounding with Yamaguchi's Empty Bell

When I first began studying shakuhachi in 2009, I attended a concert by my teacher.  I had been playing for just a few months and only had a couple of lessons under by belt, but I egotistically felt that I was making above average progress.  After his performance, though, I felt somewhat inspired, but mostly deflated.  On the one hand, I was excited about the eventual possibility of getting closer to his level of playing, but the amount of work and study that was to be done to get there extended far, far beyond the meager progress I had made. 

To make any serious progress in a new musical style, it’s a really good idea to actually listen to it.  This may seem incredibly obvious, but I taught jazz for many years to students who, by and large, did not listen to jazz and relied on me as the sole representative of the genre.  I don’t blame them – jazz struggles to be heard in its own homeland.  From my perspective, the best I could hope for was to open the door to a style and a way of listening to it by providing a conceptual framework within which to listen.  So, to put my money where my mouth was and combat the intimidating learning curve of the shakuhachi, I stopped by Waterloo after the concert to browse their world music section in the hopes of finding a representative recording to study.

I came across A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky by Yamaguchi Goro, and purchased it by the virtue of the Nonesuch Explorer Series name (I bought a great album of Shona Mbira music from this label during my ethnomusicology studies).  True to form, it is an excellent rerelease by a master player.  At the time, however, it took a significant amount of concentration to give it the attention it deserved.  The shakuhachi’s ethereal and otherworldly sound was easily relegated to the background as my mind traveled restlessly through its undending “to-do” list.

In returning to this album after a year and a half’s worth of practice, I found it much, much more engaging and exciting.  As I have gained a somewhat paltry bodily awareness of what is necessary to play shakuhachi, I found myself “performing” in a more active way as I listened.  To put it another way, the recording “felt” more real – it’s not “just sound” anymore!  The physical implications of Yamaguchi’s sound provided me with a more nuanced appreciation of his complete and total mastery over the basics that I struggle with.

I was also fortunate to find this frustratingly unembeddable clip of the late Yamaguchi performing an excerpt of Sokaku-Reibo (Depicting the Cranes in Their Nests).  I assume that its embedding has been disabled to the keep the often highly charged opinions of the international shakuhachi community to a minimum. Regardless, it's worth clicking over to if you have the ability.  His incredible physical stillness belies the eloquence of his performance.

I still get an overwhelming mix of inspiration and intimidation from this recording, of course.  All of Yamaguchi's subtle ornamentations and pitch variances are meticulously measured in ways that indicate a lifetime’s worth of practice.  As an outsider to the style, I will never even get close to this level of performance, but, in a way similar to other Japanese arts, it’s the path and not the product that’s really the goal.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah that's wicked. Remember environment. I just don't see shakuhachi being mastered from the comforts of your living room. You must journey deep into an ancient bamboo forest were the sounds of ancient battles are still carried by the winds and ghosts of ancient warriors are still engaged in a struggle for supremacy.

    Or journey to the top of a mountain that has 500,000 steps until you reach it's peak! Then, only then, will you be able to master an instrument like that!

    Or play at a few thousand tradition Japanese tea ceremonies. This instrument has a really unique sound. I can dig it!