Adrian Freedman’s musical life has been led by a search for the purity of melodic line, a fascination with musical traditions from around the world, and a call to explore inner realms through the dimension of sound.

I was born in Leeds in the North of England in 1962. From the earliest age music had a hold over me above all other things. I started piano lessons at the tender age of five and violin lessons at seven. The strongest early musical influence I remember was seeing a TV program about the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong when I was about 8 years old. Following that I became obsessed by the trumpet and spent the remainder of my school years playing trumpet in jazz bands, brass bands and orchestras. I loved the big band sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Maynard Ferguson.

When I was 14 my mum took me to a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 10th Symphony in Leeds Town Hall conducted by Simon Rattle. This was a powerful experience that awakened in me a love for classical orchestral music that grew from Mahler to include Stravinsky, Xenakis and others. I also loved the piano music of Bartok and Debussy.

In 1980 I went to Manchester University to study music. There I studied composition with Robin Walker and Geoff Poole, and I became intrigued by the music of contemporary composers such as Stockhausen and John Cage. It was also at this time that I first encountered the sounds of Japanese traditional music, in particular the eerily dissonant strains of the ancient Japanese Gagaku Orchestra.

Graduating from Manchester University I received a bursary from the Centre Archanthes in Paris to study composition with the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who was a pioneer in the use of mathematical models in music composition and was an extraordinarily inventive and original composer of new music for unusual instrumental ensembles.

On returning to the UK I became immersed in studies of Baroque instrumental music. Like most children I had been introduced to the recorder in the school classroom, but in my case, that basic introduction developed later into a passion for the music of J.S. Bach and other composers of the 17th and 18th centuries.  I played recorder sonatas with harpsichord, viola da gamba, archlute and other period instruments.

In stark contrast to playing Baroque sonatas on the recorder, I also at this time played drums in an experimental rock band, The Old Men, with Edward Barton and Patrick Mooney, performing at Manchester clubs such as The International and The Hacienda.

In 1985 my love for Baroque music and the recorder took me to postgraduate studies in London at the Guildhall School of Music. My teacher was the Dutch virtuoso recorder player Peter Holtslag. I collaborated in recitals with other musicians including Pamela Thorby, James Johnstone and Taru Takeuchi, and formed a new group – the Salaverde Ensemble. At this time I also continued composition studies with Robert Saxton.

During the four years I lived in London I also collaborated with many musicians on the avant-garde music scene, performing experimental and improvised music at the London Musicians Collective, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and other venues.

I played in the contemporary music ensemble City Garden, giving performances of music by Steve Reich, Luciano Berio and other modern composers as well as our own new music. In 1986 we performed the piece Goldstaub by Karlheinz Stockhausen. This piece consists of a set of verbal instructions given to a group of musicians:

Live completely alone for four days without food, in complete silence, without much movement. Sleep as little as necessary. Think as little as possible. After four days, late at night, without conversation before hand, play single sounds. WITHOUT THINKING which you are playing. Close your eyes.
Just listen.

All this time my interest in Japanese music was growing. Together with musician friends who shared a similar interest, a new group was formed, Tortoises in Heaven – The London Gagaku Orchestra. This was an unusual ensemble, creating distinctive-sounding arrangements of 8th Century Japanese orchestral court music on a mixture of Oriental and Western instruments.

It was around this time that I discovered the shakuhachi, Japanese Zen flute. The first time I heard this instrument I was astonished by the beautiful sound and expressive power of such a simple bamboo flute, and thus began a life-long love affair with this unique instrument. I began my shakuhachi studies in London with Clive Bell, who was at that time one of the very few shakuhachi players outside of Japan.

In 1987 I moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the North East of England where I began to work as a composer and musical director for theatre, including projects with Northern Stage, Northern Sinfonia, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Dodgy Clutch Theatre. I created soundtracks for short films for Tyne Tees TV, and devised music for street theatre projects.

Throughout this period I was continuing to commute from Newcastle to London for shakuhachi lessons from Clive Bell, but at a certain point I realised that I needed to leave all my work in the UK and go to live Japan in order to deepen my studies into the ancient shakuhachi repertoire.

I wrote a letter to the renowned shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya, getting a Japanese friend to translate, asking whether he would take me on as student. To my surprise Yokoyama wrote back and invited me to go to Japan to study with him. Thus in the summer of 1990 I found myself living in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was to become my home for the next eight years.

With Yokoyama-sensei I commenced my studies of the shakuhachi in earnest, in particular the ancient honkyoku repertoire that originated with the Komuso Zen monks.  I also began to study minyō, Japanese folk music, with Kadoya Kōzan, whilst learning Gagaku music with Tenrikyo Gagaku Orchestra. In 1993 I received a Japanese government scholarship to attend Kyoto Arts University as a research fellow, to compose new music for shakuhachi and other traditional Japanese instruments.

Other musicians I collaborated with during this period included Kyokusei Katayama, Hiroki Okano, John Kaizan Neptune, Esoh and Ema, Paul Winter, Matsumoto Montz and Joshua Pearl. I also worked extensively as a composer with Japanese Butoh dancers and choreographers, including Yurabe Masami, Katsura Kan, Atsushi Takanouchi and Nobutaka Kishi, creating and performing music for Japanese contemporary dance. I composed soundtracks for two short Butoh films, Tracing A Vein and Curtain Of Eyes, directed by the Chicago filmmaker Danièle Wilmouth.

I began working as a sound recordist for the Canadian filmmaker Christopher Fryman, making documentaries in Japan for the BBC, CBC and the Discovery Channel. We travelled the length and breadth of Japan, making films about earthquakes and volcanoes, sumo wrestlers, the Japanese Space Station, the Nagano Winter Olympics, the Kodo Drummers and other topics.

In August 1991, whilst travelling through Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Express a chance encounter in the restaurant car led to the formation of the folk-fusion group East Whistle, featuring Hugh Nankivell (guitar and viola) and Melissa Holding (shamisen and accordion) and Joe Townsend (violin and). Over the next few years we recorded several albums and performed concert tours in Japan, Europe and the US, including headlining with Doc Watson at the Black Mountain Folk Festival in North Carolina.

In 1995 I met a group of  Brazilian singers and musicians from the Amazon that were travelling in Japan leading sacred ceremonies with teacher plants. This meeting had a profound effect upon my life, as I entered into a deep relationship with this powerful transformational healing work.
The dynamic energy of Brazil that could be felt in these ceremonies was in stark contrast to the refined world of Zen and Japanese aesthetics that I was living in at the time, but somehow it all fitted together as different parts of my soul were able to be nourished by these different cultures.

Over the next few years I continued to live in Kyoto, while making regular trips to Brazil, visiting various forest communities and becoming more and more immersed in the simple melodies and rhythms of sacred forest rituals. By 1999 I was living there, in a small hut in a forest community by the Amazon rainforest. 

At this time I began channeling my own medicine songs, which was an initiation into a new way of receiving music, totally different from the manner of musical composition I had known up until that time. Since that time and to this date I have received over 180 medicine songs and chants in my two hinários or songbooks, Song Of The Eternal Heart and Lotus Rising.

In 2002 I took a job as Musical Director for Kneehigh Theatre Company and returned to Cornwall in the UK. Here I worked for the next few years composing music for a stunning series of landscape theatre productions, staged in Malta, Cyprus, France and other places. In the course of this work I came to work with Cypriot folk singers, French jazz musicians, African gospel singers, Maltese brass bands, youth community orchestras and all manner of music-makers across a huge range of musical styles.

In 2007 I retired from this demanding work schedule and withdrew for a couple of years to focus on shakuhachi and meditation practice, as well as the plant spirit medicine traditions to which I was still deeply connected to.

I came out of this reflective period with fresh musical inspiration, leading to a series of new collaborations.

Together with the innovative classical cellist Matthew Barley, we devised a new suite of pieces for shakuhachi and cello, culminating in the album –Night Journey.

I formed the duo Two Rivers with Ravi Freeman. Ravi was one of the first Western exponents of the African kora, having collaborated with violinist Nigel Kennedy, Senegalese singer Baba Maal and blues legend Dr. John amongst others. Through the vehicle of the Two Rivers project, Ravi and I began to explore the synergy of shakuhachi and kora in an ongoing series of concerts and recordings, including the album Two Rivers.

In 2010 I formed The Anjali Orchestra  – a short-lived but extraordinary acoustic ensemble of multi-instrumentalists who shared the same twin passions of spiritual practice and world music. We came together in self-organised musical retreats to devise new music from contemplative practice and gave a series of concerts around the UK.

In 2013 I started to return to Japan and to reconnect with musicians there. Since then have been visiting Japan regularly and giving a series of solo shakuhachi recitals in the temples and gardens of Kyoto, as well as developing new musical projects with Japanese artists including ambient music pioneer Hiroki Okano, didgeridoo player Kenji Mikami, Esoh and Ema of the ensemble Yurai, Butoh dancer Atsushi Takenouchi and others.

In 2014 I was extremely honoured to play the shakuhachi for his Holiness the Dalai Lama when he was visiting Kyoto.

More recent projects include collaborations with the singer Chloë Goodchild, the drumming group Kagemusha TaikoAndy Barlow of the electronica group Lamb, tabla player Sanju Sahai, Okinawan singer Kyoko Tadaoka, Belgian storyteller Iwan Kushka, singer songwriters Lua Maria, and  Ayla Schaeffer and Sounding Bowl maker Tobias Kaye.

In 2021 I began to work with the Norwegian record label Nixi Music, and together we released the album Kindred Souls, which brought together a suite of recordings in collaboration with artists from around the world including Txai Fernando from Brazil, Adnan Agha from Syria, Kuauhtli Vasquez from Mexico, Pavel Sedlacek from the Czech Republic, Tao Txana from Turkey, Yoshikuki Yao from Japan, Sigmund Vatvedt from Norway, Sam Lee from the UK and many others. Plus a unique live duet for Nightingale and shakuhachi.

2024 will see the release of my new album A Thousand Petals – recordings of medicine mantra songs from the Lotus Rising songbook, in collaboration with Deva Premal, Ayla Schafer, Chandra Lacombe, Helen Bøksle, Darpan, Sanju Sahai, Misha Mullov Abbado and Geshe Lama Ahbay Tulku Rinpoche.

My life in music with all its contrasting musical forms, with all the people, places, performances and projects, is an ongoing, unfolding journey of discovery and healing in which music is the guiding light, music is the flow, and music is the beating heart and soul. Through this journey I have found that I am naturally drawn to the music of sacred traditions, music of ritual and ceremony, music for meditation, music of devotional practice, music of the mountain temples and forest clearings, music played in the stillness of the dawn and the magic of the full moon, music of transformative power, music that penetrates the veil – a transcendental acoustic music of the heart.

Music gives soul to the universe, wings to the soul, flight to the imagination, charm to sadness and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate and eternal form. 

Plato (427 – 347 BC)

Here is a selection of tracks from my Life In Music

  • Canzona Terza - Bartolomé di Selma y Salaverde
  • Funky Eagle - Adrian Freedman and Jim Carey
  • Princess Royal - Turlough O’Carolan
  • Agenbite of Inwit - Adrian Freedman
  • Magic Moon - Adrian Freedman
  • Etenraku - Traditional
  • Musical Priest - Traditional
  • Consecration - Adrian Freedman and Andy Barlow
  • Sayonara - Adrian Freedman
  • Three Knights - Traditional
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