A Description of Adrian Freedman’s encounter with the shakuhachi, ancient Zen flute of Japan, with an explanation of its unique musical history, and how Adrian came to study in Japan with a great shakuhachi master.
Early shakuhachi players coined the phrase Ichion Jobutsu, which could be translated as ‘enlightenment in a single tone’. It refers to a way of playing each note on the shakuhachi as an act of simple awareness, in resonance with general themes of Zen Buddhist teachings.
The shakuhachi has a history stretching back over a thousand years. Few instruments could appear more simple – a hollow bamboo stalk with only five holes and a notched mouthpiece – yet the shakuhachi is capable of producing an extraordinary range of sounds, from breathily dynamic to delicately soft and extremely subtle sounds.
The shakuhachi is a notoriously difficult instrument to master, but if its enchanting sound gets into you, and if you fall in love with the ancient repertoire of mysterious Zen pieces, then learning to play the shakuhachi can change you in ways that go far beyond the simple act of learning a musical instrument. At least that has been my experience.
I first heard the shakuhachi played by Clive Bell back in 1987 when I was a member of the London Musicians Collective (LMC), an organisation devoted to the support of experimental and improvised music. Clive was at that time one of the very few Western shakuhachi players. He conjured up on the shakuhachi a bewitching array of magical flutterings and penetrating tones unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I asked him if he could teach me, and so began my personal odyssey with the shakuhachi.
After studying for a while in London with Clive I began to meet other musicians with an interest in Japanese music, and to play shakuhachi in various ensembles including Tortoises in Heaven – The English Gagaku Orchestra.