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.

There came a turning point when I heard a recording of the Japanese shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya and I was electrified by his playing. Literally it felt like electric shocks going all up and down my body. Although clearly coming from another time and space, the music seemed intimately familiar and echoed in my heart like a call from some unknown universal depths. I knew I had to go to Japan and study with Yokoyama if at all possible.

Through the International Shakuhachi Society I managed to track down the address of Yokoyama in Japan, then I wrote to him, getting a Japanese friend to translate the letter, and asked if he would teach me. Surprisingly I heard back from Yokoyama within a couple of weeks, and he invited me to go to Japan and study with him. I went to Japan initially for a year in 1990, and ended up staying until 1998. Yokoyama did not speak any English, and my own Japanese skills were minimal in the beginning, but he was able to communicate directly and powerfully through his music.

At first I found myself nerve-wracked in the lessons with him, bathed in sweat, trying to remember all the subtleties of fingering I been shown, but Yokoyama sensei was a very patient and compassionate teacher. I think he appreciated that people like myself and his other foreign students would travel so far determined to learn the shakuhachi.

The shakuhachi has a venerable history associated with Zen monks known as komus ō who used the instrument in their meditation practice. Komus ō translates as ‘Monks of Emptiness and Nothingness’. It was considered that the development of spirit breath (kisoku) could lead to absolute sound (tettei-on), in which “a single tone contains the entire universe”.

The traditional pieces played by the komus ō were called honkyoku (original music). Some honkyoku pieces are serenely meditative and picturesque, others are more dynamic. The pieces have been passed down in an oral tradition since the 14th century, with different playing styles emerging at different times in different parts of Japan.

If you go deep into the source of where the music is being made, you’ll find something interesting. At the source, everyone’s individual music is made. If you ask what the deep place is, it’s your own life and it’s knowing your own life.
Watazumi Doso Roshi (1911-1992)

My teacher Yokoyama was originally a student of the legendary shakuhachi player Watazumi Doso Roshi. He went on to become one of the great modern shakuhachi masters. Yokoyama introduced the shakuhachi to international audiences in the 1960s, performing in concert halls around the world at a time when the shakuhachi was more or less unknown outside of Japan. As well as more traditional pieces, Yokoyama also performed contemporary music for shakuhachi and orchestra.

Yokoyama wanted his shakuhachi students to learn the traditional honkyoku pieces as precisely as possible, in keeping with the orthodox method of transmission from master to student, but he also encouraged us to find our own voice within the music.

I never ceased to be amazed by the intensity with which Yokoyama would play, not only in concerts and recordings, but in lessons too. I don’t think I ever heard him play a single note that didn’t sound as though his life depended upon it. He taught me that there are no rehearsals – every single note you play is as important as any other note you might ever play. 

Miura 1.8 shakuhachi closeup of bell. Photo: Adrian Freedman.
These pieces represent an infinite source of wisdom to be tapped. The more you think and feel the depths of this music the more you realise your own depths and that of the universe. These pieces are a way to penetrate inside, to find something true in the depth of the being. Not only something from the past, old things … it has to emerge from the bamboo as a living, breathing spirit.
Yokoyama Katsuya (1934 – 2010)

Studying for those years in Japan with Yokoyama sensei was an extraordinary privilege, and even though he passed away in 2010 I still feel his presence each time I pick up my bamboo flute. He encouraged me to open my heart through my music, to feel the emotion of the soft passages and to understand that the more active, dynamic passages are preparations for the silence that follows. He seemed to love his foreign students and I felt that our encounter took place in a space beyond national cultures, where the universal vibrations sound.

Since leaving Japan I have taken my music around the world and collaborated with jazz musicians, Celtic musicians, traditional musicians from India, Turkey and Brazil and other countries. I have played on film soundtracks, and used the shakuhachi in my work as a musical director for theatre companies, as well as incorporating it into education projects for schools and colleges.

But I still come back each time to the pure essence of sound and spirit in the ancient practice of ‘blowing zen’ – the deep, unfathomable vibration of this simple bamboo stalk that continues to awaken universal, transcendental echoes in my soul.

Adrian has recorded several albums of shakuhachi music, including the following

Music on the Edge of Silence

An album of solo music for shakuhachi. Deeply contemplative. A mixture of traditional Japanese pieces and original compositions by Adrian Freedman.

As I Breathe

A new album of meditative music for solo shakuhachi and other instruments. Featuring Japanese musicians Esoh and Ema (yangqin and erhu) as well as Neil Davey (bouzouki), Heather Golding (voice) and Rebecca Jackson (cello).

Two Rivers

A suite of duets with master musician Ravi Freeman who plays African Kora, steel-string guitar, Bulgarian kaval, percussion and overtone singing.

The Phoenix Tree

A collaboration with singer-songwriter Lua Maria.

Evocative duets for shakuhachi and Native American Indian flute, together with acoustic arrangements of original songs by Lua Maria and Adrian.

Night Journey

A collaboration with cellist Matthew Barley.

Spacious, sonorous tones, melodies and harmonies, improvised in a lyrical flow.

A new film of Adrian recorded in Kurodani Temple, Kyoto, in April 2017.

A short film made in Japan in 1994 with music composed and performed by Adrian.