How many times over the years, usually following a concert, have I been asked the question, “Do you make these flutes yourself?” And how many times have I answered “No, I don’t…its way too difficult…I wouldn’t know where to start etc.”
Well those days are over. I am now the proud owner of a 2.6 jinashi flute that plays with excellent tuning, tone and response, and all made by my own hands within a period of 2 days. You could knock me down with a feather.
When I first saw the information about the up-coming Summer School in Barcelona my curiosity was piqued by the news that John Kaizan Neptune would be coming to give a shakuhachi-making workshop for beginners. After 25 years of playing this instrument I instinctively felt the time had come to learn something concrete about the making of it.
I have known several professional shakuhachi makers over the years, both nihonjin and gaijin, and have always been impressed by the long-term dedication and the array of specific skills and tools needed to produce a quality finished flute. I also am aware that the best instrument makers have a touch, a gift, that cannot be bottled, and that most professional instrumentalists do not make their own instruments, just as the best makers seldom are professional players themselves.
Actually, I did not imagine that in Barcelona I might make a functioning flute. Rather I imagined a sort of introduction to some of the makers’ techniques, and that I might come away with a deeper understanding of how these deceptively simple-looking instruments are made, and perhaps some kind of rudimentary instrument on a par with a child’s first wonky efforts at making a clay teacup.
I was rather late and lacking in sleep on the morning of the first day, having given a concert in London the night before and driven straight to the airport for an early morning flight to Barcelona. When I arrived I was greeted by Michael and Horacio, two of the festival organisers, and was directed to a small basement room in a building across the way that was to become my home for the next two days.
The initial scene that met my eyes was of an excited group of about a dozen men and women brandishing raw bamboo stalks of various lengths…mostly 2.3 or longer. John had brought these from Japan from his own stock of bamboo and he was there in the thick of the throng, answering anxious questions, and helping each one of us to choose the individual piece of bamboo that was to become our closest companion over the next couple of days, hopefully to be transformed into a workable instrument.
In addition to the bamboo stalks, John had brought a lot of specialized tools with him and these were complemented by those provided by José Vargas, an instrument maker from Madrid who had come to assist. Most importantly, each participant needed their own small, sharp Japanese knife called a kuri, which we had purchased in advance from José when signing up for the workshop. The other tools consisted mainly of a series of different sized rasps attached to long metal rods, and some very fine-toothed saws. There were also several wooden work boxes with V-shaped notches cut into the sides that were essential for stabilizing the bamboo while we worked on it.
The flutes that John was going to help us to make would of course be simple jinashi flutes, without the inlaid utaguchi, urushi, rattan binding or any other of the finer details. Still to me, in those early moments of the workshop, finding myself in an environment where everything was new, in cramped conditions, feeling slightly woozy from lack of sleep, and surrounded by eager voices in multiple languages…I would not have imagined that three days later I would be on stage playing a sweet rendition of Auld Lang Syne (in the rather unusual key of Ab) on a newly-fashioned but perfectly playable flute.
This brief article is not the place to give an in-depth description of the various stages necessary to make a shakuhachi, athough I will attempt to sketch them out.
We needed initially to open the top and bottom ends of the bamboo stalk and knock out the nodes (fushi) to give a roughly uniform diameter to the bore. We needed to take a lot of care in opening the top, not to remove too much material so as not to have the diameter of the opening too large; John gave us specific dimensions to aim for here.
We then needed to create the mouthpiece. Here we used an extremely sharp hacksaw to cut across the top at 45 degrees, and then a special cylindrical file to create the half-moon shape that would form the all-important blowing edge. This was a rather nerve-wracking stage as I knew just how crucial the shape and angle of the blowing edge would be to the eventual tone and response of the instrument. And so it was with slightly sweaty palms I lifted the bamboo to my lips and … to my great surprise … I played my first ro. That was a pretty thrilling, primal moment. And although each participant was working at a different rate and tools were needing to be shared, within a relatively short time the room was filled with the earnest, breathy, other-worldly sound of a dozen rustic jinashi flutes all playing ro at varying pitches.
The next thing we needed to do was to decide whether we were happy with the basic pitch of the flute. Largely this was predetermined by the length of the bamboo, and could be tested by playing ro into an electronic tuner, however at this stage we could still adjust the pitch by shortening the length in one of two ways – either cutting a slice from the root end, or removing a section from the top, the second option being more time-consuming and rather more complicated. We also could open up the bore at the bottom and adjust the pitch in that way. Some of the participants were keen to ensure that they could adjust the pitch of their flute to conform to a recognisable pitch within realm of A=440. Others (myself included) were content to let the natural pitch of the bamboo speak for itself in true jinashi style.
On to the other holes, and here we needed a buddy to hold the flute securely for us while we used a drill press to cut into the bamboo … slightly smaller sized drill bit for the 3rd hole than the other four.
I should say that each stage of the practical side of the making process was preceded by explanations and illustrated examples given by John. So for example, before we began to actually drill the holes, he had given us a rather detailed exposition on the various theories concerning the placement of the holes and their relative position, proportional to the length of bamboo. I won’t go into those here, just to say that the experience of learning with John was fascinating as much for the breadth of information he imparted as it was for the practical results we managed to achieve.
Once the holes had been drilled we began the process of balancing the sound, both in terms of the tonal response and the pitch. If one or more of the notes was tonally weak compared to the others, or flat/sharp compared to the others, then adjustments needed to be made. This was achieved by a combination of making the holes bigger or smaller, filing down the inside walls and edges of the holes, and other means of subtly modifying the sound. This task was to take up the bulk of the remainder of our time in the shakuhachi-making workshop, and in fact it became clear that these subtle skills lie at the heart of what it takes to be a good shakuhachi maker. And although we could only go so far down this road within the time available, we did have the opportunity to learn first-hand something of just what is required in terms of patience and judgement in this trial-and–error process.
In fact John told us that he often can spend half a day working on just one note, and he also commented that he had known shakuhachi makers who had gone crazy trying to make a instrument that would meet the approval of their sensei…..endless hours of mind-clenching anticipation with each new attempt to get a particular note to come into focus with clear tone and pitch…only to have sensei dismiss the maker’s efforts with a shrug and shake of the head…. The main problem being that as one particular note comes into focus, so one or more of the other notes can slide into fuzzy, ill-defined, ambiguous husks of sound….
Perhaps within the larger world of shakuhachi makers/teachers/performers there are those who would say that such natural imperfections in sound should not be tampered with, especially with a jinashi flute…they are part and parcel of the natural order of an infinite universe and as such there lies a ‘zen-like’ purity of spirit in the asymmetry of sound… But John Kaizan Neptune is not of this school. He began working on the acoustics of the shakuhachi thirty years ago, as he was unable to find an instrument with the kind of balance he was looking for no matter how much he paid for a flute, and so he began making his own shakuhachi.
In fact John has developed his own theory of ‘pressure points’ within the flute. He explained to us how this came to him as a kind of epiphany one day when he realized that the naturally occurring points of the harmonic waveforms within the bore of the bamboo stalk were at different locations from the position of the actual holes. He therefore experimented with adding minute amounts of resin to the inside of the bore, at these ‘pressure points’, and discovered that in doing so he was able to affect the tone quality and pitch of the notes. He subsequently developed this theory into a system of precise measurements that he has refined into a ‘pressure point chart’.
He then illustrated to us how he would use pieces of damp paper inserted into the bore to experiment with the effect of narrowing the bore at certain specific points.
All of this seemed pretty sophisticated to us novice instrument makers, nonetheless we experimented, with varying results. Personally I was quite taken aback to hear the effect upon the tone that these minute adjustments to the bore would create, and also it was rather overwhelming to realize that each adjustment to one particular note would affect the other notes, such that it was not so difficult to imagine how one could indeed lose one’s mind if one were to sit there day-in day-out engaged in such a process without correspondingly successful results.
Once I had done as much as I felt I could on perfecting the tone and tuning of my flute, there remained a few details to do with the finish….adding a thin layer of superglue to the blowing edge to make it more durable, using extremely fine sandpaper around the mouthpiece where I had filled in and leveled off the surface using a mixture of bamboo sawdust and resin, polishing the inside of the bore at the bell end, and subtly smoothing off the edges of the finger holes.
The following day, the last day of the summer school, John asked us all to come together with our new flutes to create an ensemble piece for the students’ concert later that day. It was a joyous experience for all…firstly for the participants, many of whom were quietly astonished at what they had managed to produce within two days, and secondly for John, who clearly has an undiminished enthusiasm for the shakuhachi and for his capacity to empower players like myself who sign up for a workshop never imagining they will come away with a treasured instrument.
Actually I first had met John when we both performed at the inaugural conference of the Green Cross International hosted by Mikhail Gorbachev in Kyoto in 1992. I met him again a couple of years later in 1994 at the first International Shakuhachi Festival in Okayama, but I had not seen him since then, a period of nearly twenty years. On those previous occasions I had only had the briefest of encounters with John and therefore it was a great pleasure to spend more quality time with him in Barcelona.
As a workshop leader John made a deep impression on me through his generosity of spirit. When he was not demonstrating a particular technique to the group there was an endless stream of students queuing up before him for advice and guidance, and he seemed to have limitless patience for each one of us, working throughout the day without even a pause to stretch his limbs or have glass of water. He was always authentically positive in his comments and had a great sense of humour, balancing the time he gave demonstrating to the group with the individual support he gave to each student. I would like to extend to my gratitude to John, as well as to José and to the festival organisers who had the foresight to arrange this workshop as part of the Summer School.
When I came home from Barcelona I took my new flute to a local chapel and, in the cool stillness of the night, far from the cramped and noisy confines of that basement room, I recorded a piece which you can listen to here: