Elizabeth Talks About the Shakuhachi

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Elizabeth Reian Bennett, Shakuhachi. Photo: Susan Wilson

An Interview with Elizabeth Reian Bennett

1. How did you get into playing the shakuhachi?

I became interested in Chinese and Chinese art in high school, which led to a general interest in Asia. I later studied Japanese and went to many Japanese movies, which is where I heard the shakuhachi for the first time. While I was studying Chinese art history at Yale, I found out that Wesleyan University, a 45-minute bus ride away, had a program in Japanese music, with a shakuhachi artist in residence. So I began lessons with Sano Reihi, the senior disciple of Aoki Reibo, head of the school with which I became associated. When I heard Aoki Reibo Sensei play for the first time — I had never heard anything more beautiful in my life, and that was when I decided to become a serious shakuhachi player.

2. Can you explain the major differences in technique between the shakuhachi and the western flute?

Perhaps the prime difference is the embouchure — the reason for the difficulty of mastering the instrument. The shakuhachi is a vertical flute and we direct the air across a fine edge of buffalo horn set into a bevel. This edge is in the form of a half moon, and the mouth mimics this, the upper lip taut and the lower lip relaxed — an advanced form of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. Western flutists are usually able to play the shakuhachi easily, but without the loose lower lip, do not produce the fuller, more nuanced sounds. To produce variations of pitch and timbre, the looseness of this lower lip is all-important.

Other major differences are that we play the twelve tones (and a few more) on five holes without keys. We produce all the notes by raising and lowering the head and taking up to three different positions on a hole, and because tonguing is not used, we rely on a system of finger articulations to accent notes. So the western viewer will be somewhat startled to see a shakuhachi player constantly raising and lowering his head as he plays. The two head positions used for pitch are known as kari and meri, chin out and chin in. The kari notes are the bright notes with stronger volume, the meri notes are the dark notes, which emerge less clearly and with less volume because of the position of the chin. On the standard length shakuhachi (54.5 centimeters), when moving from D to E flat to E natural to F, the chin starts in the raised or kari position, then is lowered to the meri, chin-in position, followed by a chumeri, or only slight chin-in position and back to the chin raised or kari position on F.

In addition to the up and down movements to produce pitch, a vibrato effect is generally made by either shaking the head to left and right or up and down. Reibokai players of my school shake their heads to left and right. Archaic gusting and opening and closing of the mouth to produce a quavering effect or more interesting line, were once used in other schools, but nowadays are mostly abandoned. I studied with a Kinpu school teacher who lived in Hirosaki, 60 miles south of the tip of Honshu, the main island of Japan, in 1984. He was 83 at the time, and was one the last of a handful of players still alive who used this gusting technique.

Out of the head movements come ornamentations such as the yuri, where a note like B flat is pulled down to G and back again over an over and faster and faster in a single breath, the head raising and lowering many times in quick succession. (The note below B flat may be pulled to a different pitch depending on the school and the player.) The natural tendency to fragmentation as breath is lost over the embouchure has led to its use as a deliberate technique, called muraiki (harsh overblowing) and asane, which might be translated as hoarseness or fogginess. Flutter-tongue or tamaiki is another effect. These are always moderately used in the traditional pieces, appearing only once or a few times in a single work. Modern composers tend to be fascinated by the special effects of the instrument, and use them much more than they were ever used by their inventors.

There are other ideas such as deceleration, elasticity of beat and pitch within a certain range, and the use of silence and breath to move the piece, for which there is no space here to discuss in depth. The concept of the single phrase as a distinct, sculptured entity, and the use of articulation as a substitute for tonguing and to affect the general intonation are other areas where the shakuhachi has a method distinct from the western flute.

3. You received the status of Grand Master – can you explain how the Japanese system works and what levels can be achieved?

To be brief, in a traditional Japanese school, there are four grades, which might be called beginner, intermediate, advanced and accomplished. The performing name is received at the advanced or third level, and the final grade of master and its accompanying change of name is received at the next, fourth level. Professional shakuhachi players receive another grade of Dai Shihan or Grand Master. Afficionados of the shakuhachi who will never become professionals can work their way up the ranks, but generally do not receive the Grand Master rank unless they are a particular patron of the head of the school, or very rich! Special ranks have been known to be created for certain situations, which are understood to be honorary and not necessarily indicative of ability.

To pass from one rank to another, a certain number of pieces, graded according to difficulty, must have been assimilated. Beginners start with ensemble pieces and are not allowed to touch the Kinko solo pieces until the intermediate stage. These are the pieces that belong to our central solo repertory of 36 pieces.

I remember the day I knew I would get my Grand Master certificate. I had been thinking I was getting close to receiving it in 1998 when I went to Japan; I knew that all the other professional men in the school had received it at about the same age, and that I had played all the pieces. At my very first lesson with Aoki Sensei, we were playing one of the classic monk solo pieces. I was right in his mind on every note, it was perfect, and before I heard him shout it out to me after we finished the piece, I heard him say “Anata wa daishihan da yo!”  “You are a Grand Master!” That was one of the best days of my life.

4. How is the instrument received in the West?

As for that, there are people who like it, and people who don’t. Kids and young listeners into their twenties seem to take to it naturally; they have few preconceptions and are listening to a much wider variety of music than was available even ten years ago. Lovers of classical music appreciate its intricacy and subtlety, jazz fans are attracted to the timbres and rhythms. The difficulty of it lies in its expectation of the listener to be awake and pay attention in a way not required by music more easily approachable through melody or beat, especially in the monk solos. Composers and afficionados of new music find it fascinating.

Westerners may not know that the Japanese themselves are not particularly familiar with their own traditional music. This is because the American creators of the Marshall Plan after World War II considered it, like martial arts, to be too nationalistic, and substituted recorders, piano and what we call the ‘five-line score’ in their education plan for the country. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Ministry of Education allowed Japanese instruments to be taught in elementary school, and we traditional musicians hope that this will produce more lovers of Japanese music, and more performers.

5. Do contemporary composers write for the shakuhachi?

Yes, it has been really fun to start playing pieces composed for it with western instruments. Tufts University, where I teach, has a flourishing composition program, and I’ve played premieres of three composers in the last month. Of course, some things work better than others, but that’s a subject for another time. I’m working now with John MacDonald of Tufts University on a CD of  pieces he’s written for me, which includes solos as well as a duet for two shakuhachis, shakuhachi and contralto and shakuhachi and piano.

6. Who are the notoble shakuhachi players who have inspired you?

My teacher, Living National Treasure Aoki Reibo, is my first influence and inspiration.

7. Can you explain a little about the tuning of the shakuhachi? Does the scale include microtones?

First of all, in the earliest solo music we don’t think in terms of scales at all (this is not that they don’t exist, just that we don’t play them or talk about them — in fact, the less talk the better in the teaching situation, as far as the Japanese teacher is concerned), nor is there some sort of ‘system’ of microtones. It would be more accurate to say that there are pitch centers with variations that are more flexible than is acceptable in western classical music. Ornamentations can include microtones, and there are quite a few notes with different fingerings which will produce a slightly different pitch. Different ways of articulating can produce a microtonal effect, as can the method of vibrato, depending on the note and how far the player dips his head. One school may also have a tradition of playing more flat or sharp than another.

First published in PAN, Journal of the British Flute Society, June, 2008. http://www.bfs.org.uk
 Pan, The Flute Magazine,

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