Category Archives: Asian music

Monday, January 9, 2017, 11:00 AM. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Musical Instrument Gallery

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Musical Instrument Gallery

January 9: The Shakuhachi: Bamboo Flute of Japan, Elizabeth Reian Bennett

Local performer and teacher Elizabeth Reian Bennett is the first woman to become a grand master of the shakuhachi, a rank awarded by living national treasure Aoki Reibo, Japan’s foremost artist of this type of bamboo flute. Bennett will talk about the history and repertoire of the shakuhachi, which has a long and distinguished history in traditional Japanese music. Included will be musical selections performed by Bennett on the MFA’s magnificent shakuhachi from the 1930s by master maker Yamaguchi Shiro, as well as on  her own instrument. Elizabeth will play a piece to honor the memory of her student Morris Keesan as part of this  event. Morris, a lover of music of all kinds, was often to be seen in the front row at the music gallery lectures.


Japan 2016

On this visit, I was introduced to Japanese hosts in the temple town of Kamakura, who invited me to stay for three weeks in their empty in-laws’ house in the garden. Imagine having a whole Japanese house to yourself in Japan! I could not believe my luck. Kamakura is set up (as are many parts of Tokyo by the way), with tiny lanes barely big enough for a single car to pass, adjacent  to the wider, more highly trafficked, two-laned streets.

Most of the houses are hidden behind high hedges. The sensation is of deep deep green, coolness, and quiet. And I was surrounded by nightingales, the most beautiful of sounds. Except for their calls, all you hear are the sound of footsteps in the street, then in the morning, the children come rushing and shouting on the way to school. It is so quiet that people remark on unusual noises. So although I never met them, my hostess told me I had became famous in the neighborhood because of my practicing.

We lived closest to Jyomyoji (Polish Your Heart Temple), and early on the first morning after my arrival, my hostess took me to see it. It was early May, and we were the first ones there. After paying the young Buddhist acolyte at the entrance, we walked up the stone steps that led to the covered gate, and stepped onto the gravel path leading towards the main hall. On each side of us we saw ancient plum trees, covered in lichen and moss, and the new green of spring leaves. When I looked more closely, I saw  that their branches were covered with small flowering orchids. The wind came in warm gusts and sudden wild bursts, and a nightingale began its song.

I walked tasting the air, in an intoxication of the day. After visiting the Buddha, we spotted a dry garden surrounded by flowering azaleas, and wandered closer. A pavilion overlooked it, Would I like some tea — entering for tea was the best place to view the garden — (yes!) — so we stepped out of our shoes, and found a spot on the red felt carpet closest to the garden. Dark stones emerged from white gravel raked in arcs to depict water: a dry seascape. A young female monk brought the bowls of tea, for me a low squat bowl glazed in burnt Sienna with gobs of white; for S, a round white bowl that picked up the green of the tea; and sweets on small lacquer plates with a toothpick,  We ate our wagashi sweets first (they are stamped with the name of Ashikaga Yorikane, the bushi who originally owned the land here), and drew three long draughts of the well-frothed, deep green, bitter tea.

My two official performances were in Kita-ku at Hokutopia, a hall where traditional Japanese musicians often play, and then at Nihonbashi Shakai Kyoikukaikan, in downtown Tokyo. The photo below was taken while I was performing Namima Reibo (Rythm of the Waves) in Nihobashi.

Elizabeth playing Namima reibo (Rythm of the Waves) June 4, 2016

Elizabeth playing Namima reibo (Rythm of the Waves) June 4, 2016

I also played twice at the home of a fan of mine who invites her friends and prepares a wonderful meal to eat afterwards. I needed to have my shakuhachi repaired, and was introduced to a very able young man by Aoki Shoji, my teacher Reibo’s son, and went every week for ensemble practice with one of the Reibokai koto (zither) teachers.

Another project was to meet a composer on the Sea of Japan, who was interested in writing a piece for the shakuhachi. She lives with her husband in an artists’ conclave in the woods. I arrived on the full moon of May, and after dinner, they asked me if I would like to go down and listen to the frogs under the full moon. Of course I said, “Yes!” We descended down a dark path from the house towards a pond. We could hear the sound of the Japanese bullfrogs going “meu meu meu” (not an American sound, so pronounce as in French, or between a “muh” and a “meh”) The moon was sailing high in the sky. With no electricity in any direction, the sky was pitch black. Then we moved towards the rice paddies. Immediately the air was filled with a roar of frogs, two kinds, one going “chakachakachakachaka” and the others going “wa wa wa wa” in synchopation. I could hardly hear myself think. If one of us began to say something, they would stop instantly; if we stayed quiet without moving, they would start up again, and from the other pond would come “meu meu meu” from the bullfrogs. And meanwhile the moon, hidden, came out from behind a cloud.

Below is a picture of me beneath a thousand-year old cedar at Eiheiji, a temple founded by the monk Dogen in the 17th century, to which my friends took me. Eiheiji has been the central temple for Soto Zen (known as slow Zen, as compared to the more well know Rinzai or fast Zen) in Japan, and young men bound to become priests at their home temples come here for training.

Elizabeth at Eiheiji

Elizabeth at Eiheiji


Sunday, February 7th, 2016. 3PM

Tufts Sunday Concert Series: Tufts’ “All-Star” Performance Faculty.

The outstanding performance faculty of the music department joins select student musicians in a concert of wide-ranging repertoire of instrumental and vocal chamber music, works for chamber orchestra, world music, and jazz.

The world music part will include the shakuhachi and other world instruments in a premiere composition by our Hindustani singer, Warren Senders.

Distler Hall. Free; no tickets required

Tuesday, March 10th 8PM. Wood and Strings: Duets for Shakuhachi and Guitar



This will be a concert of newly composed duets for shakuhachi and classical guitar with Tufts performance faculty Elizabeth Reian Bennett and guest artist Aaron Larget-Caplan, and a variety of shakuhachi and guitar solos.

It will at Distler Hall, Tufts University, 20 Talbot Ave, Medford, MA 02155. Tel: (617) 627-3679

The core of the program will be pieces composed for shakuhachi and guitar by Martin Schreiner of Harvard, Prof John McDonald of Tufts, and composition graduates Jeffrey Shivers and Jeannette Chechile.

The solos I will be playing are another new piece by John, and a new favorite, called “Three Corner Melodies”; a classic Kinko style piece, “ Koro Sukagaki” and one of the earliest Myoan style pieces, “Koku”, or The Sky.

This event is  free and open to the public.

Monday, November 3, 2014 8PM. What’s New in Bamboo

What's New in Bamboo

What’s New in Bamboo

For this concert Elizabeth Reian will play premieres by Martin Shcreiner of Harvard; Tufts’ grad composers Wei Yang and Cagdas Donmezer; as well as a duet for two shakuhachis by John McDonald; and  a traditional piece. Composer and shakuhachi player Chris Molina also will appear with New York shakuhachi artist Marco Lienhard in pieces he has created.

The pieces we’ll be playing span traditional, to modern and contemporary. So expect to hear cranes, see birds of paradise, and hear new ideas and imagination at work. You’ll also hear three shakuhachi players from different genealogies, with different playing styles, a unique experience at Tufts.

Distler Hall, Granoff Music Center, 20 Talbot Ave., Somerville.  Info: (617) 627-3679

Free and open to the public

Japan Trip 2014

Elizabeth Reian Bennett Tokyo 2014. Photo: Reibokai

Elizabeth Reian Bennett Tokyo 2014. Photo: Reibokai

My trip to Japan this summer was extremely useful and great fun. This will be about music, and I’ll talk about my visit to a part of Japan new to me, Shizuoka Precture, in another blog.

I’ve been to Japan now twice without a shakuhachi teacher, as Aoki Sensei no longer teaches. I am aware of the fact that as someone who travels only every other year to Japan, and lives in the United States, there is still a huge amount to learn, and I needed to find a way to do that. So I decided to approach a  friend and Reibokai colleague to critique Sokaku Reibo or “Nesting Cranes”, which I would be performing.

K rented a room for us at a karaoke place in Kashiwa, northeast of Tokyo, not far from where he lives, at three bucks an hour. This is a real deal in Japan! And useful in a place like Tokyo where space is limited and walls are thin, especially for noise-making activities. Apparently many musicians use these rooms to practice as all are soundproofed.

We arrived at the building: quite a few stories, and filled to the top with karaoke rooms. Our room reeked of cigarette smoke, karaoke songs were blaring from the screen and we couldn’t find the lights, so we called for help. A padded vinyl sofa circled the room; a table exactly fitted into the space in the middle. Once it was quiet and the lights had been turned on, I folded my legs under me and began to play, kneeling on the couch.

K listened and made notes. I had known that cranes are a national image and symbol of marriage and fidelity, but K told me how the piece is traditionally played: the indigenous crane represents the tenderness and respect between parents and children, and thus – I was to pull back on sections I had earlier learned in lessons as places to “attack”, in particular, a famous flutter tongue section which is very difficult in the first half of the piece. I discovered that there is another flutter technique, which he recommended I interpolate with the flutter of the tip of the tongue, in order to “darken” or calm the pyrotechnics of that method, and this is the throat or uvula flutter, which I had never been taught, in fact, had never heard of! This must be developed from the gargle you feel in your throat when you brush your teeth or gargle salt water with a cold. He said he would walk me through it on Skype when I got home.

He also told me about clustering the repeated notes in small, odd numbered groups: this piece has repetitions of nine and seven times on the same note throughout. I found it all fascinating, as this is the first time I have ever discussed a piece: my whole training has been done in complete silence. Aoki Sensei did not allow talking!

Then K sat down and wrote alternate fingerings for the impossible meri notes (the chin-in position) which cannot be played quickly because of the difficulty of their fingerings and head positions, like E flat and F sharp, which I must now teach myself. This will speed up difficult passages in contemporary music considerably, although the shakuhachi will never match the speed and clarity produced by the keys of a western flute.

We had met on a Thursday; I played “Nesting Cranes” the following Saturday, and got bravos – my first! I had no idea Japanese listeners would shout in jiuta (chamber music); at least I had never heard it before, but I know it’s done in Kabuki, so why not jiuta? There is a special moment in Kabuki when this happens, by the way; the actor steps out onto the hanamichi, the part of the stage that extends from the main stage through the audience, almost dancing, in a regal, stylized way, and will freeze as he takes poses. For example, raise his arms, cross his eyes, turn his head, and pause. At which point, aficionados will cry out his name from the audience. They flash out in uneven clusters like popcorn bursting from the kernel, part of the excitement of the moment – the Japanese version of a bravo. A friend told me that some Kabuki veterans are given free tickets in exchange for the masterly timing of their calls. I wonder if those old connoisseurs of kabuki are still there in the back of the hall? The old theater has been replaced, and many of the old lovers of the art will be gone. All things western are the great attraction in Japan now, not the old inscrutable, indigenous ones.

I am playing “Nesting Cranes” in the photo above, and as I write this, have learned the uvula technique. The Japanese compare it to the sound of the suzumushi, called a ‘bell ring’ insect in the dictionary – we don’t have it here. The flutter in the throat passes over the tongue and vibrates in the lips to produce a very even, distinctive trill, unlike the tongue flutter, which is more dramatic, breathy and uneven.