Shakuhachi: the Sound of Japan

The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute with five holes, one of which in the back is designed for a thumb. Its melody is based on the pentatonic scale. However, the mouthpiece is flexible enough to allow changes in tone due to one’s shape of the lips. Each person produces his/her personal sound as all variations depend on the way the flute is blown. Originated in China, this musical instrument is popular all over the world nowadays. Importantly, it has influenced the creation of the modern Western music. One of the main reasons of such interest is the link between the shakuhachi and spirituality as well as the universality of this instrument as it can be heard solo, as part of the orchestra or even in such genres as jazz or blues.

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The shakuhachi musicians usually have a desire to explore the meditative spirit. Historically, this music is more associated with spirituality rather than with performance as it was an early meditative tool of esoteric Buddhists. Many people use this style as healing music. As far as the Western world has become interested in the Eastern culture, this musical instrument interfered in some genres of music, thus creating new sounds and melodies. The shakuhachi is desirable and flexible enough to be used in many different styles of music. The main reason for such a wide range of application is its natural sound that harmoniously enriches any other genre.

The main difference between the Western flute and the shakuhachi is that the players of the latter produce twelve tones on five holes by raising and lowering the head. Besides, they rely on finger articulation to accent notes as tonguing is not used. Japanese music uses different scales to the western doh-re-mi. All these techniques as well as the shape of the shakuhachi create timbre that differs from the sound of the Western flute. It is almost impossible to do glissando, tremolo or develop timbre and dynamic within one note on the highly evolved Western instrument. On the contrary, it proves to be easy on the Japanese flute. Its wooden frame creates a unique sound. Besides, the shakuhachi melodies are deeper. Typically, the sound is not as loud as the sound of the Western flute. All these features create a kind of timid character, which is different from the strong and reliant style of the Western instrument.

The play of Tori Kadotsuke Hachigaeshi is a bright example of the deep shakuhachi honkyoku melodies. This piece is played on a simple bamboo without an added bone mouthpiece. The musician creates a windy sound that is a usual part of the shakuhachi jinashi melody. Each phrase lasts for a long period of time and then fades into nothing, just like wind. Besides, he uses such techniques as komi buki (diaphragmatic technique of pulsing the breath) and nayashi (sliding up from a lower pitch to a higher note). The performances of Tori Kadotsuke Hachigaeshi fully introduce the characteristics of Japanese culture, especially some qualities of Japanese aesthetics. The main one is the quality of the original structure. An object should be simple or have a balance between simplicity and complexity. Although the melodies are simple, they help to enrich the beauty of this kind of music. Besides, the absence of artificiality and pretense is another feature of this music. Tori Kadotsuke Hachigaeshi’s piece is calm and relates to the feeling of solitude.

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In conclusion, music is always connected with religion, and national culture finds its expression through music as well. The sound of the wind and whisper, sincere pray and temple bell – all they belong to the shakuhachi melodies. Musicians aspire to the spirituality through the music. The simplicity and naturalness of the shakuhachi will always attract people all over the world.

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