Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Shakuhachi: The Japanese End-Blown Flute is both simple and complex

 It's just a couple of pieces of bamboo with some holes, but the Japanese end-blown flute, or shakuhachi (means "foot" in Japanese) is an incredibly complex and versatile instrument, capable of over four octaves and hundreds of "microtones" which consist of pitch and timbre variations.

The one shown here was made in Japan by shakuhachi guru Tom Deaver. Tom died last year and left behind hundreds of fine instruments used throughout the world.


There is a lot to the blowing end. The sharp edge, or "utaguchi" is designed so that the airflow from the player's lips creates a vortex, and sets up conditions for resonance. Because there is no fipple, like the blowing end of a recorder, the shape and angle of embrochure affects the sound very much.  A relatively soft even airflow produces the rich, harmonic filled fundamental note, and a faster, more concentrated airflow tends to reduce the fundamental and favor one or more harmonics.

The airflow gets the energy going, and the fingering controls the length of the resonant column, while the angle of the shakuhachi to the face plays an important role in producing sharps and flats, or more.

All the explanations of how it works do not describe how it sounds, or why the shakuhachi has such a natural sound, even earning the term "the sound of nature".  Our ears, tuned to hear complex things, interpret the wind and the trees together, and apparently recognize this instrument as an organic part of that scene.

I play the shakuhachi, not very well, but when I am by myself I play brilliantly enough. I  found that looking out over a vista or some distant field makes it much easier, but I don't know why, exactly.

1 comment:

SA Perillo said...

I'm from the Philippines and I was amazed with the fact that even a Japanese bamboo flute looks simple in appearance but it is actually very difficult to play. I've read that if plays by the master this Shakuhachi Flute create an amazing, subtle, sensual music - prized as being perfect for meditation and relaxation. It’s beautiful, soulful sound made that best hear when you are taking a good rest or about to sleep. A must have shakuhachi flute!