On Sunday, I spent a couple of hours playing shakuhachi in a group session organised by the Australian Shakuhachi Association. I’d been to one earlier this year, after some time away. This one featured the same teacher (Riley Lee) and a couple of new faces I hadn’t seen. I was excited to take part, partially because I like any excuse to use the Association’s abbreviated name (an ASS meeting, natch) but also because in the previous week I’d seen a concert of largely shakuhachi music, and was feeling inspired to play.
So of course it would be the case that Sunday was one of those days where sound decided to absent itself.
Not entirely, of course. Sporadically. And as anyone who has ever attempted to play the shakuhachi – or its cheaper, plastic counterpart – sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Which is deeply frustrating. The whole time, I was aware of my diminished breathing ability – diminished since I learned some shinobue a couple of years ago – of my difficulties in reading notation, of my problems jumping between octaves on the flute. Playing – when you can – is great, especially in a group, but the mechanics of that, at least at my level, are frustrating.
However, I am weirdly enjoying this kind of frustration. It’s in sharp contrast to some of the frustrations I’ve felt with other types of music, which have all been about other people. The frustration here is all about my ability- or current lack of it – and it’s tempered with a form of anticipation. I’m anticipating when I can do it.
I know I can do it. I just need to ensure I stick with it, and don’t hit the eject button before I get there. I’ve done other Big Things, so why not this?
Shakuhachi is something weirdly simply and stupidly complex: it’s a piece of grass with a couple of holes, but one which has several schools and writing styles, as well as a whole family tree which leads from the Edo period to today. And while I’m learning for myself – in contrast to something such as taiko, which generally requires other people – I do like the idea of being part of a lineage, however small.
In discussing lineage at the table on Sunday, Riley joked that we had to hurry up and learn the piece before he died so it could be passed on – transmission of the music is all. It’s related to something he’s said on his website:
Firstly, the pieces, being oral/aural in nature, will become extinct forever if the transmission is broken for even one generation. It is the responsibility of every shakuhachi player to help make sure this does not happen.
Secondly, the pieces are only yours while you are giving them away. The nature of the honkyoku is like electricity. We are the light bulbs. Light bulbs work only while electricity passes through them. Once the electricity stops flowing, the light bulb goes dark. The magic of the honkyoku only works while it is passing through the player. We must give the pieces to others in order to have them ourselves.
Clock’s ticking. This is something I’d like to pass on, in however small a way I can. It’s like what I’ve always thought about writing: if it reaches one person and resonates with them, then that’s sometimes Good Enough.
My plan thus far is to crank my way through some instruction books, to gather some raw technique. Think of it as cutting down the tree. And then, lessons, to polish… for a long time. And ultimately, I’d like to attain some level of rank. Some shakuhachi schools offer a ranking system, much like martial arts, and I figure that while I’m not using it to spruik myself to anybody, it’d be a good You Did This goal to have. A grandmaster? Probably a bit late for that. But something, based on an experienced eye (and ear) deciding how the playing and diligence rates. Maybe when I hit the most junior grade it’ll be time for a proper bamboo shakuhachi? I can but hope.
Anyway, the piece we examined on Sunday is called Murasaki Reibo. It’s a Chikuho Ryû piece and quite lovely. I’ve found what I believe is a rendition of it, albeit much different to how Riley performed that afternoon:
One day I’ll play it through. It won’t be tomorrow. But it’ll happen. The ejector button’s disconnected. If nothing else, I’ll come out the other end with more patience than I’ve ever had.