Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Shakuhachi—The Japanese Flute

This 1976 recording by Kohachiro Miyata, a master of the Japanese hollowed-out bamboo flute called the shakuhachi, is staggeringly beautiful and evocative.  Even though the instrument appears simple, five holes and no keys, the technique of covering the holes, moving it closer to or further away the player and various methods of blowing provide layers of complexity and richness that belie the appearance.

The shakuhachi, along with the koto and taiko drums, are the quintessential instruments of classic Japanese music, but this has the most contemplative and emotional resonance by far.  Miyata's playing has been hailed for its purity of tone and evocation of emotion and these five solo pieces are simply gorgeous.

The first, "Honshirabe," is, as explained in David Loeb's helpful liner notes often used as a prelude to a concert and is, consequently, the shortest piece on the album, giving a good introduction and groundwork for what is to come.  With "Sanya," there is a portion with a faster tempo, while "Tsuru no Sugomori" is often used for virtuosos to demonstrate their skill at creating bird sounds (the piece refers to cranes), while it is the haunting nature of the song that is most affecting.

"Shika no Tone" is also evocative of the animal world, concering the calling of deer, and is one of the best-known pieces in the shakuhachi repertoire, as David Loeb's helpful liners indicate.  The closing piece, "Akita Sugagaki," refers to a remote portion of Japan and this sense of distance is a perfect theme or metaphor for the plaintive sounds of the instrument, with the piece consisting of variations on melodies introduced in the tune.

The album was recorded in New York during the first tour of the Ensemble Nipponia, of which Miyata was a member, to the United States and it was his debut recording in this country.  Though this record is 35 years old, Miyata is still an active player now in his early seventies. 

This blogger has had the opportunity to own and enjoy several dozen Nonesuch Explorer albums over the years, but this one is certainly one of the best and most affecting.

Shakuhachi—The Japanese Flute

1.  Honshirabe  3:50
2.  Sanya  6:17
3.  Tsuru no Sugamori  6:08
4.  Shika no Tone  7:32
5.  Akita Sugagaki  9:30

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