John Kaizan Neptune

An Introduction to
Shakuhachi


The shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute. The name "shakuhachi" is derived from "ishaku hassun" which means one shaku and eight sun (1.8 Japanese feet). Although "shakuhachi" refers to the standard size instrument and its actual length (54.5 cm or 21-1/4 inches), it is also used in the generic sense to refer to many different sizes ranging from 1.3 shaku (39.4 cm) to 2.5 shaku (75.7 cm) and longer.

The shakuhachi is made from the root portion of a thick-walled bamboo called madake in Japanese (scientific name, Phyllostachys bambusoides). The bamboo is cut below ground level and the roots form a natural bell for the instrument. If the roots are damaged, they may be shaved off, but the general practice is to leave the small root protrusions intact. For a number of reason modern shakuhachi are usually made so that they can be taken apart at the center: first, to construct a flute of the proper length with the right placement of holes in relation to joints, a portion is usually cut from the center of the bamboo, and second, it is easier to work on the bamboo when it is only half the total length.

Construction of the shakuhachi is an exacting process requiring many steps. The bamboo is cut, the oils are removed, and it is aged from six months to two years, or sometimes longer. Often the natural curve of the bamboo requires alteration. The internal nodes must be hollowed out using special chisels and files. Gauges are used to achieve the interior diameter required for correct pitch and sound. Even though the exterior diameter may vary considerably, the interior is accurately constructed and generally tapers slightly inward toward the base. Of course, proper placement of the holes is a very important step, and the application of special lacquer to the interior requires considerable skill.

The most important part of the shakuhachi-- the sharp blowing edge-- is cut obliquely and has an inset of water buffalo horn, ivory, or (more recently) black acrylic plastic. The air stream is focused-- split-- over this sharp edge, setting up vibrations in the air, causing the sound.

Although the standard shakuhachi is five holes, four in front and one in back, there are also seven- and nine- holed flutes. Starting with all fingers closed, the standard shakuhachi produces the pitches D F G A C. However, on many flutes, especially older ones, the tuning may not correspond to Western pitches. Three full octaves are possible on the shakuhachi, although generally only a little more than two octaves are used.

Because of the individual characteristics of each bamboo, no two flutes are alike and an element of chance enters into the construction of an excellent shakuhachi. This element, and the high degree of skill and experience necessary to construct a flute are two reasons for the high cost of a good shakuhachi. The shakuhachi is simple looking but very expressive, being capable of a truly remarkable range of pitch, tone color, and dynamics.

According to some legends, the shakuhachi was brought from China to Japan more than a thousand years ago by a Zen priest. During the Edo Period (1615-1868) the shakuhachi was played by wandering priests called "komuso"--"priests of emptiness and nothingness". The komuso used the shakuhachi as a way of "blowing Zen".

Today, performances of traditional music are common and new pieces are being written for shakuhachi solo and ensemble, and for shakuhachi in combination with other Japanese and/or other instruments from around the world. 


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