Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Breathing Zen

A week ago I participated in a workshop with the shakuhachi master Akikazu Nakamura. The event was organized at the Japan Society in New York on October 24, 2010. Nakamura is one of the greatest contemporary shakuhachi players. He studied the traditional Japanese bamboo flute with master Katsuya Yokoyama and also graduated from the NHK (Japanese broadcasting company) school of traditional music. On top of that, he is an accomplished jazz musician, with degrees from the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston and the New England Conservatory.

The first part of the Sunday afternoon consisted of a workshop on a breathing style called missoku. This workshop had attracted a fairly large crowd of quite a mixed group of people. Most were white, although there were some Asians and African Americans amongst us. The age range was from people in their 20s to those in their 70s. The artistic director of the Japan Society, Yoko Shioya, was curious as she asked for a show of hands why people had joined the workshop. A significant segment raised their hands to affirm that their interest was through shakuhachi, but still a larger group was there because they were interested in Zen. A regular collection of New Age freaks and Buddhist romantics, I thought.

There are basically four types of breathing, Nakamura explained. The most common that we all practise daily are chest breathing and the deeper abdominal breathing. There is also contra-abdominal breathing, practised in particular in yoga, whereby the abdominal movements are opposite to what usually takes place: the abdominal muscles contract when one breaths in, and expand when one breaths out. In missoku, abdominal muscles remain immobile, as the air is pushed out by the diaphragm moving up. Nakamura believes this type of breathing was common in Japan during the Edo Period, but later disappeared. He contended that missoku was actually the feature that made Japanese culture unique from those close to it, like Chinese and Korean cultures. We all practised missoku by sitting still on the edges of our seats. As missoku breathing allows one’s body to remain immobile, it is good for work that requires precision. It is also perfect for playing Japanese traditional music on the shakuhachi, as it reduces movement as well as the sound of breathing.

The second part of the evening focused explicitly on the shakuhachi, which meant that more than half of the people in the previous workshop left. The two-hour session was listed as a ‘master class’, which had slightly intimidated me. Although I have studied the instrument for several years now under the tutelage of a professional recording and performing artist, Marco Lienhard, I had my doubts about whether I’d qualify for a master class or embarrass myself. I shouldn’t have worried. This being America, most people possess such self-confidence that they would never have doubts about their own abilities. It turned out that amongst the twenty plus participants, I was clearly amongst the top tier. Perhaps only one, Perry Yung, who is also one of the few established shakuhachi makers in America, actually belonged to a true master class, but a few of us had clearly studied the instrument with some seriousness. To my astonishment, a number of people who had decided to take the master class were actually complete beginners, some barely that. This clearly surprised the sensei as well, who gently suggested that if he comes back it might be better to divide the class into beginners and more advanced players, so that he might be able to better teach both groups.

Nonetheless, we proceeded with the class and Nakamura turned out to be an excellent teacher. Our object of study was ‘Hon Shirabe’, a classic shakuhachi honkyoku meditation. We spent more than an hour just honing the phrases of the first half – just five lines – of the piece. I had tried to play the piece also earlier and was quite familiar with it. Yet, Nakamura’s explanations and demonstrations allowed me to understand the tune better than ever before. Just for this, it was worth participating in the class.

As a bonus – or a present to us, as the master himself said – Nakamura proceeded to play two classic numbers for us. The first, ‘Tsuru no sugomori’ (or ‘Cranes nesting’), is a standard in the shakuhachi repertoire. Like so often, there are many slightly different versions of the piece being played and this night Nakamura played the most complete and complex version of the song, depicting two wounded cranes returning to their nest. When their chicks hatch, it is time for the parents to die. This sad piece of farewell demonstrates the Japanese sense of beauty found in the impermanence of life. From the point of view of the player, it requires admirable technique to reproduce the cries of the cranes and the twittering of the chicks. Akikazu Nakamura produced the whole landscape of sounds from his flute taking us to the foggy marshes of Western Japan where the red-crowned cranes nest.

The second piece was even more amazing. It was called ‘Saji’, which refers to the compassion of Bodhisattva. This piece was originally played by a monk called Shinshichi who introduced it to the Ichoken komuso temple in Hakata on the Japanese island of Kyushu. From there it found its way to Kyoto and became known in the shakuhachi catalogue. However, it is very rarely played because it is so difficult. Nakamura said that he only was able to start playing the song after he mastered missoku breathing. He also used circular breathing in order to be able to play the long fluid and dramatic segments of the tune with interruption. Akikazu Nakamura was the first shakuhachi player to develop a circular breathing technique. This technique is common with, especially oboists, but is also used by a number of jazz saxophonists and trumpeters (the most famous of whom must have been Rahsaan Roland Kirk). The idea is to push the air from your mouth into the horn using your muscles while breathing in through the nose, so as to produce an uninterrupted flow of air into the instrument. With a shakuhachi, this is particularly difficult, because any movement in the cheeks or upper lip inevitably changes the tone and the pitch. Faced with this dilemma, Nakamura developed a technique whereby he stores the air into the lower part of his mouth. ‘Saji’ left all of us spectators more breathless than the missoku-breathing master.

When the class was over and we spread out into the dark and cool autumn air in Dag Hammarskjöld Park, I was awed by the experience and inspired to redouble my own study of the wonderfully expressive instrument. A few blocks away on Second Avenue I was caught up by one of the participants, a friendly lady of a certain age. She explained to me that she loved flutes and was a collector of all kinds of wooden and clay flutes and ocarinas. She had heard the shakuhachi and thought it sounded free-flowing. Tonight she had learned that there are subtle and definite rules that guide shakuhachi music. While, she confessed, she had not understood much of the explanations by the teacher, she had realized that the shakuhachi indeed required serious study. Her enthusiasm and newly found humbleness convinced me that it was after all not so bad to have the novices in the class. Still, I hope that next time the class will be split into two.

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