I often think of shakuhachi music as sonic calligraphy. Starting from a particular form, the piece of music, you create audible “brush strokes.” As in Japanese calligraphy, the artifacts are part of the art: the roughness of the breath, the unpolished sonorities of the bamboo, the rhythms that flow from the individual performer’s ever-changing physical and emotional state. In calligraphy, the final visual product may be almost unreadable as kanji, even as it expresses the deepest meaning of the characters. It is the same in shakuhachi music: no two performances are the same, and the expression is completely of the moment.
Shakuhachi music is like the Japanese visual arts in many other ways as well. Its use of ma, or silence, is reminiscent of the empty spaces in an ink drawing or wood-block print. The “Jo-Ha-Kyu” structure of a musical piece corresponds with the asymmetrical framing of Japanese images. And of course there’s the simplicity that serves as a doorway to mysterious depths. Though my initial attraction to shakuhachi was through the physical thrill of the sound, I have found the Japanese visual arts to be a constant inspiration in my playing.
Phil James will play shakuhachi solos and duets with koto player Cathleen Read in the courtyard at After Hours tomorrow evening, September 20, from 5:00-7:00pm as part of a “Journey to the East” program highlighting Asian art in the galleries.
Phil began formally studying shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) with Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin in 1978 and has been given the rank of Shihan (master) in the Ki Sui An school, along with the professional name Nyokai. In addition to playing and teaching shakuhachi, Phil is an active electronic composer, and has written music for the theatre and contemporary dance. He has also dabbled in performance art and has recently started working with Butoh dancers.