What is a Shakuhachi?

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday.

shakuhachi `

Several years ago when I was working on Fukushima’s Mei, my flute instructor at the time asked me to listen to pieces featuring the Shakuhachi to get a better sense of the overall musical tone of the piece. I thought she had just made up a new name for a fictional instrument played by the aliens on Star Trek or existing on some other strange planet featured in science fiction dramas on television. I had no idea what the Shakuhachi was, where it was played, what it sounded like, how it was performed, or what type of repertoire was written for the instrument. By performing a little bit of research, I came to understand that the Shakuhachi is a beautiful instrument with a haunting, hypnotic sound well suited to solo performance scenarios. In today’s blog, we will be examining the Shakuhachi. I hope to leave you with a new appreciation for this instrument and encourage you to find fresh inspiration buried deep within its sound.

shakuhachi design

What is a Shakuhachi?

A Shakuhachi is a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute that is tuned to a minor pentatonic scale (D-F-G-A-C-D). A simple instrument, the Shakuhachi contains only five finger holes (four in the front and one in the back for the thumb). The term “shakuhachi” translates to “1.8 shaku,” which refers to the size of the instrument. A “shaku” is a unit of length equal to about 30.3 centimeters that is subdivided into 10 subunits. “Hachi” translates to “eight,” and in this case relates to eight subunits of a hachi. Therefore, a typical Shakuhachi measuring at 1.8 shaku is about 54.54 centimeters. It is played by blowing across a block called a “fipple,” similar to blowing across an empty bottle. The sharp edge that the player blows across is called an utaguchi and provides substantial pitch control. When the blowing angle is adjusted, the pitch can be bent easily upward and downward. Combined with embouchure and fingering adjustments, pitches can be altered as much as a whole tone or more (!). This makes it possible for composers to indicate different note names for the same pitch to achieve different tone colors. The Shakuhachi has slightly more than a two octave range, and requires performers to hit the finger holes with a very fast movement to create articulated patters. Due to the skill and time required and the quality of the bamboo materials, Shakuhachis may range from $1,000 to $8,000. Plastic or PVC Shakuhachi are also available on the market, typically for less than $100, however the tone quality of the bamboo model instruments is far superior.

What does a Shakuhachi Look Like?

shakuhachi photo

shakuhachi photo

shakuhachi photo 3

History of the Shakuhachi

The Shakuhachi was transported from Japan to China during the 8th century. Later during the Edo period (approximately 1600-1868), Shakuhachis were most notable for their connection to the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhist monks, known as komuso, who used the instrument as a spiritual tool in meditative practices to relax the mind. They referred to Shukuhachi repertoire at that time as “honkyoku.” These monks often wore wicker baskets while they performed as a symbol of their detachment from the world. Although the honkyoku repertoire was passed down from generation to generation aurally, much has been lost over time. The Shakuhachi has traditionally been played by men in Japan until recently. In 2004, the first-ever concert of international women Shakuhachi masters was held at the Big Apple Shakuhachi Festival in New York City.

shakuhachi history

Shakuhachi Repertoire

The instrument is performed widely in Zen music but has also been featured in folk music and jazz ensembles. The Shakuhachi has been used in film scores such as Karate Kid Parts II and III, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, Jurassic Park, The Last Samurai, and Memoirs of a Geisha. Renowned Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu wrote numerous piece for the Shakuhachi, including his well-known Celeste, Autumn and November Steps. The primary genres of Shakuhachi music are the honkyoku (traditional solo works), sankyoku (ensemble, with koto and shamisen), and the shinkyoku (new music composed for the Shakuhachi and koto – influenced by western music). Sythesized Shakuhachi became all the rage beginning in the 1980s when electronica, pop, and rock groups began to feature the instrument on various album tracks. These recordings include Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer” (1982), Dire Straits’ “Ride Across the River” (1985), Rush’s “Tai Shan” (1987), Enigma’s “Sadeness” (1990), Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” (1993), and Linkin Park’s “Nobody’s Listening” (2003).

Shakuhachi Performers

Riley Lee – Best known for his performance of Down Mantras (Sydney Opera House at sunrise on January 1,2000 – televised internationally).

Gorō Yamaguchi – Best known for his performance of Bell Ringing in an Empty Sky. This was the first Shakuhachi recording to appear in the United States.

Jim Franklyn – Australian Shakuhachi performer and composer – Composed music for solo Shakuhachi with electronics.

Yoshikazu Iwamoto – Collaborated with British composer John Palmer on Koan (1999), a piece for Shakuhachi and ensemble containing a wide range of extended techniques.

The N.Y.C. Shakuhachi Club (featuring Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes) – This group plays Avant-garde jazz versions of traditional American Folk and Blues songs with Shakuhachi accompaniment.

Clips featuring the Shakuhachi (What does the Shakuhachi sound like?)




Do you own a Shakuhachi? Have you attended a Shakuhachi performance before? What is your favorite piece featuring the Shakuhachi? Can you hear the influence of the Shakuhachi in flute pieces by Fukushima and Takemitsu? Please comment below.



Happy Fluting!






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