Monday, May 30, 2005

Form or Emptiness?

Are you bird or sky?

A common subject of debate among shakuhachi enthusiasts is the question, "What makes a shakuhachi sound the way it does?" Is it the bamboo? Is it the empty space inside the vessel? Is it the player? Is it the maker? Is it a combination of all of these? Or none?

At one time or another in my shakuhachi life, I've embraced most of these beliefs. I have also been fascinated by the various opinions I've heard from players, makers, beginners and zen tricksters alike. Let's look at a composite of our opinions.


Bamboo is the stuff that the shakuhachi is made of. If you blow through different types of bamboo, you'll discover different sounds. Soft bamboo absorbs sound. Hard, dense bamboo reflects sound. Each piece is blessed with organic uncertainties and therefore has a unique tonal identity. It you make thousands of flutes from a variety of bamboo you'll eventually discover that bamboo of a specific type makes consistently superior shakuhachi. This is especially true for natural bamboo bore, jinashi shakuhachi.


The shakuhachi sound is a result of the amount of nothing inside the vessel. Any hard material will do to contain this space. With this approach, specific tonal styles of shakuhachi can be designed and manufactured using precise measurements. Flutes adhere to physical laws. Once we understand them we can put the right amount of nothing where it is needed most.

The Player

The player makes the flute come alive. A crude broomstick shakuhachi becomes a work of art in the hands of a master player. The finest museum quality shakuhachi is useless in the hands of a novice. The shakuhachi is a stick with five holes. A player is a human being with years of fertile experience.

The Maker

The maker has an intimate relationship with all aspects of the instrument and acts as a midwife in the life of the flute. The direction and level of understanding of this relationship varies among makers. Makers also have a variety of interests when it comes to tone color. If you give one thousand makers identical PVC plastic materials and precise specs, the result will be one thousand unique voices.

All of the Above

The shakuhachi sound comes from everything involved. Bamboo, negative space, players and makers do not exist in a vacuum. One element can not be removed or isolated. It is their inter connectivity that is responsible for the shakuhachi sound.

None of the Above

Ultimately, the origin of the shakuhachi sound has nothing to do with form, emptiness, players or makers. These are terms that are all one. It is the wrong question. It is like asking if the foot or hand is more responsible for human existence. It is beyond intellect and knowledge. Used correctly, it is one of many clues available to penetrate inner mysteries. It is a path used to bring forth something inconceivable.

So, what makes the shakuhachi sound the way it does? Although these arguments are exaggerated slightly for effect, they suggest that the question can only be answered in relative terms. Is relativity the easy way out? Does it matter? What do you think?


Anonymous Bernhard G√ľnter said...

Hello Ken,

I might not be overly too qualified to comment on the question as I'm an absolute beginner on the Shakuhachi (three weeks), albeit an experienced musician and composer.

After playing two Shakuhachi-tuned Xiao flutes (1.8 and 2.0) for a while I have bought a Shakuhachi Yuu, a choice in part influenced by a few postings on the Shakuhachi Forum.

What strikes me about the Yuu is that the flute itself (the 'plastic part', if you will) is acoustically absolutely dead - tapping on it, I cannot imagine the 'body' of the flute having any resonant frequency that can be 'activated' by whatever one could play on it. So what one hears playing the Yuu is the resonating air column formed inside of it by the shape of the bore, the utaguchi, the holes, and the player's breath ( and this 'immaterial' part of it is actually quite lively ). So in this particular case, one could argue that we only hear the flute's emptiness and the player's breath ( much damping cannot be expected from the very slick and hard inner surface of the Yuu's bore, either ).

Having been interested in acoustics for many years I tend to imagine that a Madake Bamboo Shakuhachi ( I must admit that I've never had the chance to play one ) with a wall thickness of five to six millimeters cannot be induced to resonate with the vibrating air column either ( the fibrous inner structure of bamboo should effectively suppress any resonances ).

These thoughts have led me to ponder on whether the main difference between a bamboo Shakuhachi and the ABS Yuu wasn't determined by the natural irregularities of the bamboo's bore, a Jiari Shakuhachi being closer to the Yuu than a Jinashi one ( the Yuu might be considered a 'Ji-dake' - 'Ji only' Shakuhachi ). I had not considered the varying damping properties of different types of bamboo before reading the blog, but thinking about them, it would seem to me that what can be said about te natural irregularities of the bamboo's bore can also be said about its damping capacity - the more Ji and laquer is added, the harder and the more slick the bore's inside surface becomes, and the less it dampens the higher frequencies and overtones.

My conclusion is that very probably the Shakuhachi's characteristic sound is due to its construction/acoustical geometry that of course can be modified by the maker to yield an infinite number of individual flutes, and bamboo as its material introducing an element of chance to the process of making one certainly helps each instrument to become an individual.

My Xiao flutes are laquered on both inside and outside, made of rather thin-walled bamboo, and have an almost cylindrical bore. They have a bright sound, very quick response, and great (though much less flexible than a Shakuhachi's) intonation. Still I find that when I feel the flute vibrate while playing, what I actually feel is the air column under my fingertips. They were made by an experienced artisan.

On the other hand I have made a number of traverse bamboo flutes in various tunings that are as jinashi as they come, and very different from each other. Comparing my self-made flutes with the others I've come to think that the more 'professionally fine-tuned' flutes provide the player with more control/command over the sound/tone, while the more 'natural' ones force the player to adapt to the natural properties of the bit of bamboo that was turned into a flute, and, in a way, communicate with it. Which way one prefers might well be considered to be a question of one's personal temperament, attitude, and/or goals.

As for the role of the player in all this: I'm an amateur photographer, and photographers like to say that the most important bit of photographic gear is the guy behind the camera. I guess this nicely applies to the Shakuhachi, as well.

Just my two cents' worth,

11:44 AM  

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