Monday, December 28, 2015

Kōhachiro Miyata: Shakuhachi – The Japanese Flute

by G. Jack Urso 

Shakuhachi The Japanese Flute, by Kōhachiro Miyata (b. 1938) is a 1977 Elektra Nonesuch Explorer Series release. This recording introduced Miyata to the United States and quickly became a classic and endures as a milestone in the popularization of the World Music genre.  The ethereal sounds of the shakuhachi peacefully flow around the listener, yet there is an element of contained tension. An eerie undertone persists throughout the music that keeps the listener engaged with the compositions rather than drifting off into their own inner thoughts. The complete album and links to each track are available below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

The album was reissued in CD format in the 1990s, which I obtained through BMG Music Service. Some may not miss the old mail order record clubs, but the choice of free CDs compelled me to sample genres of music I would otherwise likely never be exposed to.

I originally uploaded this album on YouTube in 2014 as background music for Views of the Planet Earth Captured by the Crew of STS-75 where it barely gets a mention; however, as one of my favorite recordings, it has been long overdue to be featured on its own accord. Here, Shakuhachi The Japanese Flute and images of a slowly rotating Earth blend to form a sort of mandala, creating almost literally a contemplative space 

Listen to the album on the YouTube video above or each track by clicking on the links below.

1. Honshirabe  (3:50) 
2. Sanya  (6:17) 
3. Tsuru No Sugomori  (6:08) 
4. Shika No Tōne  (7:32) 
5. Akita Sugagaki  (9:30) 
Art Direction, Design – Doyle Partners
Coordinator – Teresa Sterne
Engineer – Larry Mericka
Liner Notes – David Loeb
Mastered By – Robert C. Ludwig
Photography – René Burri / Magnum
Producer, Engineer – David Lewiston
Shakuhachi – Kōhachiro Miyata

Following are the liner notes for Shakuhachi The Japanese Flute, by David Loeb, and transcribed retaining the  original spelling, punctuation, and italicization.

1. Honshirabe. This short piece corresponds to a prelude or overture, and today is often used at the beginning of a program. The term “shirabe,” which appears frequently in titles of Japanese instrumental compositions, means “investigation,” specifically with respect to the instrument’s tuning. The written character for “hon” means “central” or “primary,” and with stringed instruments it alludes to the most frequently employed tunings.

2. Sanya. This piece is in arch form, with a central section higher in pitch and more agitated than the opening and closing sections. The title means “Three Valleys.” Both Honshirabe and Sanya are played on a 2.4 foot shakuhachi.

3. Tsuru no Sugomori. Perhaps no other composition in the entire solo repertory has suffered so much mutilation as this haunting work. The title means “Tenderness of Cranes,” specifically referring to such tenderness as is expressed between parent birds and their young. Many of the trill effects can be considered as imitation of bird sounds, although so many variants of this piece exist not only in different regions, but among different schools and even different performers that the reference is not always specific. In the hands of some players it has degenerated into little more than a vehicle for virtuoso display/ The piece is played her on the standard (1.8 foot) shakuhachi.
1.8 foot Chikusing model shakuhachi made from Chinese Madake bamboo
4. Shika no Tōne. This is one of the most famous shakuhachi compositions, and probably the most recent of the works heard here: it dates from the 18th century. Entitled “The Sound of Deer Calling to One Another,” the piece’s special effects call for a particular kind of audible breathing in which the melodic line is never lost. Often the work is heard as a duet for two shakuhachi, and it is not certain which version is the original. It is played here on the standard-sized instrument (this particular composition is rarely, if ever, played on other sizes).

5. Akita Sugagaki. Akita is region near the northern end of the main island of Japan; in ancient times it was largely unsettled wilderness. Since there is no certainty that any of the melodic ideas come from this province, it seems likely that the location was used in the title simply to suggest the remote and in accessible. Sugagaki is a term that occurs in a number of titles of 17th-century Japanese and Okinawan koto pieces in variation form; unlike most solo shakuhachi works, Akita Sugagaki is a loosely constructed series of variations. It is played here on the standard-sized instrument.

History of the Shakuhachi, by David Loeb, from the liner notes to Shakuhachi The Japanese Flute: 

The shakuhachi is the most important wind instrument of Japan. Because of its similarities to the Chinese tung-hsiao, it is generally thought to have come to Japan from China, but its depiction in religious art of the 8th century indicates that this type of instrument has been used in Japan for well over a millennium.

There are few, if any, instruments in the world that associate so complex a playing technique with such simplicity of construction. The shakuhachi is a hollowed-out bamboo tube with four holes in front and one in back; there are no keys. The player covers most of the upper open end of the tube with his lower lip and then blows across the remaining area of the opening. Directly opposite the lip, the tube is slightly cut away to provide a sharp edge for the wind stream. Despite the presence of only five holes, the instrument has a complete chromatic scale of two octaves and a fifth. Tones outside the instrument’s natural scale are obtained by partially covering holes in various combinations and by tilting the instrument towards or away from the body. By gradual application of such techniques, the shakuhachi is also capable of a wide range of slides, some extending up to a major third. Certain special effects such as flutter-tonguing and distinctly audible breathing, which in Western music are associated with 20th century avant-garde flute repertory, were a standard part of traditional shakuhachi technique by the 18th century.

The name shakuhachi means 1.8 shaku (1 shaku = .994 feet). That length of bamboo tube has long been regarded as standard, with the D above middle C as the fundamental tone. However, the size of the instrument ultimately depends on the size of the bamboo joint, so that different sizes (graduated in tenths of shaku) exist, the most common sizes after the standard 1.8 being 1.6 (E), 2.1 (B), and 2.4 (A). The smaller instruments produce a clearer, more brilliant and penetrating sound, while the larger ones have a warmer and fuller tone (rather like the flute, recorder, or clarinet families of Western instruments). The larger shakuhachi are able to play so softly as to become almost inaudible without any change of color. All sizes of the instruments possess considerable dynamic range in all registers.

During the Edo period (early-17th to mid-19th centuries), the shakuhachi was used primarily in chamber ensembles (with koto and shamisen), but in recent years there has been a revival of the ancient solo literature. Many of the solo pieces are conceived as aids for meditation, both for the listener and player, the tempos are predominately slow, with variety provided by shorter notes that reflect tome-painting are not uncommon; many shakuhachi compositions also draw on distinctive ancient melodies in a way that preserves their unique regional character without undue emphasis on folkloric aspects. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

1966 CBS Seasons Greetings: Animation by R.O. Blechman

by G. Jack Urso

One of the wondrous things about the Internet is its ability to conjure up the ghosts of the past, and in this case the animated ghosts of Christmas Past. We can connect with long-forgotten memories that upon retrospect we see contributed to our psyches. One such example is the CBS production of J.T. (1969), which I write about elsewhere on Aeolus 13 Umbra (click on link for article and film). In J.T.’s case, while I had forgotten the title, I remembered the story and doggedly searched for the film on the Internet. Sometimes, however, we encounter our forgotten past in moments of pure serendipity, as in the case of two brief animated films by American animator R.O. Blechman. These shorts are thirty and sixty seconds long each and first aired on CBS in 1966 during the holiday season (see films below).

I had forgotten these two little gems until I ran across them purely by accident while researching animated Christmas films from my youth. In these simple messages of giving to animals, the ecology, and the poor, Blechman reminds us of the essential Spirit of Christmas without being pedantic or thumping a bible. Indeed, these are universal and timeless messages of compassion and giving that go beyond commercial illustration and into the realm of true artistic expression. A thirty or sixty second commercial is a tight time frame to be profound, sublime, and subtle all at once, but Blechman nails it each time.

Discovering these animated shorts brought back a rush of pleasant, and sometimes not-so-pleasant, Christmas memories. While some may decry the commercialization of Christmas and to a large degree I agree commercialization can bring little moments of beauty and art to a big audience. If in all the social static and rush that comes with mass marketing in the holiday season we still get these simple human expressions of compassion and kindness during the harshest time of the year, when want is felt more keenly by those in need, it may not be so bad after all. CBS would do themselves and all of us well to include these little masterpieces every year with their holiday programming.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Summer Siren

by G. Jack Urso

my city sings a summer song

with sirens, shouts, honks, and horns

solar rays over an asphalt haze

lingering long lunar days


basketballs poppin’ off the pavement

like bare feet on hot sand

running bases, bicycle races

dirty sneakers with untied laces

fire hydrants drenching a burning land


comic books, gumballs,

fireworks, a lemonade stand

hot dogs, hamburgers,

the ice cream man

fistfights, tree forts,

sleeping under the moon

will-o'-the-wisps . . . gone too soon


all sorts of things

with skies and wings

on the edge

under the sun that warms

All Sorts of Things (1973), With Skies and Wings (1973), On the Edge (1973), and The Sun that Warms (1970) are the titles of elementary school readers published by Ginn and Company. All images from The Sun that Warms. I used these textbooks in the 6th grade with Mrs. Skalko at Public School #19, Albany, NY, 1975-1976. See below (I'm third from right in the back row).