My trip to Japan this summer was extremely useful and great fun. I’ve been to Japan now twice without a shakuhachi teacher, as Aoki Sensei no longer teaches. I am aware of the fact that as someone who travels only every other year to Japan, and lives in the United States, there is still a huge amount to learn, and I needed to find a way to do that. So I decided to approach a friend and Reibokai colleague to critique Sokaku Reibo or “Nesting Cranes”, which I would be performing.
K rented a room for us at a karaoke place in Kashiwa, northeast of Tokyo, not far from where he lives, at three bucks an hour. This is a real deal in Japan! And useful in a place like Tokyo where space is limited and walls are thin, especially for noise-making activities. Apparently many musicians use these rooms to practice as all are soundproofed.
We arrived at the building: quite a few stories, and filled to the top with karaoke rooms. Our room reeked of cigarette smoke, karaoke songs were blaring from the screen and we couldn’t find the lights, so we called for help. A padded vinyl sofa circled the room; a table exactly fitted into the space in the middle. Once it was quiet and the lights had been turned on, I folded my legs under me and began to play, kneeling on the couch.
K listened and made notes. I had known that cranes are a national image and symbol of marriage and fidelity, but K told me how the piece is traditionally played: the indigenous crane represents the tenderness and respect between parents and children, and thus – I was to pull back on sections I had earlier learned in lessons as places to “attack”, in particular, a famous flutter tongue section which is very difficult in the first half of the piece. I discovered that there is another flutter
technique, which he recommended I interpolate with the flutter of the tip of the tongue, in order to “darken” or calm the pyrotechnics of that method, and this is the throat or uvula flutter, which I had never been taught, in fact, had never heard of! This must be developed from the gargle you feel in your throat when you brush your teeth or gargle salt water with a cold. He said he would walk me through it on Skype when I got home.
He also told me about clustering the repeated notes in small, odd numbered groups: this piece has repetitions of nine and seven times on the same note throughout. I found it all fascinating, as this is the first time I have ever discussed a piece: my whole training has been done in complete silence. Aoki Sensei did not allow talking!
Then K sat down and wrote alternate fingerings for the impossible meri notes (the chin-in position) which cannot be played quickly because of the difficulty of their fingerings and head positions, like E flat and F sharp, which I must now teach myself. This will speed up difficult passages in contemporary music considerably, although the shakuhachi will never match the speed and clarity produced by the keys of a western flute.
We had met on a Thursday; I played “Nesting Cranes” the following Saturday, and got bravos – my first! I had no idea Japanese listeners would shout in jiuta (chamber music); at least I had never heard it before, but I know it’s done in Kabuki, so why not jiuta? There is a special moment in Kabuki when this happens, by the way; the actor steps out onto the hanamichi, the part of the stage that extends from the main stage through the audience, almost dancing, in a regal, stylized way, and will freeze as he takes poses. For example, raise his arms, cross his eyes, turn his head, and pause. At which point, aficionados will cry out his name from the audience. They flash out in uneven clusters like popcorn bursting from the kernel, part of the excitement of the moment – the Japanese version of a bravo. A friend told me that some Kabuki veterans are given free tickets in exchange for the masterly timing of their calls. I wonder if those old connoisseurs of kabuki are still there in the back of the hall? The old theater has been replaced, and many of the old lovers of the art will be gone. All things western are the great attraction in Japan now, not the old inscrutable, indigenous ones.
I am playing “Nesting Cranes” in the photo above, and as I write this, have learned the uvula technique. The Japanese compare it to the sound of the suzumushi, called a ‘bell ring’ insect in the dictionary – we don’t have it here. The flutter in the throat passes over the tongue and vibrates in the lips to produce a very even, distinctive trill, unlike the tongue flutter, which is more dramatic, breathy and uneven.
Elizabeth Reian Bennett is the first woman to be certified a Grand Master of the shakuhachi, which she has studied with Living National Treasure Aoki Reibo for over 30 years. Since her debut recital in Tokyo in 1984, Reian Bennett has performed in Japan and worldwide, from Australia and Europe to Mexico, Afghanistan and the United States. Tokyo appearances are planned for every other year; notable venues include Tokyo National Theater and NHK TV. She has been interviewed on National Public Radio by Faith Middleton of Fresh Air, Robert J. Lurtsema of Morning Pro Musica and Richard Knisley of Classical Performances. Her CD entitled Song of the True Hand, was nominated ‘Instrumental Album of the Year’ by Jon Sobel at Blogcritics Magazine. She teaches privately in the Boston area and through the world music program at Tufts University. Reian Bennett’s next CD is a set of compositions for the shakuhachi written for her by Tufts composer John McDonald. For more information, see www.elizabethreianbennett.wordpress.com.