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#1 2010-10-26 03:32:18

Jeff Cairns
teacher, performer,promoter of shakuhachi
From: Kumamoto, Japan
Registered: 2005-10-10
Posts: 517
Website

bon voyage!

I was in a discussion today with a soto zen monk and a  modern haiku academic discussing similar aspects of our three disciplines with regard to the differences in practice within Japan and out and one of many interesting observations came up.  If you were to ask a western person who has never listened to shakuhachi music before to listen to 5 honkyoku pieces and then ask them then to give the pieces names on the spot, they might for expediency name them melancholy #1, melancholy #2, melancholy #3 and so on.  I asked myself, why this may be so when some of the names of the pieces are so fanciful and don't seem to reflect the musical nature of the piece (of course this is more true in sankyoku than honkyoku pieces.)  Since I've lived in Japan for 25 years, I didn't think that apparent conundrum was my cultural bias necessarily.  But then, the monk said that since Inuit people have 23 words for snow, perhaps ancient Japanese had many colors of melancholy that westerners are blind to.  The poet followed with the information that within the poetry world, it has been well chronicled that the height of romantic love is expressed by the fires of passion found at the beginning of a relationship in the west, whereas the opposite is true in Japanese lore where that height is expressed at the end of a relationship where the pain of separation is highest.  From a cultural perspective, the west fostered individual determinism well before it was ever a part of the matrix of Japanese culture and the concept that a person could decide their own fate with respect to life partners or vocation is only a recent advent in Japan.  That being said, the concept of love, if not passion and lust, seems to exist outside of those bonds in all cultures which drove the westerner to attempt to fulfill their desire to fruition and beyond, but caused the Japanese to accept their inevitable defeat.  And thus, the need to be able to express many levels of melancholy.
Is that the true nature of the story that was historically told through the shakuhachi?  Navigating the many layers of melancholy?  A search through the suffering of separation?  Perhaps beneath the basket, those individuals burned.
I bring this up because it is sometimes thought that  honkyoku pieces were imbued with an essence that could lead the player both past and present, beyond the ego and human suffering by their composers.  But I would like to propose that these pieces are more rightly expressions of the human condition as it searched for a release from the suffering imposed by the conflict of cultural/social constraints and human nature with interpretation through many levels of melancholy, as was the mean cultural perspective at the time in Japan....Much less treasure maps than travel logs.
Comments?


shakuhachi flute
I step out into the wind
with holes in my bones

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#2 2010-10-26 03:38:11

Tairaku 太楽
Administrator/Performer
From: Tasmania
Registered: 2005-10-07
Posts: 3226
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Re: bon voyage!

Well said Jeff.

I was playing in the park and a group of 10 year old school kids came by:

Kid number one: "Hey mister is that Chinese music?".

Kid number two: "No that's Japanese music. Japanese music is always sad."

True story.


'Progress means simplifying, not complicating' : Bruno Munari

http://www.myspace.com/tairakubrianritchie

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#3 2010-10-26 04:55:39

Moran from Planet X
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From: Here to There
Registered: 2005-10-11
Posts: 1524
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Re: bon voyage!

Thinking out loud:

inward, heartbreaking melancholy

declaratively tragic melancholy

wistful melancholy

consoling melancholy

sobbing melancholy

stoic melancholy

parting melancholy

separation melancholy

nostalgic melancholy

narcississic melancholy

altruistic melancholy

empathetic melancholy

sympathetic melancholy

hopeful melancholy

fatalistic melancholy

grateful melancholy

resentful melancholy

Melancholy over loss of youth

Melancholy over loss of beauty

Melancholy over loss of wealth

Melancholy over loss of home

Melancholy over loss of country

Melancholy over loss of prestige

Melancholy over loss of livelihood

Melancholy over loss of ability

Melancholy over loss of love

Melancholy over loss of infatuation


"I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I am all out of bubblegum." —Rowdy Piper, They Live!

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#4 2010-10-26 06:11:03

edosan
Edomologist
From: Salt Lake City
Registered: 2005-10-09
Posts: 2185

Re: bon voyage!

Melancholy over being melancholy


Zen is not easy.
It takes effort to attain nothingness.
And then what do you have?
Bupkes.

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#5 2010-10-26 07:46:31

Thomas
Member
From: New York City
Registered: 2006-04-21
Posts: 81

Re: bon voyage!

Very Interesting!  Thanks Jeff.  Do you think this reflects the human condition in general?  I would love to hear others' thoughts on this subject.

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#6 2010-10-26 08:30:48

Lorka
Member
Registered: 2007-02-27
Posts: 303

Re: bon voyage!

Well put Jeff, and much to think about.

This whole sadness/melancholy business has been the source of much teeth-gnashing for me recently.   My partner, being somewhat of a stress-addict, likes to relax to happier music, like Cuban, and that sort of thing.  That's not really my cup of tea, but I can understand where she is coming from. 

I find that shakuhachi music demands attention, or focused listening.  It is intense stuff and not just background music.  I don't think you can wash the dishes and listen to honkyoku at the same time.  Then again, who knows. 

So, back to the teeth-gnashing part....

I was practicing sanya sugagaki recently when she freaked out on me, accusing me of trying to poison her mood and inflict the equivalent of "emotional poisoning".  I was taken aback to put it mildly.  For me, I was just practicing, but for her, the sadness factor was just too much and was plunging her into a depressive state (something she is not too prone to).  I guess I could take it as a compliment, as I was at least able to evoke an emotional response, but this has actually caused me to be a little more secretive with my practice as I do not wish to cause emotional distress or unbalance a mood that needs to be happier rather than sad. 

So, all this is just to say that I both understand, and suffer from, the fact that shakuahchi music seems to be so damned depressing.   I find it cathartic and  expressive and at moments, when I am "one" with the breath, I feel an indescribable connection to something more fundamental, but I suppose we need to be aware of those around us.  Sqealing out Hi and San no U till the paint peels may be fun, but is not going to win you a popularity contest. 

I guess there is a massive difference between playing a piece and listening to a piece.  I never used to think about this divide, but it does exist.  To make matters even more confusing, I try to explain to others that Honkyoku is not quite music, but a kind of sonic meditation.  Don't get me started on that one though.  Anyways, very thought-provoking post Jeff.


Gravity is the root of grace

~ Lao Tzu~

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#7 2010-10-26 08:55:12

Jeff Cairns
teacher, performer,promoter of shakuhachi
From: Kumamoto, Japan
Registered: 2005-10-10
Posts: 517
Website

Re: bon voyage!

Thanks for your good responses.  Chris, I appreciate your 26 + 1 (Ed) shades of melancholy.  Lorka, it may well be that for some, this music is too melancholy to bear and I think you are right in not exposing your partner to it for that reason.  I suppose my question to myself is whether this music is really more like the blues than liturgic chant. I think it more shows us passing through the veils of suffering rather than what lies on the other side.  It has turns and twists that when played with intention and lucidity, grab you at the base of your gut much like the blues.  There is a lot of soaring ending in resignation.  And every piece that I know of ends with letting go; not really an empowering expression but seemingly more like a deflation.  Almost like saying,'I really don't have anything more to say.'


shakuhachi flute
I step out into the wind
with holes in my bones

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#8 2010-10-26 09:39:43

radi0gnome
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From: Kingston NY
Registered: 2006-12-29
Posts: 1030
Website

Re: bon voyage!

I think the answer is a lot simpler. Most non-musicians, and an awful lot of student musicians, equate slow music with sad music. Slow music does indeed loan itself to expressing sadness and in pop music it's easy to notice that an awful lot of slow songs have sad lyrics. However, outside of the pop music world slow tempi appear to be used more often to invoke calmness with an attempt to entrain the body to a resting state heartbeat.

I guess you've got to take into account who you're playing for to determine how they will interpret the piece.

I'll leave the the topic of minor keys and dissonances for further discussion because I just realized it isn't all that simple.


"Now birds record new harmonie, And trees do whistle melodies;
Now everything that nature breeds, Doth clad itself in pleasant weeds."
~ Thomas Watson - England's Helicon ca 1580

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#9 2010-10-26 15:18:16

Moran from Planet X
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From: Here to There
Registered: 2005-10-11
Posts: 1524
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Re: bon voyage!

edosan wrote:

Melancholy over being melancholy

Always got my back. God love ya.


"I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I am all out of bubblegum." —Rowdy Piper, They Live!

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#10 2010-10-26 15:53:01

Karmajampa
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From: Aotearoa (NZ)
Registered: 2006-02-12
Posts: 574
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Re: bon voyage!

By far people have used the word 'haunting' rather than 'melancholic', and sometimes 'enchanting'.
And many have commented that the sound has 'lifted them rather than 'lowered' them, perhaps it has interrupted their already existing melancholy and brought them into the present.
Then I improvise a lot as well as playing the few Honkyoku I have learned.
And as the Honkyoku, 'thus have I heard' were formed by meditators so perhaps should be respected in that way. Meditation is not really an activity that is performed.

K.


Kia Kaha !

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#11 2010-10-26 16:31:06

Jim Thompson
Moderator
From: Santa Monica, California
Registered: 2007-11-28
Posts: 421

Re: bon voyage!

Most blues musicians I know (myself included) first reaction to honkyoku is "That's the blues".


" Who do you trust , me or your own eyes?" - Groucho Marx

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#12 2010-10-26 16:44:25

Karmajampa
Member
From: Aotearoa (NZ)
Registered: 2006-02-12
Posts: 574
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Re: bon voyage!

edosan wrote:

Melancholy over being melancholy

Which Honkyoku is that, 'The Black Narcissus' ?

K.


Kia Kaha !

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#13 2010-10-26 20:55:34

Jeff Cairns
teacher, performer,promoter of shakuhachi
From: Kumamoto, Japan
Registered: 2005-10-10
Posts: 517
Website

Re: bon voyage!

K. I wasn't suggesting that the instrument was the cause of the melancholy nature of the music, though the fact that its tuning is what it is certainly implicates it (this is a whole other avenue of discussion.)  I also suspect that what you are improvising might not be quite of the same ilk as traditional honkyoku historically created in Japan.  The point I was trying to get to was with respect to the cultural mask of the Japanese in comparison to that of the west and how that matrix shaped honkyoku and why.  As I suggested earlier, anything can be used as a meditative tool with the right mind; a rock, water going down a drain, the constant hum of cicadas, steam rising from a cup of tea.  But is that what honkyoku is?  It seems that there is much more of a direct emotional element in the music.

Last edited by Jeff Cairns (2010-10-26 20:55:49)


shakuhachi flute
I step out into the wind
with holes in my bones

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#14 2010-10-26 21:39:42

Karmajampa
Member
From: Aotearoa (NZ)
Registered: 2006-02-12
Posts: 574
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Re: bon voyage!

What has been stated as the 'intent' of Honkyoku ?

Historical intent, Modern intent, or any other ?

I would like to have had the opportunity to be more involved with the Sangha, I am wondering how the emotional question is shaped by being in Japan or by being elsewhere, as the conditionings are different. I think this has something to do with your discussion. Yet, I am not so sure as to what a Westerner is any more, there has been so much migration during the last few decades. And to this point, in Japan, how much are the young Japanese following tradition as much as another Modern persona ?

K.


Kia Kaha !

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#15 2010-10-26 21:47:51

Karmajampa
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From: Aotearoa (NZ)
Registered: 2006-02-12
Posts: 574
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Re: bon voyage!

Also, while anything may be used as a meditative object, some things are more mundane than others. Consequentially, there are different results from the meditation , more or less beneficial.

K.


Kia Kaha !

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#16 2010-10-26 22:10:01

ABRAXAS
Member
Registered: 2009-01-17
Posts: 353

Re: bon voyage!

Jim Thompson wrote:

Most blues musicians I know (myself included) first reaction to honkyoku is "That's the blues".

I remember thinking of various people throughout history, musicians, artists, writers, other historical figures etc. who would be most interesting to hear what they would do with a shakuhachi because for one reason or another they seemed to me to have some innate affinity with the essence of the thing. Skip James was high on that list. So was Robert Pete Williams.

Last edited by ABRAXAS (2010-10-26 22:10:28)


"Shakuhachi music stirs up both gods and demons." -- Ikkyu.

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#17 2010-10-27 01:58:47

radi0gnome
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From: Kingston NY
Registered: 2006-12-29
Posts: 1030
Website

Re: bon voyage!

Jim Thompson wrote:

Most blues musicians I know (myself included) first reaction to honkyoku is "That's the blues".

Maybe some blues sub-genre, I don't see any resemblance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8iuhQfwm10

Maybe slide guitar..., but anything else, I don't see it. Blues has rhythm and a chord sequence. But I'm not a blues musician to any extent, where do you see it?


"Now birds record new harmonie, And trees do whistle melodies;
Now everything that nature breeds, Doth clad itself in pleasant weeds."
~ Thomas Watson - England's Helicon ca 1580

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#18 2010-10-27 02:42:34

Karmajampa
Member
From: Aotearoa (NZ)
Registered: 2006-02-12
Posts: 574
Website

Re: bon voyage!

radi0gnome wrote:

Jim Thompson wrote:

Most blues musicians I know (myself included) first reaction to honkyoku is "That's the blues".

Maybe some blues sub-genre, I don't see any resemblance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8iuhQfwm10

Maybe slide guitar..., but anything else, I don't see it. Blues has rhythm and a chord sequence. But I'm not a blues musician to any extent, where do you see it?

Why did you select that as an example ?

If you know anything about Manic-Depression, you know the blues. Then you know what is really Up, and what is really Down. And the time and space between.
I don't think many people are comfortable with those extremes for very long, it uses a lot of energy. And I also feel a lot of what we hear as 'Blues music' is pretty lightweight relative to the 'Dark Night of the Soul' that is deeply experienced.

So, can I identify these feelings in the Honkyoku I hear ?
I'm gonna check it out.

K.


Kia Kaha !

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#19 2010-10-27 02:55:16

Moran from Planet X
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From: Here to There
Registered: 2005-10-11
Posts: 1524
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Re: bon voyage!

Skip James: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhrqBOSazzA

Billie Holiday with Jazz All-Stars: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtgUbJN8oPE
(Note Lester Young's solo at 2:01)

Then some more Lester Young honkyoku:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6ogRiaWXaU&NR=1

And Mississippi Fred McDowell:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TyzAAwJnIw


"I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I am all out of bubblegum." —Rowdy Piper, They Live!

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#20 2010-10-27 04:58:47

jdanza
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From: Vancouver, Canada
Registered: 2008-06-19
Posts: 85
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Re: bon voyage!

Funny, but my personal experience doesn't reflect at all the views expressed so far. When I heard Shakuhachi for the first time I felt it was the sound of the soul longing to return home... but without any emotional edge. I've been playing for about thirty years  and never heard the word depressing or sad referred to the music. My girlfriend is a Yoga and Meditation teacher, and she leads once a week a Zen meditation session with me playing Honkyoku (usually an extended version of Kyorei and/or Honshirabe). She described Shakuhachi as "the sound of meditation" to her students (I guess I'm a lucky guy). I remember my first sensei shunning emotional expression of any kind, even when I came to the session with issues, the attitude was "shut up and play the flute". I've gained a great appreciation for that attitude as I've matured as a person and a player. The blues is emotional and rhythmical, and in that sense I don't see the parallel at all with Honkyoku.

Karmajampa wrote:

Also, while anything may be used as a meditative object, some things are more mundane than others. Consequentially, there are different results from the meditation , more or less beneficial.

K.

I have to disagree with this one too. Objects have no inherent qualities other than what we project on them. In that sense your guru's shoe may be much more powerful than any crystal, even though it would be pretty "mundane" to everybody else! Besides that, true meditation is deeply, simply and truly being in the moment, and therefore it has no "result", and is not dependent on any object.
  And talking about this, could it be that Honkyoku doesn't have an inherent quality either, and the experience is a combination of where the player's "being" is at that moment and where the listener's "being" is at? After all, the same piece played by two different players can "feel" totally different, and the same piece heard at different times and different circumstances can "feel" different too. And could "intention" came into play?
  In the end, it all comes down to mind games, and ultimately my sensei was totally right... shut up and play.

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#21 2010-10-27 07:16:43

Karmajampa
Member
From: Aotearoa (NZ)
Registered: 2006-02-12
Posts: 574
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Re: bon voyage!


Kia Kaha !

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#22 2010-10-27 07:38:38

Thomas
Member
From: New York City
Registered: 2006-04-21
Posts: 81

Re: bon voyage!

jdanza wrote:

The blues is emotional and rhythmical, and in that sense I don't see the parallel at all with Honkyoku.

While I enjoy the Lester Young videos, I second Jdanza's opinion.

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#23 2010-10-27 09:14:32

Jeff Cairns
teacher, performer,promoter of shakuhachi
From: Kumamoto, Japan
Registered: 2005-10-10
Posts: 517
Website

Re: bon voyage!

I would totally agree with you about blues being emotional and rhythmical, but I wasn't referring to that level of 'blues'.  I was referring to the voice, the mind and the heart.  And I would suggest also that honkyoku does have rhythm and emotion.  It doesn't necessarily pendulate like modern blues, but starts and stops in a more organic way with rhythm that we don't so much hang off of as flow with.    And the emotional part I've been speaking of.    Jdanza - you said that your first impression of the sound of the shakuhachi was 'the sound of the soul longing to return home'.  I think it's more like the soul longing to stop the journey and home seems like a hell of a lot better place to be than here...blues.


shakuhachi flute
I step out into the wind
with holes in my bones

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#24 2010-10-27 09:24:42

Rick Riekert
Member
Registered: 2008-03-13
Posts: 100

Re: bon voyage!

jdanza wrote:

Objects have no inherent qualities other than what we project on them. In that sense your guru's shoe may be much more powerful than any crystal, even though it would be pretty "mundane" to everybody else! Besides that, true meditation is deeply, simply and truly being in the moment, and therefore it has no "result", and is not dependent on any object.

If that’s true Pepe, then your girlfriend should probably be telling her students that the shakuhachi is not “the sound of meditation” but potentially one of indefinitely many sounds of meditation. And I’d be very careful about projecting the qualities of a teddy bear onto an oncoming 18 wheeler in the hopes of getting a cuddle. Inherent qualities may be an illusion but they’re a very persistent illusion.


Mastery does not lay in the mastery of technique, but in penetrating the heart of the music. However, he who has not mastered the technique will not penetrate the heart of the music.
~ Hisamatsu Fūyō

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#25 2010-10-27 10:35:12

radi0gnome
Member
From: Kingston NY
Registered: 2006-12-29
Posts: 1030
Website

Re: bon voyage!

Karmajampa wrote:

radi0gnome wrote:

Jim Thompson wrote:

Most blues musicians I know (myself included) first reaction to honkyoku is "That's the blues".

Maybe some blues sub-genre, I don't see any resemblance here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8iuhQfwm10

Maybe slide guitar..., but anything else, I don't see it. Blues has rhythm and a chord sequence. But I'm not a blues musician to any extent, where do you see it?

Why did you select that as an example ?

I selected that as an example because he is one of the most recent blues musicians I became aware of that I thought was really cool. One of the biggest things about the blues that I like is that it almost inevitably gets my feet tapping, head nodding, or fingers snapping. I don't get that out of honkyoku. When I attended a lecture/concert by Taj Mahal once he pointed out and played examples of how blues evolved from African music, a concept I had heard of before but never really understood it until then because the music evolved such a long way the relation has become almost completely lost.

I'm open to entertaining the idea that there is a relationship between honkyoku and blues, particularly if blues musicians are hearing it, but I still don't hear or feel it. I've heard some meter-less blues intros on slide guitar that might relate, but those tend to be there to build up tension to make falling into a steady beat be a little tension/release kind of thing.

Maybe I'm being a bit too esoteric, but I'm still intrigued by the idea that different cultures music comes from different sounds of nature. Western music from birds, African poly rhythmic music from the hooves of large animals running, and Japanese music...? I'm still trying to place it.


"Now birds record new harmonie, And trees do whistle melodies;
Now everything that nature breeds, Doth clad itself in pleasant weeds."
~ Thomas Watson - England's Helicon ca 1580

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