Friday, November 27, 2009

Nishimura Koku & Watazumi Fumon

This is what I heard from one of Nishimura Koku's students.

One day, Nishimura happened to sojourn at the hotel where Watazumi (Fumon) was also staying. These two players were somewhat similar in what they did: Both played long ji-nashi flutes. They named their own flutes and styles of playing, "kyotaku" and "watazumido," respectively. Also, both embodied great influences of the last komuso Tani Kyochiku. Whereas Nishimura was thought of as the master of shakuhachi in the West (western Japan), and Watazumi was considered as the master in the East (eastern Japan). [Just ignore the fact that Watazumi was also from West Japan originally].

At the hotel, both Nishimura and Watazumi were informed that two great shakuhachi masters were staying there. It was Watazumi who took action first. He sent a messanger to Nishimura and asked Nishimura to visit Watazumi for greetings (maybe, more like salute). Nishimura, as older than Watazumi, became quite disgruntled. Eventually, these two great masters didn't see each other and never encountered again in their lives. According to Nishimura's student, Nishimura was mokkosu, which means "stubborn" in Kumamoto dialect. Kumamoto people are known as being mokkosu.

Both Nishimura and Watazumi established philosophies of shakuhachi "do" or way of life. Both are great. To me, one major difference between Nishimura and Watazumi, apart from their performing styles, is the degree of influences they left on their students. Whereas Watazumi's influence is identified in his students' musical dexteriority, Nishimura's students always talk about their memories of Nishimura - beyond musical impacts - and we can easily tell what Nishimura means to their lives. Their bonding was formed around Nishimura's spiritual influences.

Nishimura's students emphasize that studying with Nishimura was more about life learning and becoming a true human being. Even now, after Nishimura’s death, playing the shakuhachi for them is a reminder of Nishimura’s teaching. For many of Nishimura's students, the connection and bonding with Nishimura has been central to their shakuhachi learning experiences. While students of other well-known teachers tend to speak of the “musical” influences of their teachers, Nishimura’s students tell me that their music-life integration has been achieved by respecting, adoring, and worshiping Nishimura.

I am always impressed to discover how one person, a music teacher, can make such a deep influence on people.

[Here, I am exclusively referring to Japanese students. I know that Nishimura had some foreign students. But I don't know them personally.]

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The spirit of komuso

There is always something to learn from history...

The piece "kumoi-jishi" (a festive song in the kumoi scale) was once called "yabu garashi" (killing or sneaping bush) in Fukuoka. Komuso monks typically strolled in town in two as a group. They often stop by houses, especially in front of rich people's residences. When Komuso monks were unhappy about the amount of a donated alm, they often brought more monks and played "yabu-garashi" in front of the house. Disturbed, the head of the house eventually gave more money instead of saying "get away." He probably got more embarrassed than annoyed. Because these komuso's playing was so loud (and out of tune?), it was felt as if it could destroy a bush planted at the gate of the house.

This explanation corroborates with the conventional rule of when "kumoi-jishi" should be played. It's been said that this piece is not supposed to be played in the morning. People don't want to wake up with a cranky feeling.

Not many people have achieved this level of proficiency that komuso monks aimed at. Do more robuki, cultivate a beautiful spirit, and disturb your neighbors.

(Source of information: Recordings of an interview with Tomimori Kyozan. For more info about these recordings, visit

You may also want to check more "formal" explanations of the piece:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Linguistically speaking...

To me, to say "Watazumi Doso" is like to say he is my great teacher. Doso (道祖) means founder of a school or originator of a practice (way). Equivalent notions may be shuso (宗祖, or founder of a sect), soke (宗家, or founder of a school), and iemoto (家元, or head of a school). But we don't call "Kurosawa Doso" or "Nakao Shuso" (a family name followed by "doso," "shuso," or whatever). It's not impossible to say "Kinko-ryu shuso" or "Tozan-ryu soke", but we normally don't say like that because these two schools are too large and have many subgroups like other hogaku groups (e.g. Miyagi schools). We surely say "Chikuho-ryu soke" or "Seien-ryu iemoto" as these schools are small enough to form groups (ryu or school is a bounded system).

I often say "Watazumi Fumon" instead of calling him "Watazumi Doso." (Of course, this doesn't mean I don't respect him). Before he became famous, he introduced himself as Tanaka Fumon. So it won't be so strange to call "Fumon ryu," like "Kinko-ryu" or "Tozan-ryu" (a first name followed by "ryu"), instead of "Watazumi-do."

Whether Yokoyama's style should be called Watazumi-do is another question. It's beyond the matter of language. Some people carefully avoid using the term "Watazumi-do." I personally enjoy calling it "Wadatsumi-do Yokoyama-ha" (modeled after "Myoan-ryu Taizan-ha"). Just a language game.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Unraveling the tradition...

Based on my interview with an experienced shakuhachi player-scholar in Japan.

1. Kobayashi Shizan (the 36th Abbot of Myoan temple)

In his book Shakuhachi Higi, Kobayashi Shizan writes the shakuhachi should be played with accurate pitches. Meri should be as deep as possible. At least, that's what he preached in his book. However, in reality he was not very particular about pitch. He often said no meri should be added to "tsu" in the chi-chi-u-tsu phrase. That's the myoan way. When he played, his meri was not deep at all.

Today, many people criticize this "myoan" way of playing, especially the degree of meri. Drawing on Kobayashi Shizan's book, Mr. Sakurai in Echigo Nagaoka goes on to say that meri should be as deep as half tone. He claims that Tanikita Muchiku (the 37th Abbot) is to blame for shallow meri rendering.

My interviewee is wise enough to say, "that kind of criticism is fine. It is true that myoan playing often sounds out of pitch. But that shouldn't devalue its essence."

2. Koizumi Ryoan (the 38th Abbot of Myoan Temple)

Koizumi often said "that's fine" even when his students didn't play well after his demonstration. He never said "that's not right" to the face of students. Later, Koizumi had decayed teeth and didn't play well. His students then imitated his decayed performance. Kojima Kansui (the current Aboot) studied with decayed Koizumi. After retiment, Koizumi visited Tokyo (where his son lived). My interviewee played honte choshi in front of him with chi meri. Koizumi responded: "I've taught you only a few times, but you still remember chi meri. You also played tsu meri (as in tsu-ro) right. All of my students don't do well with meri. Without meri, it doesn't sound right."

[To be fair, the degree of chi meri in Honte Choshi varies in Myoan: Played as an independent piece, chi is normal. However, when played as a prelude to Kyorei, Koku, or Mukaiji, chi needs to be meri. That's how I learned from my teacher.]

Not many people know how well Koizumi played before he got weak. After he became ill, his playing changed a lot. Sakai Shodo studied with Koizumi when Koizumi was not doing well. However, Sakai Shodo plays well. So does Shimura Satoshi (Zenpo).

Who is right? :)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Japanese old photos

You will find a picture of komuso (around 4:51). Not sure if they were real komuso monks. They were dressed in colorful kimono, which actually looks nice, not as scary as spy-like komuso in black.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ownership of Honkyoku

At a temple,

The monk: Is it yamato choshi?
We: No. This is shingetsu.

Later, we realized that shingetsu is Watazumi’s rendering of yamato choshi. It is one of the many pieces that Watazumi “composed” by adding his own personal flavor to the existing honkyoku pieces. In so doing, he changed the titles of the original pieces.

We often come across honkyoku pieces that sound identical but have different titles (and different pieces with the same title).

Change of the title and ownership was loosely defined. Tomimori Kyozan (1899–1975), a well-respected shakuhachi player and scholar, clearly stated that changing the title is acceptable:

Today, the piece ajikan is played quite differently compared to how Miyagawa Nyozan [the composer] played the piece. Although the shape is the same, the level of spirit is different. Nyozan’s verve is no longer carried by today’s players…. The reason why many people today play ajikan in such a way is that many people learned ajikan from Tani Kyochiku who used 2.5 long shakuhachi. That’s how it became a dull, dark song. Miyagawa Nyozan played it on 1.8…. Miyagawa’s playing of ajikan actually sounded quite rough. But he had subtle expressions. Nobody could imitate his level of frantic playing…. This is what is missing in today’s performance. Only the shape is imitated. People simply drag the song and extend the form…. Tani Kyochiku’s playing of ajikan also carries some sort of taste and import. However, Miyagawa Nyozan kept saying, “I wonder where he [Tani] learned it [ajikan] from? If it is Miyagawa Nyozan’s ajikan, it would be troublesome.” I think it would be fine to have Tani Kyochiku’s ajikan. But in order to do so, he should have changed the title of the piece.

Tomimori suggests that playing a piece in a different way without changing the title is rather problematic.

Kobata Suigetsu

People say two important books to read about shakuhachi are those of Hisamatsu Fuyo and Kobata Suigetsu.

Kobata (1951) wrote:

None of the today’s shakuhachi schools are perfect in themselves. You should not be obsessed by just one school but experience a few different schools. Otherwise, you cannot achieve the ultimate way of shakuhachi playing. For example, let’s assume this person studies shakuhachi in a school in which the emphasis is placed on entertainment shakuhachi playing. Reaching a certain age, this person will feel that something is missing in his or her study and eventually get bored of playing the shakuhachi itself. Conversely, if a vigorous young person starts fuke zen shakuhachi music in his or her youth, he or she would be intimidated by its dark, non-musical nature. This person may draw a hasty conclusion that nothing can be more brutal than shakuhachi music.