Saturday, September 17, 2011

Kobayashi Shomei

Jinashi maker Kobayashi Shomei got his own home pages (Japanese) (English)

It was in 2007 when I met him for the first time. He struck me as a living komuso because of his austere spirit. He traveled worldwide when he was young as a backpacker. He draws paintings every month on komuso and his paintings reveal his inner spiritual world. (He was once accepted to an American university to study art).

One day, when he allowed me to play his (and his friend's) vintage flutes, he scolded me and said: "I don't understand what you are trying to get from each flute. This precious moment won't come back aqain. Why don't you put all of your energy into each flute?" Since then, he became my good friend and mentor. Later, he explained that he had done research on kokan vintage shakuhachi, and the only useful way for him was to play them with the maximized energy for a few hours at least, not by playing lightly or measuring the bore shape, length, and size of those flutes. In other words, he embodied the characteristics of each flute.

Kobayashi is predominantly a jinashi maker, even though he gives shakuhachi lessons regularly at Mejiro. Among the many jinashi shakuhachi that I've tried, his flutes are most colorful and flavorful in terms of tone quality. I particularly liked his long flutes. The sounds of these flutes were profound, vibrant yet light and smooth. As a pianist, I always think of his jinashi as Steinway, whereas other makers' flutes, however functional and playable, sound like the Yamaha or Kawai to my ears. Of course, this doesn't devalue their flutes (I have theirs and love them). But the tone quality of Kobayashi's flutes is outstanding.

Interestingly, when Dr. Shimura Zenpo made his 2nd CD on kokan vintage flutes, he used the Kobayashi flute (the length is 3.3) as if it is a kokan vintage shakuhachi. (Also, because of this, it appears as if Kobayashi was a deceased maker from the previous century). Shimura explains that the Kobayashi flute is an example of modern jinashi shakuhachi. Other four flutes used for the recordings were borrowed from the Hamamatsu Musical Instrument Museum (originally a collection of Inagaki Ihaku). The makers of these flutes were Hayashi Kogetsu, Matano Shinryo, and Kokyo.

Unfortunately, Kobayashi is not as well-known outside Japan as he deserves. It was not until recently that we see his flutes on sale at Mejiro's website (previously, Mejiro had no interest in jinashi). Indeed, it has been difficult to obtain his flutes even in Japan. I am glad that he finally decided to make himself available for a broader community of shakuhachi players.

(p.s. The flute I used for the Eurythmy performances was also a 1.8 jinashi made by Kobayashi, which has a mellow yet crisp tone).

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Just came back from a tour to Steiner schools with performers of eurhythmy. We share much in common as we are sensitive and responsive to energy (rather than scale, harmony, pitch, etc., which many musicians are concerned about).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I asked Shimura-sensei this kind of questions - Which maker is good? Whose shakuhachi would he recommend? He was very careful making any judgmental statement. He almost implied that there is not absolute criteria. "If you are into myoan, kyosui playing is essential. Therefore you need to find one that allows you to play so." When it comes to this kind of advice, he becomes a clinician: He attends to the needs and preference of each person, the style of music the person is into, and then gives suggestions.

Among the many shakuhachi people I've met, he is one of the most balanced. He is aware of his standpoint as a leading player as well as a scholar whose opinion always counts to lay people, often much more than he anticipates.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Shofu Bunko

I finally visited Shimura Zenpo’s jinashi shakuhachi museum this summer. We talked on a wide range of topics related to the shakuhachi. I had a precious opportunity to play some of his collection flutes, such as those made by Fujita Masaharu and Kobayashi Shomei. Fujita’s 3.6 was a giant and hard to hold with the finger holes in a straight line. But once I got used to it I could get some sounds. My impression of this flute was similar to that of Nishimura Koku’s kyotaku. I am not making any generalization out of this particular flute. Fujita made hundreds of jinashi, and they probably bore distinctive characteristics. I wished I could try those made by others such as Kono Gyokusui I and II.

While we were blowing into each other’s jinashi, I was constantly listening to how he played, especially how he controlled the tone quality. I often noticed that his tone color changed after adding an atari. I pointed it out to him. He simply responded that it was probably due to the flute’s capacity.

To note some memorable moments:

1. He used table gongs, small and big, to explain layers of the intricate tone coming from a jinashi flute. The sound of each gong was deep and reverberant with many overtones. These overtones sometimes merged in singular harmony, other times created layers of resonant vibration. This complex tone color is not easily attainable through jinuri shakuhachi as the latter tends to produce more focused tones.

2. He believes that the body for jinashi playing is different from that for jinuri playing. I asked him if he still plays a jinuri. “Yes,” said him, but he does that only to demonstrate the differences. Indeed, he picked up a jinuri and played it for me (only a few notes). His expression “keep pushing the air” is apt to explain the jinuri playing. “Save the air” for the jinashi, as “it vibrates with little air.” This made sense a lot to me.

3. Some flutes are suited for playing koku, and others are for mukaiji. Koku (Takiochi, Ajikan, etc.) begins with “tsu-re” and repeats the phrase “tsu-re” many times. Mukaiji repeats “ha-I” (“ri-hi” “ha-ro”). Jinashi flutes tend to bear characteristics that can be judged on these criteria.

4. He distinguished the art of "finger" and the art of "breath" to highlight what he thinks of as the jinashi playing.

5. He often plays takiochi (takiotoshi) using his 3.3 made by Kobayashi Shomei (see here for example). He claims that it is in the myotan taizan-ha style. But his playing of this particular piece on shorter flutes is much faster than how it is “normally” played by taizan-ha players (examples are included in his recordings of kokan shakuhachi). For this reason, some believe that Shimura’s taizan-ha playing is not authentic but influenced by the chikuho style. Well, Shimura was clear: He learned it from Sakaguchi Tesshin who was a student of Miyagawa Nyozan and Takahashi Kuzan. Sakaguchi’s playing of myoan pieces sounds similar to Miyagawa’s. It is faster, vibrant, making a significant contrast to the slower version of the piece performed by players of Tanikita Muchiku’s lineage. However, a question still remains. Shimura’s “tsu” for “tsu-re” is much deeper, which doesn’t sound like an influence from Sakaguchi. It sounds like the Jin Nyodo style. I wanted to ask about this point. But It was already time to say good-bye.

I was grateful that Dr. Shimura spared many hours for me when he was extremely busy with some deadlines for publication.

(Taken at Shofu Bunko)