Kokū is considered one of the oldest compositions for shakuhachi, one of the three fundamental pieces together with Kyorei and Mukaiji.
Koku means “Empty Space,” or “Empty Sky,” (“Ko,” “empty”, and “Ku” “space”, or “sky”.)
There are many legends about this piece, and many different versions. Some versions are based on the story of the “Bell Ringing in an Empty Sky”. It refers to the death of the monk Fuke and his disappearance from his coffin. Only remains the sound of his bell coming from the empty sky. Other legends say that this piece has been composed in the 12th century by the monk Kyochiku, who heard this melody in a mystical dream. With the mist blocking the moon, it looked like the sound of the flute was coming from an empty sky.
Koku has a flavor of infinite mist and echoes. It is said that playing this piece helps one explore the boundaries of “mu” or nothingness, transcending reifications, the artificial cognitive boxes into which we place objects, situations and emotions.
Source: The International Shakuhachi Society
Empty sky 虚空
It is always inspiring to read about the origin and meaning of a piece, especially when you don’t speak Japanese and cannot understand the kanjis.
The first version of Kokū I practiced was the one written by Iwamoto Yoshikazu and transmitted to me by Daniel Seisoku Lifermann who learned it from Iwamoto sensei himself. The second one is the version of Fukuda Teruhisa. They are quite different to play, but beyond the difference of styles and ornaments, the spirit is the same.
Next weekend, I’ll be giving a workshop with Kokū on the program, so it was time for me, a few weeks ago, to get back to this piece and see where I stand. One is never done with practicing a honkyoku, you keep growing with it your entire life. At least, that is my personal feeling.
Playing the piece again, in Fukuda sensei’s version, I feel immediately a strong connection with Kyorei (Empty Bell). Kyorei is a good piece for beginners to start with, because it stays in one octave and is based on long tones, so it is technically not too difficult. But because of this very limited musical material, it can be at the same time very challenging to perform in public, because you have to be perfectly quiet, like a quiet lake, everything disturbing you would disturb the surface of the lake and be seen/heard by the audience. The easiest becomes the most difficult.
Fukuda sensei’s version is based on the Taizan-Ha version, which is very contemplative. It starts with long tones, connected by breath and silence. You cannot hide behind the tones, you have to be like a quiet lake.
Kokū starts with three tsu-re’s, like the sounds of a bell ringing. There are rather long pauses between each, and each repetition is slightly fainter and not as long. These tsu-re’s are symbolic of the overtones that FukeZenji’s bell would have made. When you ring a bell, you hear the waves of its overtone vibrations long after the initial sound.
Playing by heart
Practicing a honkyoku involves a lot of repetitions. Repetitions of phrases, repetitions of motifs. More than a real melody, you find patterns which are repeated and connected in different ways, following the development of the piece. The best way for me to fully understand a piece is to learn it by heart. Kyorei is easy to learn by heart, it has a clear and simple structure. Kokū is more complicated and asks much more time. But eventually, you reach a deeper understanding of the inner structure of the music.
Unlike other honkyoku which start in the low register, go up and up through the second and third register until they reach the climax, and then go back to the low and quiet tones, Kokū starts in the middle of the second register (kan). Most honkyoku with the “climbing-the-mont Fuji”-shape I just described follow quite a clear Jo-Ha-Kyū structure: quiet start, building up with more and more mouvement, climax and rapidly collapsing to silence. I think Kokū follows this three-sections structure too, but not melodically. I find it back in the way musical motifs are developing in the “Ha” section, after the introductory “Jo” section, and in the rupture and short conclusion of the “Kyū” in the last section. To have this present in mind helps to know where you are on the path of the piece, especially when you play by heart.
After a few months of practicing intensively modern music, going back to honkyoku music feels like going back home and finding my inner silence and inner space again. It works especially well with Kokū. After my practice, I feel relaxed and lighter, like after a meditation session. This is for me the sign I practiced well.
Here is a recording of my practice of Thursday October 12, on a shakuhachi 2.4.