An original composition for shakuhachi and string quartet
How do you compose new music for a traditional instrument like shakuhachi? Do you take your inspiration from the traditional repertoire? Do you think of a Western flute and adapt your composition to be played by a shakuhachi? Do you need to play the instrument yourself or do you collaborate with a specialist of the instrument?
Zac Zinger is an outstanding composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, jazz saxophonist and shakuhachi player. He plays shakuhachi with a deep respect to the instrument, a good knowledge of its traditional and folk repertoire, and an amazing virtuosity. His compositions and arrangements are brilliant. He recently premiered “Haiku in Variation“, an original composition for shakuhachi and string quartet, for which he had won the Fumi Onoyama Grant from the “Salon De Virtuosi“.
Fortunately, the concert (featuring The Resonance Collective at Merkin Hall at New York City as part of the Salon De Virtuosi Awards Gala on October 14th, 2020) was videotaped and shared on YouTube.
Listen beyond the “WOW!” first impression
When I first listened to it, I was impressed by the virtuosity. Virtuosity on the shakuhachi and also virtuosity of the composition. My attention was especially caught by the Variation aspect, the variations of styles: from Traditional Japanese at the beginning, we go through different “sceneries” where Zac shows his vast musical knowledge: ballad, cartoon, romantic film music, classical flute with cadenza, to mention a few, until the short Japanese style coda like a short memory of the beginning. I called it “Passacaglia of styles”. Just to put names on influences, because throughout the piece, Zac’s music is just his and inimitable style. Virtuosity is so natural for him that it reaches the harmonic goal: playing chords with a melodic instrument. Don’t get me wrong, such virtuosity means thousands of hours of practicing.
But where was the Haiku?
The YouTube video’s description mentions:
The piece begins with a musical haiku of 5, 7, and 5 notes, and what follows is a series of variations on those motifs.
I listened again and was intrigued enough to contact Zac to ask him whether he would like to send me a few words about his music. Here below is his answer.
“As the strings emulate a sho in the beginning, the first three phrases on the shakuhachi are a musical haiku of sorts–the first phrase is five notes, the second is seven notes, and the third is five notes. These three phrases are the main melodic motifs expounded upon throughout the piece. I listened to a lot of haiku read in Japanese to try to understand the flow of its delivery, so as to capture that in an instrumental setting.”
The haiku is therefore not only to be found in the well known 5-7-5 structure but also in the musical flow inspired by the rhythm of the Japanese language. This makes the piece so special! I believe that some part of the inspiration of shakuhachi honkyoku is to be found in the singing of sutras. Studying the musical flow of a language gives certainly another dimension to the music.
The sho chords played by the strings set the atmosphere. The 2.4 shakuhachi plays the musical haiku in a Kinko-Ryū style. Listen carefully to the three short phrases of the haiku and remember the intervals. They will lead the variations.
Sutebyoshi is a rhythm pattern found throughout Japanese performing arts. A single note is repeated, […] slowly at first, then accelerated to a rapid speed. The tapping quickly slows down, ending the pattern with a single, strong tap.
Christopher Yohmei Blasdel in “The Shakuhachi – A Manual for learning“
Then appears the typical Japanese rhythm Sutebyoshi (which I call for my students “Ping-pong ball rhythm”). Starting from using bow ricochets on the strings, it develops and varies in time and space in a dialogue between shakuhachi and strings that goes beyond the rhythmic expression of it. It becomes tridimensional, as Zac Zinger explains:
“There are other recurring motifs throughout as inspired by Japanese culture and music. One that I constantly returned to is the shape in which a note is repeated slowly at first, gradually increasing in speed until it becomes a single note (Sutebyoshi). You hear it all the time in Japanese music, it’s the shape that naturally occurs in nature when you drop something and it bounces to a halt, or a pendulum swings and naturally reduces in amplitude. I explored Sutebyoshi in many ways–for example, the unusual solo string ricochet shape that gets passed around in the beginning is not only itself a representation of Sutebyoshi, but as the strings collectively accelerate in relation to one another, it becomes a nested version of Sutebyoshi. I explored it as it relates to pitches shortly thereafter, with a large chord being built from the top down by adding notes increasing intervallically by a half step each time to a wide, dissonant conclusion, rhythmically punctuated by the entire ensemble yet again playing the shape of Sutebyoshi.”
2.4 & 1.8 shakuhachi
After a romantic “Intermezzo” where the strings play some motifs of the haiku in a dialogue with the shakuhachi occurs a rapid change from 2.4 shakuhachi to the standard 1.8. This different instrumentation sets another scenery, cartoon style, with percussions effects on the strings. A quick reference to Kinko-Ryū motifs and Zac is back on the 2.4.
By the way, changing rapidly from one instrument to another is also a virtuoso’s skill.
Traditional and non-traditional techniques
Whereas the traditional way of playing shakuhachi doesn’t use any tonguing, it is quite common is modern music and Zac uses in the next sections different tonguing techniques, including double-tonguing which is quite challenging to play with a nice sound on the shakuhachi.
The strings match perfectly the sliding possibilities (suri–age, suri-sage) of the shakuhachi, which asks perfect intonation, accompanying at some moments the shakuhachi koro-koro characteristic technique.
Back on the 1.8, a bucolic and cheerful scenery is presented so fluently that you almost could think that this is easy. This is supreme technical virtuosity. Yes scales and arpeggios can be played on a shakuhachi at a high tempo! Well, Zac Zinger can do it.
If you are not totally astonished yet, just listen to the cadenza, which reminded me of hours of practicing 19th century music for flute! But virtuosity here has a real musical, harmonic, role and shows that shakuhachi has nothing to envy to any Western instrument.
There are lots of jazz influences throughout the piece (also in the cadenza) that my Classical music trained ear and my little jazz knowledge don’t pick up that easily (although always been a big fan of jazz since back to my teens playing in a big band ). The scenery following the cadenza is one of these jazz moments I am almost sure of. Listen to the strings, the chords and rhythms… it is piano and it is string quartet at the same time… what a beautiful mix! Throughout the piece, the string players are doing an perfect job. The music is really well written for them but I guess that it must have been quite challenging to play it!
And suddenly, it all calms down.
The sho chords are back, a simple Sutebyoshi, a fragment of the haiku: this is enough to take us back to the very beginning of this beautiful journey, like three brushstrokes on calligraphy paper.
You need to have reached the end of the piece to get the entire overview of it and discover in it the asymmetry of the traditional Jo-Ha-Kyū structure:
“It begins slowly and auspiciously in the first part (jo), building up the drama and tension in the second, third, and fourth parts (ha), with the greatest climax in the third dan, and rapidly concluding with a return to peace and auspiciousness in the fifth dan (kyū).”
Like someone commented on YouTube: “I don’t think there’s another person on this planet that can do this.”
I confess that I would like to try to play this piece… this would be a very nice challenge! (finding a string quartet to play it with me as well!).
And this is what artists are for: inspiring you, challenging you, pushing you out of your comfort zone in one way of another, making you dream, travel, enjoy…
Chapeau bas Zac !!
If you like Zac Zinger’s music, listen to his CD “Fulfillment“!