The Sound of Nature and Shakuhachi

A Shakuhachi Podcast

In July, my student Christof Zürn, creator of Music Thinking, interviewed me for a podcast about shakuhachi. You can listen to it here .

Earlier this year, we prepared the interview with having an improvisation session in nature, that we recorded.  Christof mixed some moments of it in the podcast and I published a short video on my YouTube Channel.
We had fun with the geese flowing by, pieces of trees falling on us… We also played Kyorei together. Watch it here:

Shakuhachi belongs to nature

A few days after the podcast was released, I found a very interesting paper about Japanese music, written by Akikazu Nakamura. I already had the deep conviction that honkyoku music takes another dimension when played outside. This paper confirms my experience and gives some very interesting insights about Japanese music, that are important to know in order to improve one’s understanding of playing Japanese music. Here is a short summary and analysis of Nakamura’s paper.

The Structure of Japanese Music, by Akikazu Nakamura

The author outlines several “special features of Japanese Music“:

  1. Micro-volume, the use of extremely quiet sounds
  2. Subtle changes of each elements
  3. Changes in integer overtones
  4. Changes in non-integer overtones
  5. Free degree of rhythm
  6. Linguistic and Acoustic nature of the music
  7. The complexity of element

He also outlines “three elements that have undergone relatively little development in Japanese music: volume, harmony and form

The choice of the setting

Nakamura’s analysis of music composed for a resonant setting (church, concert hall = Western Music) versus music composed for a non-resonant setting (outdoors, in a humid, green environment = Japanese Music) is particularly inspiring. The non-resonant setting (playing outside) allows the use of subtle micro-volume variations, frequencies and overtones, which get lost in a resonant setting.

When I started playing regularly in nature, my classical-trained-musician-background had some difficulties to enjoy the dry acoustic. It felt like my sound dropped immediately and had no resonance. It felt as if I couldn’t “reach any audience”.
Then I started to listen differently. Natural sounds, layers and depths of sounds, silence. A wren singing loudly close by, a dog barking further away, the drone sound of the boats on the river, and my own sound, finding its place, moving into the space.
It makes me feel humble, and belonging. Belonging to nature, being part of something bigger.

Overtones

The role of overtones is very important for Nakamura. He explains in details a specific breathing technique called Missoku, which, among other benefits, increases the production of overtones. I’ll get back to this technique in another post.

Overtones are definitively a characteristic of the sound of shakuhachi. Some people don’t like it because the flute’s sound doesn’t sound “pure”. However, overtones are very present in my master’s sound which touches me so deeply, and are part of its richness.

If you practice my chakra meditations, you know how important the overtones are to the crown chakra. In an intuitive way, I guess I found an important connection!

What I didn’t know (or remember from my classes of acoustic physics) is that there are two types of overtones: integer and non-integer overtones:

“The integer overtone frequency is an integral multiple of the fundamental note, and the resulting waveform is ordered. Language is a vowel. […]
In non-integer overtones and frequencies, the waveform is unordered. Language is then a consonant. […]
In short, as Japanese is a vowel-based language and Western languages are consonant-based, it seems that Japanese languages will have mainly integer overtones and Western languages non-integer overtones.”

What does this have to do with shakuhachi? Let’s read further.

“Japanese uses non-integer overtones for emphasis or strong expression.”

In other words, in a shakuhachi honkyoku based on subtle tone variations, a free degree of rhythm and integer overtones, the sudden explosion of a muraiki (non-integer overtones) will be used to put emphasis on a particular note or phrase.

What we would call “sound effects” in contemporary music is depicted here from the perspective of overtones and language. Therefore, it makes sense to carefully choose when and where to use such sounds, and not systematically everywhere.

Natural Sound Overtones

From Nakamura’s point of view:

“The voice of a bird singing and the sound of the brook are integer overtones, whereas the voices of the birds at time of crisis and the sound of the waterfall are non-integer overtones.”

I used to listen only to the birds songs. The more I play in nature, the more I listen to all the incredible sounds birds make. Not only to the melody and rhythm, but to all the aspects of the sounds they use, their texture, volume, etc. It’s amazing how rich it is! Such an inspiration.
Then I feel like a bird singing my songs among the other birds. Sending my own overtones to them.

“The Japanese language, music and natural sounds have the same structure. […] The sounds of music in Japan have become very complex due to the influence of language and natural sounds.”

Playing in nature brings you closer to the experience of the complexity of each sound and the subtlety of each phrase. But the first step to dive into it is to… LISTEN!

Play and listen to your own overtones, play with them, meditate on them. How does it inspire you?

More inspiration

In Vlastislav Matousek’s composition Corona Mundi, there is as much space given to the music as to the silence. It invites to listen as much as to play. A wonderful piece to play in nature!

Take your shakuhachi and go play into to the nature!

Please share your experience or comments below. Happy blowing!

Cover picture: Wim Scheenen

4 thoughts on “The Sound of Nature and Shakuhachi”

  1. Another wonderfully inspirational post! This one is so rich and full of subtlety with so many levels to uncover and explore! This post touches and resonates deeply with me and I plan to spend a lot of time to fully digest and work with it.
    Many thanks for your continued work and inspired teaching!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful write up. I’m very fascinated with your integration of music, Nature and meditation. I personally only add exercising to this mix, maybe you have your own version of it. And I cannot think of a lovelier combination to live every day. Lots of metta, love and warm regards 🙏🏽🌸🌸🌸🇮🇳

    Liked by 1 person

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