EOL 6 CD Review

CD cover Shakuhachi no Shinzui
Shakuhachi Honkyoku
Yamaguchi Goro

["The Soul of Shakuhachi"
traditional repertoire
Goro Yamaguchi]

"Soul of Shakuhachi," performed by Goro Yamaguchi, shakuhachi solo. Twelve compact discs, forty-three page booklet, photographs, charts, traditional Japanese box. Japan Victor VZCG-8066-77. 37,800 Yen/~US$350. 1999. Available from Mejiro.

On a windless, clear day in early January, 1999, Goro Yamaguchi's funeral was held in the grounds of Zenkou-ji Temple near Omotesando in Tokyo. The service was silent, except for some farewell comments by colleagues and the murmuring of Buddhist sutra chants by the temple priests. Contrary to everyone's expectations, there was no music played. At the end of the service however, as his casket was being carried down the steep temple steps, a recording of Yamaguchi's rendition of "Soukaku Reibo" ("Nesting Cranes") suddenly began to issue from nearby speakers.

"Soukaku" (Japan Victor) RealAudio iconRealAudio  audio iconMP3

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The crowd of family, friends and students--recent university students and long-time private ones--became immobilized as they listened to the familiar tones. Many who had stifled tears throughout the long service could no longer hold back. Just as the final, two-note ending cadence--characteristic of the Kinko style honkyoku (traditional shakuhachi solo repertoire)--echoed through the temple grounds, a strong gust of wind sprang up. At that moment, all realized that never again would they hear his tones in a live setting.

Origins of this CD set

Due to Yamaguchi's unexpected death at the age of 65, there were no readily available and definitive recordings of his works, although he was widely recorded in honkyoku and sankoyku (koto-shamisen-shakuhachi) genres. Addressing this need, the Japan Victor Foundation put together this twelve-CD package, complete with introductory notes and explanations, of the thirty-six Kinko-style Honkyoku.

Japan Victor also released a companion set of sankyoku ensemble recordings with Yamaguchi's shakuhachi accompanying various top performers on shamisen, koto, and voice, "Yamaguchi Goro, Shakuhachi Shinzui: Shakuhachi Sankyoku Gassou" (Goro Yamaguchi/Soul of Shakuhachi Trio Ensemble Music. Victor VZCG-8078-81, 12,600 Yen/~US$115).

I highly recommend both sets.

Victor already had the master tapes needed to release the recordings; the honkyoku set is a remake of the video and CD set, "Yamaguchi Goro Kinko Ryuu Shakuhachi Shinan" (Goro Yamaguchi's Teachings of the Kinko Style Honkyoku), CDMC-3001-3936, which consisted of two videos explaining and demonstrating the honkyoku and 36 CDs of the pieces. Recorded in the fall of 1990, it was released in 1991. Unfortunately, the price, at over $1000, prevented anyone but libraries and rich individuals from making purchases.

Previous recordings

In 1990, Yamaguchi was 57 and still in prime form. He had recorded one previous ten-LP set of honkyoku for CBS/Sony in 1984, "Yamaguchi Goro Kinko Ryuu Honkyoku Zen Shuu" (Complete Kinko-Style Honkyoku by Goro Yamaguchi), LP OOAG 988-998, which was eagerly collected by his students and fans. It soon sold out and has not been re-issued.

There is not much substantial difference between these two recordings. One can detect a bit more liveliness in the refined ornamentations of the earlier Sony recording, but the studied maturity of the later Victor edition still maintains the sustentative energy needed to perform these lengthy and demanding pieces. The main difference is that the Victor recording is on CD and is available, though there is no guarantee it will be re-issued after it is sold out.

In Japanese only, the Victor introductory notes by the venerated Japanese music specialist Shigeo Kishibe were written after Yamaguchi's death and provide a brief but impassioned retrospect of Yamaguchi's life and career. The notes on individual pieces were taken from the original liner notes written by the late Japanese music scholar, Hirano Kenji.

One can compare the Victor recording, one of his latest, with one of his earliest. In 1968 (?), Nonesuch Records released an LP recorded while Yamaguchi was teaching shakuhachi at Wesleyan University in Connecticut (1967-68). Recorded in a church, the LP contained two Kinko-style shakuhachi honkyoku, "Kokuu Reibo," translated as "Bell Ringing in an Empty Sky," (the title of the record), and "Soukaku Reibo."

"Soukaku" 1968 (?) LP audio iconRealAudio audio iconMP3
(compare 1999 release above)

In 1968, Yamaguchi was still comparatively young (35). Only four years earlier, he had taken over the mantle of the shakuhachi guild, Chikumei-sha, after his father's death and he was experiencing life in a foreign country for the first time. The recording brimmed with youthful energy yet still contained the profound and subtle refinement which became a hallmark of his playing.

This record is also notable in that it was one of the first to introduce the lofty spiritual traditions of the Japanese shakuhachi to the West. For this reason, this simple record affected many lives. For many Americans, including myself, it opened up a completely new world of musical possibilities and provided the primary inspiration for playing shakuhachi. Exotic as shakuhachi honkyoku might sound at that time, a sensitive musician could nonetheless realize and appreciate the great discipline and virtuosity needed to perform such pieces.

The long term effects of this recording can be measured more than in just the lifetimes of the master and his disciples; it was one of the examples of world music included in the cargo of the Voyager II spacecraft sent into the far reaches of outerspace in 1977. It is possible that thousands or millions of light-years from now, some extraterrestrial intelligent being will hear the rich tones of Yamaguchi's honkyoku.

Strangely, this record is not listed in Yamaguchi's official CV, though Voyager II is. Perhaps it is because the Nonesuch record was not officially released in Japan, and secondly, it was not until much later that the Japanese became aware of what a treasure they had in Yamaguchi.

Public recognition

Yamaguchi's recognition came relatively late in his life. In 1971 he was awarded the prestigious Mobil Music Award and in 1992 acclaimed as a Living National Treasure, one of the youngest Japanese (at 59) to be given Japan's highest honor in the traditional arts. Although, like everything in Japan, designation as a Living National Treasure is surrounded by a degree of politics and favoritism, never did Yamaguchi play to them or other intrigues. He waited and played with great patience. If those around him liked his music that was fine. If they didn't, that was fine too.

Further public and world recognition came as he was asked to perform almost weekly in Japan and often around the world. In 1998, he was one of the specially invited guest performers (along with Yokoyama Katsuya, Aoki Reibo, Yamamoto Hozan, and Araki Kodo), to the Boulder World Shakuhachi Festival. The public performance he gave in Boettcher Hall during the festival was his last major public performance.

Spiritual qualities

In contrast to Yamaguchi's quiet, self-restraining approach, many in the generation of younger shakuhachi players, Japanese and non-Japanese, spend a lot of time, energy, and money in self-promotion. Times have changed and this sort of approach has unfortunately become de riguer. Yet the essence of the spiritual experience attainable through a musical tradition like the Kinko honkyoku cannot be bought, sold, or successfully advertised. Even listening to a CD, as valuable as that might be, is like watching the shadows of dancers instead of the dance itself.

With that said, these recordings are faithful to the essence of Yamaguchi's music. Aptly, the title translates as "The Soul of Shakuhachi Music." And one can detect the soulful essence of Yamaguchi's tones. Through these memories of his playing, one appreciates the nature of Yamaguchi's music and personality and realizes the legacy it continues to hold for us.

Christopher Yohmei Blasdel

These and other shakuhachi recordings can be ordered from Mejiro Shakuhachi Shop:

Mejiro Co., Ltd.
3-17-30 Shimo Ochiai
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
161-0033  Japan

or from Mejiro's website

Yamaguchi's shakuhachi guild is Chikumeisha, whose website is in Japanese-only.

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