The initial part of this interview was conducted some time before Prague Shakuhachi Summer School 2009; the second part of the interview reflects the Summer School

Jim Franklin


Hello Jim, how are you? What are you currently up to?

Well, today just before this, I made recordings of the pieces I'm teaching in Prague. Apart from that, I've spent the day working on the compositional side of things, in the combination of shakuhachi with live electronics and theremin. In general at present, I have the usual routine of teaching and performances - a couple of concerts last week, and one next week, but this week is mainly teaching.


How did you learn about the shakuhachi? What was the reason you took it up and, later on, decided to become a professional shakuhachi player?

I first heard recordings of the instrument as a music student at the University of Sydney in the late 1970s. As part of the Ethnomusicology unit, I studied a segment on Japanese music, including shakuhachi, and was fascinated by the recordings I heard (among them, by Yamaguchi Goro). I carried these impressions unconsciously, and some compositions of mine from the early 1980s, before I started playing shakuhachi myself, show an influence of the instrument.
After spending 1982 to 1986 in Europe (studying composition), I returned to Australia, and there I encountered my first teacher, Riley Lee. Riley came to Australia as a PhD student at Sydney University, and I was there completing my masters degree and later my doctorate. I heard concerts by Riley, and decided to take the risk of starting up a completely new instrument. I soon felt that this was the instrument that I'd been looking for, so I worked at it with Riley in Australia, and then with FURUYA Teruo and YOKOYAMA Katsuya in Japan. Parallel to this, I was working as a university lecturer in Sydney. Eventually I decided to move out of the academic world, and took the risk of going freelance with shakuhachi - in Germany, where I had contacts and already spoke the language.  For the past several years, this has worked out fine.


I’ve heard you lead several teaching groups in Germany, is there also interest from young musicians to learn the shakuhachi?

My students cover virtually all age groups, from university students to pensioners. It's hard to identify a specific profile for students. But certainly, there are younger students whom I hope will eventually come to play shakuhachi professionally in some capacity or other.


You are also the chairman of the European Shakuhachi Society. Tell me, what is its current function and what are the goals for the future?

The ESS  understands itself as a coordinating body for information about shakuhachi and shakuhachi-related events in Europe. It's not a school and it's not affiliated with any school. The members are people who have some connection to the instrument - teachers and students from various schools and groups in various countries, and also people who simply like its music. Apart from its role in assembling and disseminating information, the ESS also organizes courses such as the (usually) annual European Shakuhachi Summer Schools, or in some cases assists members in organizing such events. In the future, we would like to see the ESS in a position to fund events (in addition to the Summer Schools) and publications (recordings, scores etc), as well as commissioning compositions and subsidizing scholarships. The financial position is not yet strong enough for this, but we're hopeful for the future. The success of previous Summer Schools, and the growing interest in the instrument, give us grounds for such hopes.


As a composer, where do you see the flute’s potential? How do you feel about contemporary approaches to tone color and pitch?

For me one of the most interesting aspects of the shakuhachi lies in the musical characteristics which are so deeply exploited in the honkyoku, the "original pieces": the ability to create almost infinitely subtle shadings of pitch, timbre and dynamics. The strength of the instrument isn't in the playing of rapid-fire passages of notes, but in the detailed shaping over shorter or longer periods of individual tones - the inner life of the tones. For me, this corresponds to aspects of experimental music from the 20th (and 21st) century, where the primacy of harmony, melody and metered rhythm is at least in part subverted by an emphasis on shadings of tone and pitch, in a non-metered time frame. The shakuhachi is thus an ideal instrument for musical composition with these emphases, and pairs well with other instruments with similar potential: acoustic instruments (I've always enjoyed working with clarinetists), and electronics. One of my primary directions as composer/performer is with live electronics, almost always in combination with shakuhachi.


What are your main instruments? (please, mention names, lengths and perhaps their specific characteristics) What do you look for when choosing a flute?

My main flute is a 1.8 made by Tom Deaver; Yokoyama had given it his blessing as "subarashii!" ("fantastic!") before I bought it about 12 years ago. I have a couple of other Deaver instruments, including my touring 2.4. Other instruments (2.1, 1.6) are by Chikuyu. And I have a lovely 2.4 by Gyokuzan, which I use mainly for recording, as it has no middle joint and is thus more difficult for travel (I can't take it apart). These are all jiari instruments. I have a very nice antique 2.0, no idea who made it, and lots of makers have apparently worked on it over the years to make it a great flute. It's only very lightly lacquered - you can see the structure of the bamboo in the bore.
Apart from the flutes, I often use electronic instruments (mainly analogue) - theremins (Etherwave and Etherwave Pro) and processing electronics by Moog, analogue processors by Vermona (a small but interesting German company), and a host of guitar pedals which process either the flute or the theremin. When I use a synthesizer, it's usually an Evolver, by Dave Smith, a hybrid analogue/digital instrument.
In selecting flutes for myself and for my students, I have several criteria. I come from a school which places a lot of emphasis on accuracy of pitch, so I select flutes whose fundamental is accurate (A440 tuning basis), and whose intervals are correct (which doesn't mean equal tempered!). I like the lower octave, including the bottom ro, to be firm and rich, and the kan register to sing clearly. Because the flexibility of pitch is of great importance, I also want flutes to be able to play meri without excessive difficulty. Of course, even a very expensive flute isn't going to be perfect in all respects, so it's always necessary to make a compromise. There is also an element of gut feeling to it - a flute will feel right, or not - and a flute that doesn't really feel right for one student may turn out to be a good instrument for another. In my experience, this is a very good reason that students should only select instruments hands-on and with the assistance of an experienced player.

 

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You were the artistic supervisor of the Creative Workshop of the Prague Shakuhachi Summer School 2009. Do you think such inter-disciplinary workshops are meaningful? (please mention the integration of the shakuhachi into the art scene)

One important facet of music and art in general in the 21st century is intermediality - the encounter and reciprocal enrichment of two or more art forms. This is nothing new, of course, but recent technologies have opened up options that were previously unavailable. The use of the shakuhachi in such contexts is, I believe, particularly interesting. On the one hand, the instrument has its unique character, but on the other, it offers a broad spectrum of possibilities for shaping of sound. These parallel the possibilities in other media, including those offered by electronic technologies, even though the shakuhachi is simply a bamboo tube. My feeling is thus that the shakuhachi not only is capable of offering a dialogue of equals with other media, but adds the option of a dialogue of technologies, covering the spectrum between physical simplicity and electronic and digital diversity. Workshops which promote the interaction of the shakuhachi with other media thus promote a richness of dialogue and interaction, which I believe to be highly meaningful.


How did the artists cope with integrating the concepts and the sound of the shakuhachi?

All the participating artists were open to the world of the shakuhachi, but I experienced varying degrees of preparation and prior experience. The interactions which flowed most easily were those in which the artists had done some research prior to the workshop - listening to the shakuhachi (either live or in recordings), talking to players and so on. Where this research hadn't been done, there was a fairly steep learning curve at the start of the workshop. Nevertheless, all the artists developed material which was of good quality.


You are going to be part of the European Shakuhachi Festival held in Prague next year. What are your feelings towards this event? What is the notion of organizing a Pan-European event?

I look forward very much to the 2010 event in Prague. In a world of rapid and flexible communication and travel, interchange between groups and performers in various geographical regions has become not only easily possible, but also, I believe, a necessity. A sense of mutual support and awareness of commonalities (that we all love playing a piece of bamboo) are, I believe, more important than differences between schools and approaches. Pan-European events which respect the differences but celebrate what we have in common, are an important way of developing this sense of community. This was the underlying notion in establishing the European Shakuhachi Society, and from my point of view is the basis of the annual European Shakuhachi Summer Schools.

Thank you very much. We hope to see more of you in Prague and Czech Republic in general.