Christopher Blasdel began studies of shakuhachi with Living National Treasure Goro Yamaguchi in 1972. Graduated with MFA in ethnomusicology from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and awarded professional name "Yohmei" and shihan ranking from Yamaguchi in 1984. Records, teaches and performs widely in Japan and around the world. One of the few masters of the traditional Kinko Style shakuhachi, Yohmei also performs contemporary music and collaborates with various artists.

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Hello Christopher, how is life of a professional shakuhachi player in Japan?

If you think just in terms of material success, a professional shakuhachi player's life is never easy, whether in Japan or anywhere else. There is just not enough commercial demand for players or teachers to create a viable and sustainable market. The shakuhachi players who are commercially successful in Japan are the ones born into already established musical dynasties or those who work (and promote) themselves very hard.  Many of the best shakuhachi players rely on supplementary means of income to survive. Whereas the material gains of playing shakuhachi may not be readily evident, the spiritual gains are a different story. This makes it all worthwhile

You were a student of one of the legendary players of the twentieth century, Yamaguchi Goro, what do you find was the reason for him to stand-out among other players?

Yamaguchi stood out because of his accommodating personality, magnificent tone color and subtle nuance of playing. In modern times, musical success is often measured in terms of loudness, technical cleverness or commercial hype, but Yamaguchi showed us that this was not necessarily the path one had to take. In this, he was a true master. He was patient, relaxed and always ready to help out his students, colleagues or friends. He will always remain the ideal for which I strive. Two of his teachings still guide my daily practice: 1) work on your personality as much as your music and 2) your time will come, don't rush it.

What is your relationship to the shakuhachi as a musical instrument and as a spiritual tool?

Any professional tool can become a conduit for self-knowledge, but the shakuhachi is particularly suited to this. For me, music and spirituality cannot be separated (but neither can more mundane things like dishwashing and spirituality). With shakuhachi, it is not enough to just "yearn" for spirituality. One must work hard to earn it. Taking the time, effort and discipline to master the metier and become technically precise in shakuhachi music means that you have the necessary love and devotion required understand and incorporate its spiritual aspects.

What are your main instruments? What sound are you looking for when choosing a shakuhachi?

I mostly use a 1.8 that Yamaguchi's father, Shiro, made. It can produce some beautiful sounds but it also has its quirks. I'm still not convinced that it is the best instrument for me, but like a long time lover, I am so used to it that I don't feel comfortable with other 1.8 instruments. The 1.6  I use was made by Yokota Reikoh, my colleague and Aoki Reibo's student. His instruments are well tuned and suited for the classics. My 2.4 is by Murai Eigoro, who consciously makes his instruments like Yamaguchi Shiro's. I have a ji-nashi 3.1 by Yamaguchi Shugetsu that I really, really love.

My advice for those looking to purchase instruments is that sometimes a really good shakuhachi will not be easy to play at first. Nowadays many shakuhachi come fresh out of the workshop very easy to play. This is like an inexperienced poker player who shows you his hands at the very beginning. It sounds great but doesn't go anywhere. It took me about 20 years to master my 1.8 Shiro shakuhachi!

It is quite rare to play such a long shakuhachi, do you also use the 3.1 Shugetsu for Kinko honkyoku?

I don't use it for Kinko honkyoku. Kino honkyoku require instruments that have precision response, like a Ferrari, and a long ji-nashi just doesn't have that. What it has instead is warmth and wonderful, rich overtones.

You are closely affiliated with Prague Shakuhachi Summer School. How did that relationship with Czech shakuhachi players develop? When did it start?

It began with my encounter with Vlastislav [Matoušek ed.] in 1995, when he came to Tokyo on the Japan Foundation Fellowship. Briefly put, Vlastik is one of the most fascinating musicians and composers I have ever met, and I have a great love and respect for him. This respect has grown throughout the years as I see how his devotion and enthusiasm toward the shakuhachi has inspired a generation of young Czech students to learn the instrument. I would do anything to help him out, and it has been a real honor for me to be part of the Prague shakuhachi movement.

What is your opinion about the transition of the shakuhachi to the West? What can be its role, how do you see it enriches the western art scene?

Anytime you have serious and informed transmission and understanding between cultures, the whole world benefits. The shakuhachi can be approached in many ways, but that is true in Japan as well. For me, the shakuhachi has been a tool to understand not only Japanese music and culture, but also myself. As for its impact on the art scene, the shakuhachi has opened the world of non-Western music for many musicians and composers around the world.

Your book The Single Tone won the prestigious Rennyo prize for non-fiction literature. Tell me about you becoming a writer, how did that happen?

It was the original Japanese version, entitled Shakuhachi Odessei--Ten no Neiro ni Miserarete... ("Shakuhachi Odyssey, Being Seduced by the Sounds of Heaven...") that won the award. I have always loved writing, almost as much as the shakuhachi. To me, writing is a way to discipline the mind and transmit thought. Music stimulates the heart while writing stimulates the mind (with some significant overlapping). 

 Are you currently working on another book?

Yes, I'm working on a novel, basically about a young musician who comes to Japan and ends up learning the shakuhachi (surprise surprise!), but unlike The Single Tone it will have intrigue, tension and sex (hey, it has to sell, right?) I'm fascinated with the role of fiction as a medium for the truth. But this is one of the hardest things I've ever done and, quite frankly, I'm not sure I can pull it off!

 

Finally, what is your message to starting shakuhachi players in the West?

There are many, many obstacles to overcome, but that is part of the joy of discovery. Your efforts will eventually be rewarded. There is nothing more sublime and satisfying than to be able to express your inner yearnings through the magnificent, lofty tones of the shakuhachi. Hang in there!

The interview was conducted by Marek Matvija

 

 

Christopher Yohmei Blasdel will teach and perform on Prague Shakuhachi Summer School '09 along with Keisuke Zenyoji, Vlastislav Matoušek and Jim Franklin.