A Composers' Guide To The Shakuhachi (part 1)

Recently, a composer friend of mine told me that he would be interested in composing for the shakuhachi. As it is an instrument which is both idiosyncratic and esoteric I thought I would try to write a small guide. This is not intended for those beginning to play the shakuhachi (to whom I would say "try and find a good teacher!").

In this "chapter" I will try to outline some basic facts about the shakuhachi.

The bottom of the shakuhachi, and four of the five fingerholes.

The shakuhachi is usually made from a piece of bamboo. It is an end-blown flute with five fingerholes, four on the front and one on the back. The mouthpiece is very simple - one side of the opening at the top of the pipe is cut away to form a blade. To make a tone, the player blows over this blade (a bit like blowing over a bottle... but different).

The shakuhachi mouthpiece or "Utaguchi"

The name "shakuhachi" is shorthand for isshaku-hassun (one shaku eight sun) which is an old Japanese measurement. It works out as about 54.5 cm, the length of a standard instrument. Many lengths of shakuhachi are available (which play in different keys) but a "1.8" is by far the most common so I'll use it as the basis for this guide.

The dynamics, pitch and timbre of notes played on the shakuhachi can be drastically altered by raising/lowering the head, partly covering the fingerholes, cross-fingering, changing the embouchure, expelling breath in different ways, and so on. Despite (or perhaps because of) its simplicity, it is an extremely versatile instrument.

With standard head position and no half-fingerholes or cross-fingering, the shakuhachi produces a simple minor pentatonic scale starting from the D above middle C (D, F, G, A, C). This is easily played over two octaves (by tightening the embouchure).

By using the special techniques mentioned above, it's possible to play many more notes. In fact, it's possible to play a fully chromatic, or arbitrarily microtonal scale from Middle C (played by bending the "lowest" note D downwards) through two octaves and a major third to an E. Several other notes from this third octave are also playable with some difficulty: F#, G, Ab, A and Bb, and perhaps even higher. Frustratingly, the F is impossible!

It's worth noting, however, that while a player can be very exact regarding pitch, it does depend very much on the their ears. Also, some notes require a complex combination of techniques, and others don't. As an example, a fast pentatonic run in D is very easy, whereas the same run (at speed) in Eb is far more difficult.

These are the bare facts regarding the Shakuhachi's capabilities. In a later blog I'll begin to talk about a defining feature of the instrument: the way it can create different tone colours. For this I'll need to prepare some audio examples!