Shakuhachi as Time Machine

I often think about time. My fortieth birthday, fast approaching, feels rather ominously like the mid-point in my life. To make matters worse, the days and weeks which used to roll by imperceptibly slowly, filled to bursting with experience and freedom, are already flitting past with an almost audible hum. I'm very lucky that I enjoy my work, but Friday evenings have started to feel bitter-sweet, signalling as they do Monday's imminent arrival.

As I - as all of us, I assume - accelerate wildly towards the inevitable, I find myself trying to slow my progress. I have generally done this through music.

Through studying an instrument, I gain a much more meaningful sense of time passing than by checking days off a calendar, or waiting for the next episode in some (critically acclaimed but incomprehensibly long) television drama. I can say to myself with a great degree of certainty that I am more able to play a particular piece, say, than I was... before. How long before is irrelevant. Entropy has been temporarily halted. I have imparted a positive spin to the arrow of time.

The shakuhachi is especially interesting with regards to the flow of time. Many of the traditional zen pieces - the Koten Honkyoku - are measured not in beats and bars, but in breaths. While there are long notes and short notes, there are no rigidly-defined divisions of time into crotchets and quavers and so forth. A breath could be a complex phrase, or a single note. Every breath is different, every phrase is different. Every space between two breaths is different. It's impossible to play the same piece twice.

I saw the great player Riley Lee perform, not long after I'd started studying the shakuhachi. I was astonished at his control. I watched as he played the piece's final long tone, the timbre steadily evolving as the sound faded away, stretching seemingly into infinity. It was mesmerising. For a while, the clocks stopped.

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