What is shakuhachi?

Sometimes, listening is enough…

Doc. Vlastislav Matoušek, co-founder of the International Shakuhachi Festival Prague

Once, many years ago, I found myself in the Braník Theater at a concert of traditional Japanese music. Those kinds of things happened to me often. As a university trained composer, beginning ethnomusicologist, and a veteran musician of various underground, alternative, and experimental bands, I was very interested in the music of different cultures. I even knew Japanese traditional music both from recordings and musicological literature. I was, therefore, not surprised when –on the very same stage, where I used to see plays by Jára Cimrman or where I would perform music for Rona’s Small Brat– an inconspicuous Japanese gentleman, clothed in traditional kimono and holding a sturdy piece of bamboo in his hands, stepped onto the stage. That must be without any doubt the famous shakuhachi: the flute I listened to with special interest in recordings of sankyoku ensemble music and whose unique sound, for whatever reason, was included in every high-end synthesizer. I was a bit surprised, however, when I realized that probably no one was going to accompany him.

As the opening long tones filled the concert hall, I was shocked and listened in fascination. He played alone. Undulating waves of long tones and phrases of strange sounds unfolded into a pulsation of shining energy from somewhere deep inside the infinite Cosmos. The world changed and my horizons collapsed. I drifted upward, infinitely slowly, like in zero gravity…

When he finished, I awoke back to our world of delusions. At that very moment, I knew that my life would never be the same. That was what I had been looking for my whole life, but until then I was unable to recognize what I had sought. It was, as John Cage had written, just that:

“Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains.” After hearing this, the Zen expert Dr. D.T. Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.” (John Cage: Silence, Wesleyan University Press, 8th printing, USA 1986, pg. 88)

Many things can undergo change. Sometimes listening is enough: listening to the shakuhachi flute.

Vlastislav Matoušek