The shakuhachi (尺八 in Japanese, pronounced /shakoo-hatchee/)
is a Japanese end-blown flute which is held vertically like a recorder
instead of being held transversely like the familiar Western
transverse flute. It was used by the monks of the Fuke sect of Zen
Buddhism in the practice of Suizen (blowing meditation).
The name shakuhachi means "1.8 foot", from its size. It is
a compound of two words:
- Shaku (尺, Shaku) means "foot" (an archaic measure of
length), equal to 30.3 centimeters (0.994 of the English foot) and
subdivided in ten (not twelve).
- hachi (八, hachi) � The word "hachi" means "eight", here
eight sun or tenths of a foot.
based shakuhachi player Andrew MacGregor
Thus, "shaku-hachi" means "one foot eight" (almost 55
centimeters), the standard length of a shakuhachi. Other shakuhachi vary in
length from about 1.3 shaku up to 3.3 shaku. (The longer the shakuhachi, the
lower its tuning.) Although the sizes differ, they are all still referred to
generically as "shakuhachi".
A recorder player blows into a duct, also called "fipple", and thus has
limited pitch control. The shakuhachi player blows as one would blow across
the top of an empty bottle, but the opposite edge of the shakuhachi has a
sharp edge, allowing the player substantial pitch control. The five finger
holes are tuned to a pentatonic scale with no half-tones, but the player can
bend each pitch as much as a whole tone or more, using a technique called
meri, in which the blowing angle is adjusted to bend the pitch downward. The
Shakuhachi has a range of two full octaves (the lower is called Otsu, the
upper, Kan) and a partial third octave (Tai-Kan). The different octaves are
produced using subtle variations of breath and embouchure.
Japanese shakuhachi, End-blown, notched flute. Picture
Library of congress (USA)
A 1.8 shakuhachi produces D4 (D above Middle C, 293.66Hz)
as its 'base' note - the note it produces with all five finger holes
covered, and a normal blowing angle. In contrast, a 2.4 shakuhachi has a
base note of A3 (A below Middle C, 220Hz). As the length increases, the
spacing of the finger holes also increases, stretching both fingers and
technique. Longer flutes often have offset finger holes, and very long
flutes are almost always custom made to suit individual players. Many of the
honkyoku in particular are intended to be played on these longer flutes to
achieve the appropriate feeling.
Much of the shakuhachi's subtlety (and player's skill) lies in its rich tone
colouring, and the ability for its variation. Different fingerings,
embouchures and amounts of meri can produce notes of the same pitch, but
with subtle or dramatic differences in the tone colouring. The honkyoku
pieces rely heavily on this aspect of the instrument to enhance their
subtlety and depth.
Shakuhachi are usually made from the root end of a bamboo culm and are
extremely versatile instruments. Holes can be covered partially (1/3
covered, 1/2, 2/3, etc.) and pitch varied subtly or substantially by
changing the blowing angle. Professional players can produce virtually any
note they wish from the instrument, and play a wide repertoire of original
zen music, ensemble music with koto, biwa and shamisen, folk music, jazz and
other modern pieces.
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