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SHAKUHACHI

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.

Melbourne 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.

SHAKUHACHI
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.

(Article based on Wikipedia article and used under the GNU Free Documentation License)

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