About Shakuhachi & Taimu
The shakuhachi is an ancient bamboo flute originally used by esoteric Zen Buddhist monks and samurai as a breath awareness instrument.
Structure of the Shakuhachi and Taimu
How is a Taimu different from a shakuhachi?
Origin and Lineage
The shakuhachi does not have a “mouthpiece” per se. It is simply a highly polished surface that is angled on one side to split the air. This is about the simplest flute design that you will find. Some shakuhachi flute makers insert bone or other surfaces in the mouthpiece or even through the entire flute to standardize the sound and playability. Cornelius prefers flutes that do not have inserts or lacquer, preferring the textured, natural bamboo surface and concomitant variation in tone and breathiness. This style of shakuhachi is referred to as jinashi.
Four holes are in the front, and the fifth–the thumb hole–is in the back. With just five holes the player must achieve the chromatic scale through partial covering of some holes, as well as with variations in breath and head-tilt. What the player loses in predictability and standardization he or she gains in fluidity, adaptability, and expressiveness. Pitches are often and easily bent, allowing for non-standard tuning, nuanced timbral qualities, and contributes to the “vocal” quality of the shakuhachi.
The root-end of the bamboo flute is literally the end of the stalk of bamboo (which is, by the way, technically a grass rather than a tree) that was previously in the soil. Though not all shakuhachi and Taimu have a root-end, Cornelius prefers the unique character that the root-end lends to each of his flutes, as well as the feeling of maintaining a connection to the natural origins of the material from the bamboo forest in Japan from which the majority of his flutes have been harvested.
Cornelius playing a Taimu.
Photo by Rudi Amedeus 2016.
Cornelius playing a shakuhachi.
Photo by Rudi Amedeus 2016.
Bigger & Deeper
This is the basic difference: the Taimu is larger than a shakuhachi. They are longer and have a wider bore, with larger finger holes spaced further apart. Other than they they are the same instrument. Just as Cornelius started off on clarinet and later specialized in bass clarinet (and went from alto down to baritone saxophone), he likewise began his study of the Japanese bamboo flute with shakuhachi, and now plays both the shakuhachi and the deeper, bass Taimu.
Ken LaCosse at Mujitsu Shakuhachi in San Francisco, in partnership with Brian Ritchie, originally developed the Taimu instrument. Ken is the only creator of Taimu in the world today. The Taimu is in the lineage of the kyotaku and hotchiku, but these instruments have their own specifications and characteristic sound. Visit Mujitsu Shakuhachi’s website at mujitsu.com.
Origin & Lineage
Cornelius in a madake bamboo forest in Matsukawa.
Photo by Kodama, 2016.
The name “shakuhachi” is translated as “1.8 shaku.” “Shaku” is a unit of length, and “hachi” means 8, thus the flute is basically 1.8 shaku long. However, this only refers to the flute that plays in the key of D minor. Many lengths and keys are possible and used today.
The oldest known evidence for bamboo flutes goes back to the ninth century BCE in China. However, there is much variation among bamboo flutes with regard to whether it is end-blown or side-blown, the number of holes, etc. In the sixth century the bamboo flute is known to have migrated to Japan. The shakuhachi as we know it today originated in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism.
Priests of Nothingness
Suizen, translated as “blowing Zen,” is a method of meditation. The basket on the head of the Fuke monk or priest, called komuso, is a well known image of the traditional shakuhachi player. These temple priests would walk the streets of towns begging for alms and playing their flutes.
Samurai in Japan are known to have adopted the shakuhachi for various purposes. There is a popular legend that these warriors used the flutes as a weapon when their swords were outlawed.
For an in depth exploration of the history of the shakuhachi and related instruments, read The Annals of the International Shakuhachi Society volumes 1 and 2.
More Shakuhachi & Taimu Tales
The legends, tales and songs of the shakuhachi go back to 6th century Japan. This thick, root-end bamboo flute was utilized primarily by a special group of Buddhist priests before the early Edo period when it became utilized by more temples and in court music. The primary “classical” repertoire consists of 36 pieces that were gathered from many temples across Japan in the late 18th century by Kurasawa Kinko over 3 years of travels. These pieces were performed by the komuso (wandering Priests of Nothingness) and are rooted in Zen philosophy, nature contemplation and chant: “Sokkan” (breath sight), “Shingetsu” (moon spirit), “Sanya” (three valleys), “Ukigumo” (floating clouds), “Tamuke” (hands folded in prayer), etc. The lordless samurai (ronin), when they were stripped of their weaponry, also used the head covering of komuso as a disguise and the thick, root-end bamboo flute as a weapon. This led to the creation of laws against the practice of shakuhachi for a while in Japan.
Due to the simple yet unique physical design of this flute, it is highly expressive, evocative, deep and reverent. As ethnomusicologist Fumio Koizumi concluded: “Because of the religious origin of its music, the sound of the bamboo flute leads the mind directly into spiritual thought. Thus a single tone of the shakuhachi can sometimes bring one to Nirvana.” And as shakuhachi grandmaster Yoshinobu Taniguchi points out, “Gratitude towards all is at the center of the shakuhachi soul. The entire purpose of the shakuhachi is to foster a thankful heart.”
Taimu shakuhachi are long, wide bore flutes with a deep, airy, expressive tone made by Ken LaCosse of Mujitsu Shakuhachi in San Francisco. As Ken says, “My concern when building these flutes is finding a ‘glowing’ tone quality. This glow is very different than the focused, pure tone of thinner bored shakuhachi. This flute design is characterized by a wide bore, which gives the flute its natural, raw, windy tone.” Thus, they share some qualities with the hocchiku of Watazumi and the kyotaku of Nishimura. I have composed 27 pieces for Taimu, although they can be played on any size shakuhachi, go here for details on these compositions and my Taimu instructional materials. These flutes are the cello/trombone/Barry White of the shakuhachi world, and the resonance you feel when playing them is incredible.
There are lots of great web pages with adventurous information about shakuhachi, like here and here.