In 2015/16 I started listening to japanese music and especially music for shakuhachi. The triggering event was the listening course we had in each semester of the master’s curriculum and this brought some of the most intensive listening experiences of my life. In autumn semester, Alfred Zimmerlin prepared always interesting recordings to listen to, usually historically important works of contemporary improvised music, but not only. In this hour, also each of the students had once per semester to bring a recording and listen to it with the class. In spring semester, Fred Frith organized soundwalks in the most different sound surroundings of Basel. It was then by listening actively to our complex surroundings, when our concentration unveiled such a plenty of elements in the 3D soundscapes and our ears created each time their own compositions.
Among the plenty of recordings Alfred brought to us, was an album with traditional chinese music. I unfortunately cannot remember now the exact recording but it was a string instrument like the Guqin or the Guzheng. As far as I can remember we were all very surprised listening to this music, which carried a mixure of constrasts. Some of us claimed feeling overwhelmed by its presense, for somebody felt abstract, for another one it was quite concrete, others spoke about having joyful emotions and others about the opposite. The discussion resulted in reflections on the qualities of neutrality of emotions in music or, how emotionally neutral music can create space for all possible emotions.
In the next days, while thinking about that and looking for some records, I discovered the shakuhachi and its music. I could listen for hours to any recordings I could find, but my attention was caught by the masterpiece Tsuru no Sugomori – Renpoken* (= nesting cranes) performed by master Mitsuhashi Kifu, an astonishing piece from the repertoire for solo shakuhachi, which I could listen again and again until I could imagine each timbre being played with my m-d trumpet.
The piece depicts the life of the cranes, which are symbols of life, longevity and parenthood in japanese culture. Crane-pieces can be found in all lineages of shakuhachi. Common characteristic is that, by immitating sounds of the cranes in a melodic context, they are all of a high difficulty and fine beauty at the same time. About the Renpoken Tsuru no Sugomori (can be found also as Sokaku Reibo or Koden Sugomori): it does make free use of almost all the techniques used in shakuhachi honkyoku, as well as utilizes unique techniques found only in this work. Its numerous, beautiful and individualistic melodies, and its structure which displays praiseworthy development on a large scale, both make this famous piece deserving of being called the pinnacle of the musical world of classical shakuhachi honkyoku.**
Although in the following years I played some improvisations based on the aesthetics of this music, I didn’t go with the initial idea to transcribe some pieces for personal study until summer 2018. In August 2018 I started transcribing Tsuru no Sugomori from Mitsuhashi Kifu’s recording and after a month I finished the main work on the transcription. But then I had to learn playing it with the trumpet.
The first experiments to immitate the timbres of shakuhachi with the m-d trumpe were with both bells placed on the instrument plus some different combinations of mutes, but after trying out different things for a couple of months it became clear that a) the sound must be kept as pure as possible, b) the instrument should stay as light as possible, so no use of the second bell or any mutes and c) the keys for the microtones and the back pipe (connection of the 2nd bell) are in charge of pitch and timbre modulation. These decisions proved to be quite important and they brought very soon progress in the study.
But still the score was full of signs, comments and technical information about fingerings and timbre manipulation. Soon it turned out to be a combination of tablature and staff notation, but this turned the study of the piece to a technical work, rather than musical.
Comparing that to traditional shakuhachi notations one can see quite some similarities: these notations, basically syllables in Katakana (see photos), describe rather fingerings and other gestures than pitch***. The musician is free to choose the shakuhachi of any lenght (ergo in any key) to perform a piece. The question is if the shakuhachi responds to this tablature and helps for a satisfying result. It is impotant to keep in mind that each shakuhachi, as a unique, natural and non-industrialized instrument can respond differently on the same fingerings than another shakuhachi. This results in an aesthetic variety and adds to the character of each performance. During the next months I changed, corrected and deleted many of these tablature elements and I kept those with musical information rather than the technical ones.
It was already important to proceed having in mind that this piece is now on the way to become a piece for the trumpet. Additionaly, although a too much detailed notation might have offered a lot on classifying the performing tools of the m-d trumpet and it would be necessary in terms of analytical research on a new instrument, to concentrate just on the musicality, demanded simplicity.
The other pilar in the progress of studying the piece was to find out information, which would help me understand the origins of the piece, its structure and its cultural context. The main barrier to that is obviously the language. The sources available in english are just a few but quite informative. Thanks to the International (ISS) and the European Shakuhachi Society (ESS) I could reach important infos about the history of the instrument, the several schools, the pieces, recordings, musicians, teachers etc. It was a big relief to find out, on which one out of around ten different Tsuru no Sugomori I am working for so long. Gratitude to the amazing engagement of the musicians and ethnomusicologists behind these shakuhachi associations. Through ISS I found the historical information and a quite precise description and analysis, which helped a lot with the identification of the piece and the understanding of the music.
2019 was a very fruitful year and it brought the releases of my solo works. Tsuru no sugomori was the only tonal piece I wanted to study and record next to the works with trumpet and electronics. On the 06.02.2019 I recorded it in the atelier of Christoph Schiller in Basel. Christoph made also the mixing and the mastering for the cd-single, which was released some months later. In between, on March I had the chance to perform the piece live in Athens and in Basel.
On May 26th of the same year the legend of shakuhachi Riley Lee visited Basel as a guest of the Swiss Shakuhachi Society and he gave a workshop and a concert. Riley Lee is such an amazing musician and brilliant mind, who can absorb your full attention both with his music and his words. He performed pieces from different styles and he shared some nice and interesting information with the audience. After the concert I had the chance to meet him and in the next days we had a dense communication via email. He shared his thoughts with me, he provided some japanese scores and important documents (like his PhD dissertation), as well as a couple of important contacts for my further research (for instance the contact to Marek Matvija, musician from Czech Republique, who brought me in touch with Mitsuhashi Kifu – just imagine what it means in the Facebook era, to arrive to the source of your inspiration after some years of searching, and even through totally unexpected routes!). Riley Lee’s help was quite crucial in that moment and he encouraged me to go on with my arrangement of Tsuru no Sugomori, as well as to start learning the shakuhachi, which I did after a couple of months.
The reasons for publishing my transcription were the following ones: It was the first registration in western stuff notation of this specific piece. So, making it available to other musicians and ethnomusicologists was important. Furthermore, I would like to share this work with any musician who would like to play it. From my point of view as a performer, it was very nice and challenging to get into this process. By trying seriously to immitate the shakuhachi and to perform this music, you will soon be confronted with your possibilities as well as with your limits. This process opens new horizons for the musician and it forces the discovery of new ways of expression, while it gives a nice opportunity to deepen the relationship with the instrument. (And when this thought comes to my mind I always remember Fred Frith, our discussions, many jams, etc…thank you Fred!)
During my research I found several recordings of Tsuru no Sugomori – Renpoken from many other musicians. It is highly recommended for musicians interested in playing the piece to find the recordings suggested in the book and to look for even more.
By listening to several recordings of the piece, only an experienced ear can realize that it is about the same piece. Every japanese shakuhachi master puts his own musicality, mentality, background, influences etc in his performance and therefore the recordings differ pretty much from each other. These elements are also related to the several shakuhachi lineages, which have a strong influence in the preservative japanese culture. This means that the performance of a piece doesn’t have to be like this or like that, but to be convincing, consistent and respectful. Christopher Yohmei Blasdel, an american shakuhachi player who studied and lived for several decades in Japan, in his amazing book The Single Tone—A Personal Journey into Shakuhachi Music, makes a very nice observation about the necessities of a musical performance in Japan (I summarize and underline): more important and rigid than the content itself is the form. When form is respected, content is of minor importance.
Since shakuhachi scores are actually tablatures and they don’t describe pitches but rather performing instructions, the musician has just to play a piece with the shakuhachi of his preference independently of the key of the instrument. So my transcription includes one score for instruments in Bb (also as a reference to the trumpet as the first western instrument used for this piece), one in C and one more in C for bass clef readers, but the score can be transposed to the tonality that sounds better on your cello, your bass clarinet or any other instrument. Furthermore, it is possible that the same fingerings, played on different shakuhachis of the same key, can sound differently and obvious microtonal distinctions wouldn’t be surprising. This creates actually enough free space for exploration and experimentation. Therefore I noted microtonal accidentals in the score, which should be understood only as tendencies and not as precise pitches.
This work is dedicated to Mitsuhashi Kifu. Listening and learning Tsuru no Sugomori from another musician would lead to another result. The book was printed in 100 numbered copies (0-99) of which Nr. 0 arrived to Mitsuhashi Kifu as a token of appreciation for the inspiration and the influence of his music. His kind appreciation of my recording and of my book is the biggest honour I could receive about this work and I wish I could fulfill his wish and perform it once live for him.
Several copies have already arrived in several places across the world like Australia, Germany, Japan, Greece, USA, Denmark, France and Switzerland, including the Library of Texas A&M University (T.A.M.U.) which has one of the first copies of this publication.
* Quite offen the names of the pieces come with subtitles like “Renpoken, Fudaiji, Taizan, Kinko” etc. In the repertoire of shakuhachi there are plenty of different compositions with the same name as well as identical pieces with different names. The subtitle either describes the temple of the origin (Fudaiji, Myoanji, Renpoken etc), or it indicates a specific school (Kinko Ryu, Taizan Ha, Nezasa Ha, Dokyoku etc).
** From the International Shakuhachi Society.
*** See also my article Music of Gestures.