The Shakuhachi Player
Michael carefully lifted the instrument out of its bamboo case on the conservatory table. On a dry day he would have taken it into the garden but, this Tuesday, mists and showers were sweeping across the sea loch and the headland where his bungalow stood. So he remained, instead, in front of the glass doors that opened onto the garden. Through the glass he looked down on the small town of Gairloch, across the water towards Red Point and the Torridon range. On a clearer day, he’d also see the Trotternish peninsular on Skye and even the Outer Hebridean isles.
Michael liked – indeed, he needed – to play his shakuhachi flute for half an hour before lunch. So, today like every day, he covered the thumb and four finger holes, nestled the rim of the blowing hole against his lower lip, and gently blew a long, quiet, breathy note. During these sessions, he restricted himself to playing these extended sounds and to simple improvisations on a theme. The evening was the time for practice and technique: the half hour before lunch was one for cultivating a mood.
Today, like most days, It worked. He sat at the conservatory table, with a rice salad in front of him, feeling calm and content. As he watched the mist rising and falling over the loch, he again congratulated himself on choosing this as his place to retire after leaving the London publishing house where he’d worked for thirty years. He’d got to know the area well from summers spent camping and walking in Wester Ross. The hills above Gairloch, he’d decided, were an ideal place to buy a house. The views were ones he could never tire of and the town had sufficient amenities to save him from driving miles each time he wanted a loaf, some detergent or a meal in a restaurant.
He’d been aware, of course, that life in a bungalow high on a hill and at some distance from other houses would be fairly solitary, especially in winter. But as an only child and a man who’d never lived with a partner, he was accustomed to the silence and freedom that comes with solitude. The birds – sparrows and herring gulls, mainly – that he fed in his garden were almost company enough.
And then there was his shakuhachi, the 54.4 cm single length of bamboo that was also a companion. Retirement had allowed Michael the leisure to learn to know this instrument, its eccentricities, powers and many moods. His interest in the shakuhachi had begun ten years earlier. One of his responsibilities in the publishing house was as production editor of a long series of books on Asian culture and history. One of these books, on Japanese music, had a chapter on the itinerant monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism. For several centuries before their dissolution by the Meiji Emperor in 1871, the Shogun permitted these monks, unlike nearly everyone else, to wander around the country. As a meditative aid more than for entertainment, the monks played the shakuhachi from beneath the huge wicker baskets they wore over their heads. The baskets helped them, not only to emphasise their separation from the world, but to work as spies for the Shogunate – the price for their freedom of movement.
Intrigued by this history, Michael listened to a clutch of CDs of shakuhachi music – except, he soon realised, that ‘music’ wasn’t the right word for the traditional, Fuke pieces he most admired. ‘Music’ suggested something more organised, deliberate and crafted than the raw, spontaneous sounds made by a piece of bamboo that was less a musical instrument than a tool for inducing a sense of mystery and communing with the sounds of the natural world. Once he had bought himself a shakuhachi – from a fine craftsman in Maryland – it was these early pieces (honkyoku) that he wanted to play, even if he knew he could never emulate such masters as Watazumi Doso’s ability to produce an astonishing repertoire of shrieks, throbs, rumblings, trills, sighs, whoops and glissandos.
There were other, more recent styles of playing Michael could sometimes enjoy, but one thing he found intolerable and a betrayal of the genius of the instrument. This was its use in all kinds of popular modern music, from saccharine ‘relaxation’ albums to East-West ‘fusions’ to soundtracks intended to conjure up ‘Japaneseness’.
Today, as on many other afternoons, it was reflections on the land- and seascapes in front of him, and on his relationship with the shakuhachi, that, as he sipped a cup of sencha tea after his meal, occupied Michael’s mind. But there was another thought, one he sometimes tried to expel but, today at least, couldn’t keep out: the thought of Clare. Four months earlier he had given a talk on, and a demonstration of, the bamboo flute to a group of ‘world music’ enthusiasts in Inverness. Afterwards, a young woman approached him and introduced herself as Clare, a student of Architecture and Environmental Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She’d enjoyed his talk, she said, and without further ado asked him to teach her how to play the instrument. She already had a plastic one, she explained laughing, but still couldn’t get a sound out of it.
Later, Michael would question the wisdom of agreeing on the spot to teach her the basics and help her find an authentic, but affordable bamboo instrument. Had he been unduly influenced by Clare’s soft blond hair, long tanned legs and open smile? The problem was not her relative lack of natural talent, for she was eager to learn and happy to make the three-hour round trip from Inverness each Saturday for a lesson. After three months, she had acquired a grasp of basic technique and tone production. Nor was the problem the struggle he had with himself not to impose his own stylistic predilections on her – to let her play, for example, some simple Scottish folksongs. Michael’s problem, rather, was to disguise from her his attraction to her, possibly even his love for her. She was the first woman in many years able to rekindle in him youthful passions that he thought had long ago been extinguished. With a forty-year age difference, he was never, of course, going to announce his feelings, let alone ‘come on to’ her. But he had to hope that she’d read the signs of affection he couldn’t disguise as indicating nothing more than avuncular fondness.
It worried him, certainly, how badly he’d missed her when she didn’t come for the usual lesson the previous Saturday. In a way, it was his fault for encouraging her to go to a weekend international folk festival in Aberdeen. Appearing there, she’d informed him, would be a Japanese shakuhachi, samisen and koto trio, and it was clear that she was keen to hear it. This wasn’t Michael’s favourite kind of shakuhachi music, but it wouldn’t corrupt Clare in the way some of the more modern stuff might. So he gave her his blessing, but this didn’t make last Saturday feel less empty.
Michael was annoyed with himself, as he sipped the green tea, for allowing thoughts of Clare to intrude. It would help, he decided – especially as the weather was now clearing – to drive down to the farm shop in Gairloch to buy some vegetables and bags of bird food.
When he drove back to the bungalow from the town, he was surprised to see a large motorbike standing on the gravelled car-port. He was even more surprised, after he’d parked the car, to hear the sound of a shakuhachi coming from the back-garden. Before walking round, he paused to listen. The playing was much too skilled to be Clare’s, but it sounded live, not a recording. The music was intricate and flashy, like the improvised solos played by avant-garde jazz musicians – just the kind that Michael disliked hearing the shakuhachi used for.
When he walked round to the garden, Clare was sitting on the bench that looked out over the loch. She was, however, gazing at a young man who was sitting on the lawn in the Japanese seiza style – buttocks on heels – and holding a brightly patterned shakuhachi to his mouth. He stopped when he saw Michael approaching and Clare jumped to her feet.
‘Oh, Michael,’ she shouted, ‘I’m so glad you’re back. You don’t mind us coming over without warning, do you? I tried phoning, but no answer. But I really wanted you to meet Jake. Jake,’ she continued, turning to the tall, long-haired, wispy bearded man who had also now risen to his feet, ‘this is Michael. Michael, this is Jake.’
‘No, of course not,’ said Michael, forcing a smile as he greeted the young man in jeans and a cowboy shirt, ‘no problem. Nice to meet you. Come in and have some tea.’
As they walked to the house, Clare explained that she’d met Jake, an American, at the Aberdeen folk festival. He’d come over from the States to ‘do’ some music festivals in the UK. In Aberdeen, he’d auditioned for a newly formed Scottish-Japanese fusion band, ‘Tartan Kimono’, and hoped to be playing with them at a couple of forthcoming gigs.
‘When I heard him play,’ Clare went on, ‘I just knew you had to meet him, Michael. You just heard him – quite a technique, right? So we decided to drive over from Inverness on the bike he’s hiring’.
As he made tea for the three of them, Michael sensed a deep dislike of the young American welling up. For a start, there was his instrument. Resin? Plastic? Certainly not bamboo. And then there was the decoration: the flute looked like a miniature totem pole. Then, too, there was the music he’d been playing: suited, perhaps, to a saxophone but emphatically not to a traditional Japanese flute. That he was into fusion music, as Clare had mentioned, was just as bad. The young man also had, he felt, a supercilious air, as if he judged him, Michael, probably to be a musical dinosaur. He also exuded great self-confidence, due in part perhaps to what made Michael dislike him all the more – Clare’s obvious attraction to him. More than once on the short walk from garden to bungalow, she squeezed his arm or ruffled his flowing hair.
Michael found the next hour, as they drank the green tea, difficult and depressing. Clare, to be sure, was unusually enthusiastic and bubbly, but this Michael put down to the presence of the American. Jake, too, was garrulous, explaining how he’d switched to shakuhachi a couple of years earlier having, he considered, now mastered the Native American flute. His mission, in his own words, was to ‘bring the shak into the twenty-first century.’
‘Meaning what?’ asked Michael flatly.
‘There are just so many opportunities,’ replied Jake. ‘Jazz. Fusion. Multicultural. Electronic. Like these days anything goes, right?’
Michael preferred to remain silent. He didn’t want to lose his temper in front of Clare, which he would certainly do if he started to tell Jake what anathema to him these ‘opportunities’ were. Instead he had to watch Jake stroking Clare’s hair while he expounded on the possibilities for ‘electro-shak’ music. His mood was made even worse when Clare announced that she wouldn’t be coming for her lesson on Saturday.
‘I’m going with Jake to the world music weekend in Ullapool,’ she explained.
‘Yeah,’ interjected Jake, ‘it’s my first gig with Tartan Kimono. They’ve got some great guys. Just the kind of thing I’m into. If it goes well, I may stick around in Scotland for quite a while. Like there’s a whole bunch of music festivals here.’
‘It’s a two-day event,’ said Clare. ‘We’re going to sleep in a tent on the Friday and Saturday. Why don’t you come along and listen, Michael.’
‘Even better,’ interrupted Jake, ‘why don’t you come along and play something yourself? I’m told they welcome just about any music at this event. Come and have a blow.’
Michael brushed off this suggestion with a wave of his hand and a self-deprecating smile that belied the pain caused by the image of a naked Clare pressed against an equally naked Jake inside a sleeping-bag. His distress was compounded when, just as the two of them were leaving, Clare let drop that Jake was staying at her flat in Inverness. They needed to get back to the city in time to do some shopping and settle down to watch Braveheart.
‘Jake’s never seen it,’ she added, ‘but it’s “a must” with the shakuhachi being used in the film score.’
As Jake rode off on the motorbike, with Clare’s arms tight around his waist, he cheerily waved goodbye. Michael did not respond and simply watched them racing down the hill towards Gairloch.
That night, Michael was unable to get to sleep. The image of Clare and the American curled up in their tent was insistent. So was an image of the man dressed in a kilt in front of a beer-swilling crowd, blowing into and waving around his shakuhachi in a performance that was a parody of the instrument. By 2.00am, a plan began to form in Michael’s head. He must do something to discredit Jake – to show him up as a flashy, superficial player – especially in the eyes of Clare. Something that would make Jake wish he hadn’t abandoned the Native American flute and make Clare regret that she’d ever been impressed by him.
Michael needed to work fast. It was already Wednesday and the Tartan Kimono evening in Ullapool was on the coming Saturday. If he was to carry out his plan, the first thing to do was to contact The Pibroch Place, where the event would take place in an adjacent hall. Fortunately, he knew the people who ran it well: he’d given a talk and demonstration there a year before and every month or so he spent time in the bookshop attached to the hotel and restaurant where he then had lunch. It turned out to be no problem, when he phoned them, to have his name added to the list of performers at the event. In the first half, an Argentinian accordionist would be followed by Tartan Kimono, and Michael would start the second half, followed by some Kandyan drummers and dancers from Sri Lanka.
The next thing was to phone Clare to check that she was definitely going to the festival. Jake had given him the impression of a man who, having suddenly taken up with a girl, might then ditch her just as quickly. But Clare assured him that she’d be there – that, indeed, wild horses wouldn’t prevent her. And she seemed genuinely pleased that Michael had changed his mind and would also be performing.
Then there were a few props he would need for his plan to work. These were, he was pleased to find, easy to assemble. For a couple of them, he didn’t have to look further than his own study and one of the drawers in his bedroom. For the remaining ones, he drove down to a shop on the sea front in Gairloch that curiously, but conveniently, sold Asian clothes, ornaments, books and bric-a-brac as well as, more predictably, buckets, spades and beach-balls. It took him only three minutes to find what he needed. He wished these items had been less expensive, but he was on a mission and mustn’t be deterred by such considerations.
When he returned to the bungalow, and after a quick lunch, he began the next stage of preparation. In a CD player, he inserted one of his several disks of Watazumi Doso, the greatest guardian, in Michael’s view, of the early honkyoku shakuhachi tradition. He’d decided, in the early hours of the night before, that he would, over the next two days, play nothing himself and instead absorb the sounds of a true master. By Saturday evening, he was confident, these sounds would have so penetrated his whole being that he could reproduce – or, better, release - them in a display of utterly authentic playing. Until late in the evening and again for six hours on the two succeeding days, Michael sat listening, over and over, to pieces like ‘Shinya’ and ‘Shinseki’. Only once did he pick up his instrument, to blow a single long and trembling note. He was content: the sound seemed exactly to reproduce the one Watazumi had made. He was ready for the event.
After a light lunch at home on the day of the event, Michael put everything that he needed in the boot of his car and began the seventy-five minute drive to Ullapool. The road took him past the Inverewe Garden that he visited every season of the year, and along the coast with the islands – Ewe, Gruinard and others - to his left and the great mountain wilderness to his right. Eventually, he reached the Corrieshalloch Gorge, turned left and followed the gorge down until the river joined Loch Broom, with Ullapool standing on its shore only a few miles further on.
Michael parked his car close to The Pibroch Place, from where he could see the caravan and campsite where, he assumed, Clare and Jake had pitched their tent. He could only see two tents and wondered which was theirs and whether, at this very moment, they were lying next to one another inside. Trying to shake off this image, he went to the hall, close to the hotel, where the musical evening would take place. He looked inside, and checked the stage and how it was accessed from the back door of the building.
It would calm his nerves, Michael decided, to take a long walk – up the steep path that snaked up the hill that loomed over the town, then across to The Braes, a wooded hillside in which large houses with fine views over the loch nestled. He sat for a good half hour taking in one of these views, at first forcing himself to breathe very slowly, then finding that the deep breaths came naturally – just as they would, he hoped, when he blew into his flute in the evening.
When he returned from his walk, there was time to eat something before the beginning of the event. Rather than rub shoulders with other people and listen to their chatter, Michael preferred to buy a couple of ready-made salads from Tesco’s, take them to the rocky shore of the loch a couple of hundred yards away, and eat them while he watched the sun setting over the Hebrides.
The hall was already full of people standing in front of the stage, beer bottles or wine glasses in their hands, when Michael entered. In fact, he was a minute late: the Argentinian accordionist had already started. Michael heard, but was too distracted really to attend to, the man play, competently enough, an assortment of Astor Piazzolla tangos. He spent much of the time scanning the room for a glimpse of Clare, but there was no sign of her. Probably she was with Jake as he prepared for his entrance.
Michael did not have long to wait for this. Jake strode onto the stage, his totem-like shakuhachi in one hand, with five other musicians – two other men, also kilted, and three women dressed in kimonos. The men were a piper and a fiddler, while two of the women, both Japanese, carried a koto and a samisen respectively. The third woman, a red-headed Scot, carried a bodhran and stick. Their set was equitably divided between three traditional Scottish tunes, including ‘Scotch Mary’ and ‘MacPherson’s Lament’, and three traditional Japanese ones, including the inevitable ‘Rokudan’. But it hardly mattered to Michael whether a song was Scottish or Japanese: his attention was solely on Jake’s playing. It was impossible to pick out the shakuhachi from the general, raucous noise made by the band’s ensemble playing. But the American was given plenty of improvised solos to play. They were as awful as Michael predicted: technically impressive, but showy, shallow and utterly remote from the spirit of the shakuhachi. It might as well have been a soprano saxophone that Jake was playing.
Michael was depressed, but not surprised, to hear the enthusiastic applause that greeted Tartan Kimono’s set, and to see Clare, standing close to the stage, wildly clapping at the end of Jake’s solos. Soon, he told himself, she – and the rest of them - would hear what real shakuhachi blowing sounded like. He’d show them! He did not wait until the end of the group’s final tune: the interval would only be fifteen minutes long and he had preparations to make.
Out of his car, parked nearby, he took his instrument, a plastic clothes cover bag, and a large carrier bag. He went round to the back of the hall, avoiding the drinkers who were milling at the front, entered the building through the back door, and immediately walked to the toilet intended for the use of performers. Michael locked the door and began his preparations. First, he took from a pocket a pair of old white tennis socks and pulled them over the grey ones he was wearing. Then he unzipped the cover bag and lifted from the hanger a long, loose-fitting black kaftan, a striped scarf and a yellow, patterned shawl – all of them bought at the curious shop in Gairloch. He pulled the kaftan over his head, tied the scarf around his waist, and wrapped the shawl round his shoulders. Finally, from the carrier bag, he took the large waste-paper basket, made of woven coir, that normally stood in his office. Carefully he placed the upside down basket over his head. It was, he had checked two days earlier, long enough to cover his head to below the chin and wide enough for him to raise his shakuhachi to his mouth. Into the basket Michael had cut, at eye level, a slit that enabled him to see where was going.
Through the slit he looked into the mirror on the cubicle wall. He was delighted by what he saw. The clothes were a passable imitation of the dress worn by the Fuke sect Buddhist monks, while the waste-paper basket stood in well for the wicker baskets that concealed the monks’ faces.
The interval was over and people had returned to the hall for the second half of the evening. Michael entered from the back of the hall, slowly climbed the three steps onto the stage, and walked to the centre. For a few seconds the people packed into the hall were silent, then some chuckles and mutterings began, followed by guffaws and ironic cheers. Michael peered through the slit in the basket at a sea of faces, some grinning, others puzzled. To the side of the crowd, against a wall, he saw Clare and Jake, his arm around her shoulder. Their expressions were very different: an amused smile on his face, a look of concern, even alarm, on hers.
When the laughter subsided, Michael raised the shakuhachi to his mouth, paused for several seconds, and blew with all his force across the blowing hole. The result was a loud and penetrating shriek that silenced the remaining giggles from the crowd. He hadn’t planned to make that sound, nor any of those that followed over the next twenty minutes. The shrieks, tremolos, puffs, glissandos, wails, bends, trills, swoops, bird noises and groans that succeeded one another in a continuous torrent of sound – none of them were deliberate, none the result of a decision. Each was spontaneous: it was if the sounds he’d absorbed from listening to Watazumi were, of their own accord, now demanding to be released and heard.
For the first time in his life, Michael experienced, as he stood there playing, eyes closed, the barely describable sense which Zen masters encourage people – gardeners, archers, musicians – to develop. The sense that gardening or archery or playing is not something a person does, but something that simply happens, belonging to a process that no one directs or controls. ‘I don’t shoot the arrow’, Michael remembered reading, ‘the bow shoots it.’ And now, as he listened to the noises issuing from the instrument, he did not hear them as ones he was responsible for making. Instead, it was as if he was simply a medium, a conduit – like the shakuhachi itself – through which the sounds came to be.
Michael had quite lost any sense of time while he played. When he finally stopped, this again was not something he decided: rather, the sounds just stopped coming and silence took their place. Throughout the performance, his eyes had been closed. When he opened them and looked through the slit, he saw that only eight people remained in the hall. Of them, only two clapped, very quietly, as he lowered his instrument and walked slowly off the stage. When he glanced towards the entrance, he saw Clare and Jake slipping out. They turned round to face Michael just before disappearing through the door, he with the same sardonic smile, she looking shocked, even distraught.
Michael returned to the toilet cubicle, took off the waste-paper basket, the kaftan and the other accoutrements, and carried them to his car. Several people, including the manager of The Pibroch Place, recognised him, but averted their eyes. As he opened the boot of the car, he noticed two people walking across the caravan site towards a small tent. It was Clare and Jake, arm in arm.
Michael decided to walk along the shore for a while before driving back to Gairloch. As he walked he knew that his plan had failed. People had enjoyed and admired Jake’s playing: they had laughed at his own. Clare had been fired up by the American’s performance: she had been upset and embarrassed by his own. He hadn’t, as he’d hoped, ‘shown them’.
This failure, however, meant nothing to Michael. What could it be to him if superficial people, including Clare as he now realised, were deaf to the voice of the earth? As he stood by the edge of the loch, throwing pebbles into the water, he felt happy, clean and purged. While he’d been playing on the stage, he’d experienced something uncanny, but beautiful. Nothing less than a sense of how he was related to the shakuhachi and, through it, to the order of things. It was a sense, he felt confident, that would return when he next raised the instrument to his lips.