On Music in Japan

May 1, 1999

Lonely Sounds Blowing in the Wind—Voice of the shakuhachi

 -A Haiku by Rev. John Seniff

The shakuhachi, an ancient Japanese bamboo flute, is my major performing instrument. In 1981 I was honored to earn a natori diploma in Kinko-ryû (Kinko school) shakuhachi and a professional Japanese name (Bai-ô)from a Kyoto-born Japanese master, Iwami Baikyoku V. I earned the diploma, however, in São Paulo, Brazil, not in Japan.

As musicians we are often asked "what instrument do you play?" "Shakuhachi"is my answer. When asked this question nearly 25 years ago by a former colleague at The Florida State University, and upon giving him my answer, he retorted, "Oh, but I mean real music!" That was a long time ago, and today I don't get those types of comments, at least not out loud. I also know that few College Music Society members would make such a remark, since we have now gone "into the world" (see my column in the January Newsletter).

The above beautiful haiku written by one of my former shakuhachi students who is now an ordained Buddhist priest, is meant to bring me to my topic for this issue of the Newsletter—The College Music Society's third biannual international meeting to be held in Kyoto, Japan, from June 25 to July 1, 1999. Kyoto is one of the birth places of the shakuhachi, and is the locale of some of the most beautiful bamboo groves in the world. I remember well the last time I was in Japan, playing my shakuhachi in the various moss gardens or bamboo groves on the grounds of Buddhist temples in Kyoto and its environs. Diane (the CMS first lady) remembers watching the facial expressions on some of the priests who were sweeping the walkways as they heard the lonely sounds of my shakuhachi echoing through the trees—they suddenly smiled. She never asked them if they smiled because they found enjoyment or humor in my playing.

You too will have wonderful Kyoto and other Japanese moments that you will always cherish, if you take advantage of the 1999 CMS international meeting this summer. Tod Trimble and the CMS staff have prepared thorough brochures about the summer's plans, and I hope you will read them carefully.

One of the housing choices during the 1999 international conference will be a traditional ryôkan or inn, where sleeping is done on a traditional futon placed on the tatami mats. When we visited Tokyo in 1973 we stayed in a ryôkan. One of the most memorable aspects of that trip was the inn's traditional bath house. There was a bath house for the men, and a separate bath house for the women. Because the men's bath house was full, and Diane was the only woman in the entire ryôkan, we both went into the women's bath house, locked the door, and had a relaxing hot bath. I cannot guarantee that the same experience will happen to you, but I have found that traveling in Japan is always memorable, and often full of pleasant surprises.

Finally, if any of us have the time to spend several weeks in Japan after the CMS international conference, we shouldn't miss the unbelievable Gion Matsuri festival which begins on July 17 with a procession of floats (hoko) from the 9th century, pulled by festival participants. The Gion Matsuri is a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Shinto, Persian, and even Dutch elements rolled into one rich multi-cultural tradition. Originating in 869 when Kyoto was the capital of Japan, it was an attempt by the inhabitants to counteract a plague that had killed thousands of people. To this day, 29 floats weighing up to 14 tons are pulled through the downtown streets of Kyoto. Some of them are so high that all the electrical and telephone wires have to be dismantled for them to pass. Diane, our son Darin, and I experienced this festival in 1973, and I'm sure that today it hasn't changed a bit. After all, it's only been 26 years, and the festival has continued for 1130 years. I hope you will be able to extend your visit to include this event.

The one thing I like the most about The College Music Society's international conferences is that we, as CMS members, are guaranteed an education. It's not that the national annual meetings are not educational—they are! The international conferences, however, are an educational experience, especially when we members participate in the pre- and post-conference activities. Once again, please read your brochure for the exciting details.

Since I began with a haiku, I will end with a poem about gagaku, the court music of Japan, another ancient tradition that has continued with little change. These words express the essence of many of the ancient musical traditions that you will hear this summer:

Sounds of antiquity, Elegance enduring. . . .
When all sound together a Cosmos can be heard,
Imagined by those now distant,
Elegant in the flickering candle of time.

-from Gagaku (http://www.zipangu.com)



1895 Last modified on November 19, 2013
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