Shakuhachi: Text and Context

“To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower.” (William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 1803)

Students will explore Japanese music culture by examining one singularly interesting music instrument, a bamboo flute called the shakuhachi. It has been integral to the spirit of Japanese traditional music, acting as a voice of the loftiest ideals of Zen Buddhism and the earthiest expressions of erotic love and passionate loyalty in the Pleasure Quarters of old Tokyo. During the course of the program students will be introduced to relevant topics of ethnomusicology such as the taxonomy of organology and the semiotics of representation.

The core of the course is comprised of a detailed examination of the processes of Zen Buddhist meditation embodied in the music and performance of the flute. The resulting awareness will be extended to the conceptual music of John Cage that was derived from his encounter with Daisetz Suzuki, the great Japanese Zen Buddhist scholar. The shakuhachi will also be examined in the light of other vertical flutes such as the Middle Eastern Ney. Even the Western Baroque flute and recorder will be illuminated with some surprising commonalities.

Students will acquire a new appreciation of their own moments of musical contemplation and a re-vitalized awareness of musical landscapes of music beyond Western European Classical Music. Voluntary presentations will give students the opportunity to explore their own musical contemplative experiences, and mandatory ethnographies will reveal how music is used in the lives of family and friends when they combine music with contemplation.


Keon, David (1996) Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction

Harvey, Peter (1990) An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices

Lecture Schedule and Readings

Week 1 Course Introduction: a Komuso and his flute

Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, (1991) “Black Death,” in Lone Wolf and Cub Manga, issue 43.

Statler, Oliver (1961) “Chapter 10, In which the master of the Minaguchi-ya observes the course of a vendetta that stirs all of Japan,” in Japanese Inn, pp. 185-208. (especially note page 196)

Week 2 Zen Buddhist clergy and their music 

Nishimura, Eshin (1973) Unsui: A Diary of a Monastic Life Malm,

William (2000) “Buddhist Music,” in Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments, New Edition, pp. 66-74

Week 3 Organology and acoustics

Dournon, Genevieve (1992) “Organology,” in Ethnomusicology: an Introduction, pp. 245-300.

Reck, David (1977) “Machinations of Sound,” in Music of the Whole Earth, pp. 44-162.

Bess, Nancy (2001) Bamboo in Japan

Week 4 Japanese traditional music – theory and analysis

Komodo, Haruko and Mihoko Nogawa (2001) “Theory… in Japan,” in Garland Encyclopaedia of World Music, Volume 7:  East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea, pp. 565-73.

Thrasher, Alan (1995) “The Melodic Model as a Structural Device: Chinese Zheng and Japanese Koto Repertories compared,” in Asian Music, vol. 26, nr. 2, pp. 97-118.

Stanfield, Norman (1970) “San Koten Honkyoku Melodic Analysis,” in The San Koten Honkyoku of the Kinko-ryu, pp. 117-163.

Week 5 Flute music and meditation: Buddhist context 

Gutzwiller, Andreas (1991) “The world of a single sound: basic structure of the music of the Japanese flute shakuhachi,” in Musica Asiatica, 6, pp. 36-59

Levinson, Jerrold (1997) “Edmund Gurney and the Experience of Music” and “Statement and Elaboration of Concatenationism,” in Music in the Moment, pp. 1-52.

Green, Barry “”Concentration: the spirit of the zone,” in The Mastery of Music, pp. 166-187.

Austin, James (2001) “Starting Point to Zen” and “Meditating,” in Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness and Meditation, pp. 1-146.

Keister, Jay (2004) “The Shakuhachi as a Spiritual Tool: A Japanese Buddhist Instrument in the West,” in Asian Music, volume XXXV-2 (Spring/Summer), pp. 99-131

Week 6 Flute music and meditation: notation text

Riley, Lee (1991) “Shakuhachi honkyoku notation: written sources in an oral tradition,” in Musica Asiatica 6, pp. 18-35.

Stevens, John “Zensho: Zen Calligraphy,” in Sacred Calligraphy of the East, pp. 133-83.

Week 7 Music in the Warring States Period (Sengoku Period)     

Ruch, Barbara (1977) “Medieval Jongleurs and the Making of the National Literature,” in Japan in the Muromachi Age, pp. 279-309.

Turnbull, Stephen (2005) “Warrior Monks,” in Warriors of Medieval Japan, pp. 202-265.      

Week 8 Music in the Era of Peace, prosperity and flamboyance (Edo Period)

Hibbett, Howard (1959) “The Ukiyo-zoshi and the Floating World,” in The Floating World in Japanese Fiction, pp. 3-96

Malm, William (1978) “Music in the Kabuki Theatre,” in Studies in Kabuki: its acting, music and historical context, pp. 133-175.

Week 9 Sacred and secular shakuhachi in the Edo Period

Gutzwiller, Andreas (1984) “The Shakuhachi of the Fuke-Sect: Instrument of Zen,” in World of Music, volume XXVI, number 3, “Sacred Music II”, pp. 53-64.

Seigle, Cecilia (1993) “Age of the Dandy: The Flowering of Yoshiwara Arts,” in Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan, pp. 129-168.      

Week 10 The rise of the bourgeois shakuhachi – san-kyoku

Sand, Jordan (1998) “At Home in the Meiji Period: Inventing Japanese Domesticity,” in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, edited by Stephen Vlastos, pp. 191-207.

Keister, Jay (2008) “Okeikoba: Lesson Places as Sites for Negotiating Tradition in Japanese Music,” in Ethnomusicology, Volume 52, Number 2, pp. 239-269.

Fritsch, Ingrid (1983) “A Comparison of Tozanryu and Kinkoryu Shakuhachi Arrangements for Sankyoku Gasso made from Identical Originals,” in Yearbook for Traditional Music, volume XV, pp. 14-30.

Week 11 Occidentalism: Modern Japan and the West

Seyama, Tom (1998) “The Re-contextualisation of the Shakuhachi and its Music from Traditional/Classical into Modern/Popular,” in The World of Music, volume 40 (2), pp. 69-84.

Bonnett, Alastair (2004) “Good-bye Asia”, “Soulless Occident/Spiritual West”, and “From Soulless to Slacker,” in The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History, pp. 63-122.

Week 12 Orientalism: John Cage and R. Murray Schafer

Patterson, David (2002) “Cage and Asia: history and sources,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, pp. 41-59.

Schafer, R. Murray (1967) Ear Cleaning, pp. 1-46.      

Week 13 Emic and Etic Perspectives

Bailey, John (1995) “Learning to perform as a technique in ethnomusicology,” in Lux Oriente (festschrift for Robert Garfias), pp. 331-48.

Loori, John Daido (1999) Bringing the Sacred to Life: The Daily Practice of Zen Ritual

Vasudev, Uma (2005) Hariprasad Chaurasia : Romance of the Bamboo Reed (bansuri flute) : A Biography 

Erguner, Kudsi (2005) Journeys of a Sufi Musician (ney flutist)


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