Friday, March 26, 2004

Nirvana by bamboo

Last night I had the good fortune to attend a really fascinating and inspiring concert of shakuhachi music. What’s that, you say? Never heard of the shakuhachi? Fear no more, brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you about it.

Not only am I fortunate to live in New York City where these sorts of cultural opportunities abound, but also fortunate to have personally come to know a lot of interesting and talented people over the years. One such interesting and talented person is Ronnie Nyogetsu Reishin Seldin, the man behind the shakuhachi. Another such interesting and talented person is my friend the big university music librarian (who would probably prefer to remain anonymous), who happens also to be a student of Grand Master Seldin. It was my librarian friend that made sure I knew about the event.

The concert was the final part of an All University Artist-in-Residence Series at NYU and was held in the Catholic Center on the south side of Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village. The highly reverberant acoustics added a truly haunting quality to the eerie sounds produced by Seldin on the shakuhachi.

But I haven’t told you what a shakuhachi is, yet! Simply put, it is a traditional Japanese bamboo flute, played (very roughly speaking), recorder style. The instrument has a long history of use among a particular sect of Zen Buddhist monks known as the Fuke. These monks used the difficult practice of playing the shakuhachi and its evocative sounds as a vehicle toward spiritual enlightenment (you can read more about the shakuhachi and other fascinating things on the Wikipedia, here.)

Words can’t really describe the ineffable, uncanny and at times doleful sound of the shakuhachi. It wouldn’t be quite right to characterize the music as sad, but perhaps words I’ve already used, like ‘haunting’ and ‘eerie’ could come close to describing the experience. As Seldin played it, the instrument seemed alive, like some forlorn beast or bird of the forest, or the lost soul of someone doomed to a thousand rebirths.

The eerie aesthetic fits well with the somewhat dark ethos of Buddhism. Remember that the Buddha taught that all life is suffering. While there is recognition of this suffering, there is great longing and beauty in this traditional Zen music as well. It reminds me so much of the Japanese poet Issa’s famous haiku:

The dewdrop world
is only the dewdrop world,
and yet, and yet …

There is both a recognition of the fleeting impermanence of life, but also a great reverence and attachment to the ethereal beauty of that life.

Wish you hadn’t missed this unique concert? Don’t despair. It turns out that this summer shall witness the Fourth International Shakuhachi Festival, right here in Greenwich Village, New York.

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