Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Thursday, January 19, 2012

“Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life” by Ray Brooks (Sentient Publications)

I first came across the term “blowing zen” when I began teaching the Music of the World course at SUNY Fredonia. The textbook I used that semester referred to “Suizen” (in English, “blowing Zen”) as a Japanese meditation practice, in which a person playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute (now just as often made of harder woods, and even plastic) uses breath control techniques specific to that instrument as a means to attain enlightenment, a profound level of self-realization. This stayed with me, first off because I love the sounds the shakuhachi is capable of making, but also because it represented a function of music-making that I’d never considered before.

I should at this point make clear that, despite some youthful flirtation with the concepts of Zen Buddhism, I have never seriously pursued an interest in Zen, and am thus unqualified to critique the book from that particular perspective. My primary interest in this book, then. is the shakuhachi, a flute with an uncommon range of timbres and pitches, achieved by a skillful manipulation of the notched mouthpiece, the player’s breath and head movements, and partial holing techniques. It is an instrument long associated with the komuso, known as “monks of nothingness and emptiness”, itinerant Japanese monks who survived by playing the shakuhachi both for spiritual sustenance and for begging. as street musicians who wore beehive-shaped headgear that covered their faces, the better to deny the ego.

Ray Brooks is an English-born musician now resident in British Columbia who has achieved considerable mastery of the shakuhachi, well beyond the noodlings one too often encounters from Westerners dabbling in a non-Western musical idiom. “Blowing Zen” (first published in 2000, and now revised and expanded) begins by looking at how Brooks discovered the instrument, virtually by accident, while living and working as an English teacher in Japan. It goes on to trace the fascinating path he took not simply to learn the instrument as a casual means of personal entertainment, but to achieve spiritual goals and self-discipline, while studying on a high level with two of the very finest shakuhachi masters/teachers (sensei) of our modern era, the late Katsuya Yokoyama and the still-active Akikazu Nakamura. Brooks’ musical and spiritual journey also led him to witness and to participate in aspects of Japanese culture and the Japanese worldview closed to most Westerners.

Playing the shakuhacki is a very exacting art, with a great deal of tradition behind the learning process, requiring strict attention, scrupulous adherence to the dictates of the sensei, and considerable self-restraint. It is fascinating to read about the arduous beginners’ process of blowing one note over and over before progressing to the next note, a commitment American music students would be too impatient to put up with for very long. Later, students must learn a composition thoroughly before being given the opportunity to begin work on another piece.

The shakuhachi is in some ways an endangered tradition in modern-day Japan, with its highly Westernized culture - albeit a Westernization that clashes oddly with a worldview that treasures orderliness and subordination to one’s work to degrees rarely encountered in the West - that threatens to turn traditional, classical Japanese culture into museum-piece status. Long hours of practice and relative solitude (even when practicing in public places, as Brooks very often did), required to play the shakuhachi with any sort of true understanding, require a regimen which the fast pace of Japanese life and devotion to one’s employer rendersincreasingly difficult to live by. The description of Brooks’ shugyo, a self-imposed “marathon” in which he headed up a chilly mountainside every day to practice his instrument for hours at a time for sixty consecutive days is a testament to his determination to do whatever was needed to devote himself fully to his chosen musical and spiritual paths. (Fortunately, he had the moral and financial support of his wife during what must have been a trying time for her.)

Brooks’ story is peppered with a number of interesting characters, in many senses of that word. We not only get to meet his sensei, but also his translator (a necessary adjunct, though the flutist managed to learn a fair amount of Japanese; there is a useful glossary in the back of the book which I found myself consulting a number of times), people he met while practicing at temples and riding trains (he often went great distances for lessons and practice sessions), fellow-Westerner street musicians and vendors he befriended, Tibetan Buddhist monks he met in trips to India (there are occasional flashbacks to earlier experiences) and so on. The tales of these encounters are very much a bonus, giving Japan and its people a substantial subsidiary role in his story.

One doesn’t need a great knowledge of Zen to learn quite a lot from this enchanting book. One doesn’t even have to know much about Japanese music theory or performance practices; Brooks supplies whatever basic musical/cultural knowledge you may need to understand his story. Not only will an interest in faraway places and their customs suffice as a starting point, simple intellectual curiosity will be amply rewarded. The book works on many different levels, so that no matter what your particular reason may be for picking it up, it will be a satisfying experience. Very definitely recommended.

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