A few Tom Deaver posts to the Shakuhachi List

posted to the Shakuhachi mailing list by Tom Deaver; Tom was a master Shakuhachi craftsman who sadly passed away in 2010 - my 1.8 Shakuhachi was crafted by Tom
(also see "Tom Deaver-a life in harmony with nature" in the October 2010 newsletter of ESS)


Date: Sat Dec 11 1999

Shakuhachi Players and Others,

Have just read the reply from Ronnie Seldin about the meaning of "Honkyoku", that is, the word "Honkyoku". Just in case anyone has forgotton or doesn't know, there is another meaning for the "hon" in "honkyoku" that may be appropriate here. This may be what Ronnie is trying to get at in reference to the comment made by Miyata. Two or three examples will nicely illustrate the idea. The Japanese is not included since most of your computers do not understand it.

"Hon jitsu", written with the same "hon" as "honkyoku" together with "jitsu" written with the character for "day", means "today". If it is translated as meaning "original day" in the sense of there having been in the past some "first" and thus "original" day, then the meaning is missed. It simply means "today" in the sense of "now".

"Hon nin" is another example of the same meaning of this "hon". It frequently happens that, when one is completing some sort of official government paper work, there is a space provided in which to write the answer to "This form is for whom?" or "Whose form is this?". The most common response is this "Hon nin" which means "This is my form" or "This form is for me". Thus, "Honkyoku" also can mean, "This is My song".

From one point of view, this idea of "My song" might be something very much worth striving towards. What does it mean if written scores contribute to this in any way.

It might also be kept in mind that, according to some sources, a very early written notation for a complete shakuhachi honkyoku was one simple circle.

One last thing. One can listen to various versions of Yokoyama Katsuya playing the same song, recorded at an interval of a few years. They are quite different. In resonse to questions about these differences, Yokoyama has responded that shakuhachi players have always been free to change the songs, but that they always knew where they could and could not make changes. So what does this mean about the validity of any sort of notation.

And take Riley Lee's version of the Kinko "Shika no Tone". He happened to mention once that he picked up various techniques from hearing several other shakuhachi players. That is, he incorporated parts from a few different players into his own version. What does this mean about any notation?

no oil

Date: Thu Dec 14 2000


Riley says that he was told that oiling shakuhachi is not necessary. I agree. I apply oil to new flutes only just before the leather strap is used to polish the bottom and top of the flute. The oil is on the flutes for perhaps no longer than 5 minutes. It does make the surface of the bamboo slightly more attractive for a short time and aids the polishing.

As far as "glue" not sticking to oiled flutes…I know nothing about that at all because I don't use glue unless urushi can be considered a glue. I do know that cracks (splits) that have been filled with some sort of "super glue", the sort that dries instantly and tends to stick one's fingers together, are just about the most troublesome thing I have to deal with. After this super glue has been applied it is very difficult if not impossible to get it out of the crack so that the crack can be closed completely. This glue will start to melt with the application of a little heat, a match or a lighter works fine, and can be wiped or scraped off the surface if one is quick about it. But it just doesn't want to come out of the crack.

The easiest way to get a clean crack closed is to apply moisture so that the bamboo will swell and disappear the crack. In severe cases a crack may be wide enough to admit a wooden pencil or a ball pen. I have never seen a clean crack that could not be closed with water and have even left a flute floating in the Japanese bath overnight. Any really humid environment will close a crack, even if it takes several days. After all, the crack probably happened because of lack of moisture. Just reverse the condition and the crack will close. Then bind.

Roots or lack thereof

Date: Thu Feb 01 2001

How did this happen in the first place…using the underground root bearing portion of the bamboo for shakuhachi? Hmmm…legend has it that shakuhachi also served as clubs in the days before guided missiles…but is it possible that it could have been the other way around, that clubs somehow began to be used as shakuhachi…who knows?

This is really a hard question to get at. Right off the top I would say absolutely not…roots do not have much to do with the sound of the flute. I should dig the glass shakuhachi, which has no roots, out of the closet and have a go with it. On the other hand, Ranpo once told me that the shape of the root end does have something to do with the tone. Would he deliberately have pulled my leg? Probably not! Could this be why most of the older Kinko shakuhachi are nearly bald in that most of the roots have been removed. Take a close look at one of these flutes by holding it up to a bright window with the front of the instrument facing you so that you can see only the silhouette and see if the bell end is not just about symmetrical about the center line. Your eye will fill in the spaces between nodes where there is no material. Anyone ever bong a lopsided temple bell? How does it sound? If your instrument is not symmetrical then start removing material until it is so and then play again. Sound any different? Only one chance here to test, life or death, since you cannot put back all the removed material. Any change in the tone? If roots make a difference, then is a flute with more roots better than a flute with fewer? Of course, the standard is three root bearing nodes at the bottom with all the roots of the uppermost node removed, but many players value flutes with four or even five root bearing nodes at the bottom. Hmmm…interesting question for which there is probably no absolute answer.

Ask a physicist and you will most likely be told that the tone depends on the relationship between the cross sectional area of the bore at the center of the finger hole, the size of the finger hole and the thickness of the wall through which the hole is opened. Somehow this relationship is supposed to yield something called the "cut off frequency", the frequency above which none of the energy is reflected back up the bore to make a standing wave stand up somewhere or other. All the energy above this frequency is supposed to pass out the end of the flute thus making no sound at all. Anyway, the higher this cut off frequency is the brighter the tone, the lower it is the darker the tone.

Also keep in mind that all instruments of the flute family are supposed to operate at the impedance minima. Hmmm…what is going on here, this impedance??? Well, after years and years of not knowing or having a clue, Joe Wolfe turned on the light. Impedance for flutes, it turns out, is air flow divided by air pressure (or is it the other way around). Take a look at Joe's web page and you can see the impedance curve for a couple of fingerings. While visiting here Joe said that it doesn't always happen that the the frequency one hears or plays is perfectly aligned with the impedance minimum. Thus difficulty of playing or lack of stability. So if you are blowing Ro in Otsu for 10 minutes or blowing long tones for an hour each day as a warm up and not feeling really comfortable with everything, it may be that your Ro of 293.66 hz (equal temperament at 440 hz at 70 degrees Fahrenheit) is not perfectly aligned with the impedance minimum. Big question here…how to move the impedance minimum and set it right smack dab on Ro and all the other fingerings. Joe didn't know (yet, he said), I don't know, anyone know? HELP! And remember as well that the frequencies of the lower octave are variable depending upon energy input (blowing pressure) while the next higher octave frequencies are stable, don't move around with blowing pressure changes. Everyone has had trouble, I suppose, keeping the pitch stable in Otsu when tapering the volume off to zero. It wants to go flatter and flatter doesn't it?

Hmmm…where is this going? I still feel as confused as ever so it seems the thing to do is get out of here and go blow some more…and wait.

Bamboo and Shakuhachi

Date: Sat Jan 26 2002

A story is beginning here after reading Stav Tapuch's thoughts…

The most expensive new shakuhachi that has ever been purchased, according to reliable gossip, went for issenman (1000,0000) Japanese yen. (The Japanese language counts numbers in units of four rather than three.) Today, 2002, January 24th, issenman yen is US$74,626.87! or 84,745.76 euro! Presumably, all the requirements of the purchaser, whatever they were, were met to his satisfaction. Even so, this is a long way above the traditional standard of one months salary for a good shakuhachi and two months salary for an excellent one.

The fellow who made and sold this most expensive shakuhachi is an older brother in terms of shakuhachi lineage who terminated his apprenticeship at the flute shop about six months before my arrival there. His work is remarkable in terms of being visibly magnetic; anyone who has seen two or three of these flutes would spot others in a crowd right off. His prices are the highest of anyone around, commonly ni ka sanbyakuman yen (2 or 300,0000) for mid-range bamboo. If you have looked at lots of bamboo through the process of its' accommodating a shakuhachi, then you will be able to visually pick out those shakuhachi which have their bottom ends, roots and all, stained with urushi to enhance their appearance. These expensive older brother flutes are twice stained with a rather reddish urushi and are polished until they glitter and sparkle. They have gold bordering the mouthpiece inlay and told rings at the nakatsugi. AND the bamboo itself is handsome in the extreme.

During days as an apprentice it sometimes happened that a business excursion forced the vacation of the usual work space in order to move merchandise, shakuhachi and accessories, to the location of an assemblage of shakuhachi teachers and their students. These periodic events were (and probably still are) the rank examinations within Tozan Sect Shakuhachi with perhaps a hundred and fifty or more shakuhachi people all at once in the same arrangement of examining spaces and perhaps a hundred and fifty shakuhachi displayed in a wide well lit area so everyone could mill around while fondling and/or playing and comparing different flutes. Through this interaction a general consensus about shakuhachi prices was somehow agreed upon; as low as goman yen (5,0000) and as high as gojuman yen (50,0000) when a US dollar was around 300 yen, with a most popular price of jugo kara nijuman yen (from 15,0000 to 20,0000), which was within the one month salary range at that time.

It happened that the most popular items were also very attractive bamboo specimens to begin with, meaning that they had lived long enough to mature so as to be able to not shrink up into wrinkles around the bottom as they had dried, had not emerged from the earth around a stone or root or refrigerator (until quite recently bamboo groves also commonly served as trash dumping places) so as to have grown into a more than less symmetrical shape with thick evenly spaced undamaged roots, had not had their roots severed too short when being dug up, had been cleaned and rough cut expertly, had not been dropped on concrete or asphalt or something to damage their tender green skin (don't just throw it into the back of a pickup), had not been scorched or burnt while being roasted over a white charcoal fire (white charcoal is actually white before burning) to an indescribably pleasant color of green which lasts for about three days, had not split while being bleached for two months in the direct sunlight and, finally, had been placed in long term storage for curing. And the actual shakuhachi construction hasn't even begun yet so there are a great many other ways to damage bamboo for shakuhachi. The fact is that it ain't easy to get a nice looking one. The point is that bamboo pieces which can accommodate shakuhachi are, themselves, highly valued in Japan and that excellent quality, which is another consensual agreement, can contribute significantly to the price of shakuhachi in many cases.

The opposite can also be quite true as was evidenced during the three days just before the Great Kobe Earthquake. At that time a shakuhachi exhibition was held at a well known shakuhachi shop in the heart of one of the large cities in Japan (luckily not Kobe), the work of five shakuhachi makers being displayed for immediate sale. Having been fortunate enough to have been invited to display my own work at this sale, putting in a personal appearance there seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

Immediately upon entering the sale space the afternoon before the morning of the quake, the promoter of the sale ushered me into his private office, closed the door and stated that almost everyone who had attended the sale had said that a flute from the flute shop here was the best playing shakuhachi in the whole bunch of perhaps 250 flutes. After being asked whether or not this particularly agreeable shakuhachi had been sold, the promoter replied that not one person had been seriously interested in purchasing it because the bamboo itself was extremely low quality and had been deformed in several places, had buckled or collapsed here and there under compression while having been straightened at the very beginning of the construction process. (See what can go wrong now, at the very beginning!) And, yes, this particular shakuhachi could be pointed out, the one right there on the center table, the nanaman yen (7,0000) one lying between the nihyakuman yen (200,0000) and the sanbyakuman yen (300,0000) glittering and sparkling ones polished by older brother. Well, you can guess what became of that ugly shakuhachi and surmise about who finally got it before it was destroyed.

As for quality of the shakuhachi as a musical instrument or religious tool…well, not at this writing. Just a quote from a well known and respected now dead shakuhachi maker, "The only person who will know if the flute is really good (acoustically) or not is the person who uses it and that person will not know until having used it for four or five years". Lastly, from a well known and respected not dead shakuhachi maker, "Anyone can be a better player right away simply by getting a better flute".

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