On January 4th, 1999, themajor newspapers of Japan announced the early morning death, onJanuary 3rd, of "Living Nationa Treasure" shakuhachimaster Goro Yamaguchi. The second of Japan's Living National Treasuresto pass away since the New Year's beginning (Kiyomoto style singerShizudayu Kiyomoto passed away the day before at age 100), Yamaguchi'sdeath at the relatively young age of 65 was a shock for Japanesemusic lovers both in Japan and abroad. His artistry and teachinghas inspired several generations of shakuhachi players and helpedplace the instrument on the world stage.
Yamaguchi was born in 1933as the youngest son of a family of traditional musicians. Hisfather was a leading shakuhachi player of the time, and his motherwas highly accomplished on the koto and shamisen. Due to the strictpatrilinial nature of the traditional Japanese music world, itwas expected that the oldest Yamaguchi son would continue thetradition, and therefore Goro (whose name simply means "fifthmale child"), was not encouraged to learn the shakuhachi.One day at age 11, however, he picked up a shakuhachi from hisfather's collection and made a sound. His mother tried to persuadeher husband to teach Goro the basics, but his father refused.His mother, persistent as Japanese mothers can be, got one ofher husband's students to begin teaching her son. After a fewmonths, his father realized Goro's abilities and took over teaching,and then the real training began.
In the spirit of the pre-warSamurai tradition, his father's shakuhachi lessons were strict.But not, as Yamaguchi recalled, because he was made to attendto the technical details of the shakuhachi. It was because hewas in love with his father's sound and would try, often in vain,to imitate and keep up the same pace. Senior Yamaguchi would neverstop or wait if Goro floundered or fell behind during a piece.He would teach a piece only once, and Goro had only one chanceto learn it.
Even though the shakuhachiis a technically demanding instrument, his father did not dwellon that aspect and would explain his ideas in terms easy for achild to understand. "Always use your ears." "Attitudeis important when you want to learn something." "Clevernesswith your fingers is meaningless. Don't become like a bonsai!"And, perhaps more to the point, he would admonish his son neverto lose sight of the spiritual aspects of shakuhachi trainingand to keep in mind the famous shibboleth of the 18th centuryFuke Zen monks (who developed the present-day shakuhachi and itsrepertory of solo meditation pieces), "A single tone providesenlightenment..." ("ichi'on joubutsu").
After the war, Yamaguchi developedinto Japan's foremost shakuhachi performer and teacher, and hisillustrious career speaks for itself. His accomplishments includemany prestigious awards, including the First Mobile Music Award(1971), Ministry of Culture Grand Award (1972, 1978,1982), LivingNational Treasure (1992), National Academy of Arts and Letters(1994), frequent performances in Japan and overseas, includingdispatch by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to foreign countriesas cultural ambassador, and numerous recordings of LPs, CDs, andvideo teaching tapes. He taught for a year at Wesleyan Universityin1967 and until his death was professor in the shakuhachi departmentat Tokyo University for the Arts, the only public university inJapan where traditional Japanese music is taught. He was constantlyin demand as an accompanist for traditional music and appearedregularly on NHK radio and television. He most recently conductedseminars, workshops and performances as a special invited guestat the World Shakuhachi Festival '98 held last summer in Boulder,Colorado.
Yamaguchi remained--with dignifiedmien, absolute mastery of the metier and rich, powerful tones--amusician who is increasingly rare in this age of instant stardomand gross commercialism of music. With a gentle, intensely privatepersonality, few ambitions and no desire for publicity, the influencehis music wrought around the world was profound. He never demandedanything from his listeners and played entirely at his own pace,allowing the music to speak for itself. Yamaguchi once summedup his attitude toward his musical career in a poem written byan early 20th century Japanese poet, Saneatsu Mushakoji, comparingthe artist to a flower. "People may look at me, or they maynot. I will still bloom."
True to the "Middle Way"of Buddhism, the secret of Yamaguchi's musical success was oneof balance. Whether in performing, teaching or in the relationshipshe formed with his colleagues and students, he always played exactlythe right sounds, always gave the most pertinent comments andalways made the right suggestions. In ensemble playing, his shakuhachiprovided support to the other members but never overwhelmed. Hisrenditions of the Zen Buddhist-inspired solo "honkyoku"pieces contained just the right balance of transparency and material,tonal force. In his teachings he reaffirmed and highlighted hisstudent's musicality while remaining at an inspiring height. And,above all, he continually stressed that art cannot be divorcedfrom everyday life and that one must develop the personality alongwith the music. Otherwise the music becomes soulless.
Indeed, the clear presenceof Yamaguchi's refined personality permeated the tones of eachbreath of his shakuhachi. In his playing one heard both the veneratedtradition of the shakuhachi flute, urging awareness of subtlebeauty and spiritual enlightenment along with the presence ofan artist as a well-balanced human being quietly making his waythrough the modern cacophony of the late 20 Century.
Yamaguchi taught that, aboveall, that one must make one's life musical and one's music theirlife. Yamaguchi, like his father, often admonished his students:"During performance your whole self comes through. Work onimproving it."
(Christopher Yohmei Blasdel,shakuhachi performer/lecturer on Japanese music and one of theCo-Directors of the WorldShakuhachi Festival '98, resides in Japan. He has been a studentof Yamaguchi's since 1972).