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The art of honkyoku

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The shakuhachi honkyoku repertoire of Japan represents one of the great treasure troves of classical music in the world. The teacher-to-student transmission of these compositional masterpieces over many generations, mostly without the aid of written scores is, simply said, fascinating.

So, what is it that makes honkyoku so beautiful and evocative and worthwhile, and how does the form of a composition interact with the human expression of it?

The traditional teaching system in the Japanese hogaku culture is one of individual students emulating their teacher as they play together. Thus the transmission is directly experiential and the student is exposed to their teacher's long relationship with the music in terms of form, pitch, tone color, phrasing, rhythm and dynamics, as well as the human qualities of compassion, discipline and reverence.

The student generally emulates their teacher as closely as possible, and notions of self-expression or creativity don't really arise during the many years of instruction. However, of course the student's entire life and spirit show up from day one.

Revelation versus Inspiration

Worthwhile art invariably reflects both profound relationship and long experience. It's not a value qualifier to be 'creative' or 'expressive' or 'new' or even 'inspired'. Good art demands rigor, discipline and engagement above all else. It requires historical knowledge, materials science, manual dexterity, listening skills and the understanding of negative and positive space.

If art startles through the medium of inspiration or innovation, it probably has a short shelf life. Artists like Monet for instance are often considered art-historically important because they worked within a context of innovative approaches to painting. However, to focus on Monet as an innovator is to miss the real artist: the man who revealed such depth of relationship to his world, such profound observation skills, such revealing imagery. None of this came from innovation, but rather the other way around: the depth of the artist yielded mature vision and as a result he painted differently from his antecedants.

Playing honkyoku with authority and depth means playing with revelation rather than inspiration. The traditional pedagogy is all about fine-honing the student's grasp of good and necessary form so that they may find revelation in their playing. Revelation can arise when the 'eye' rather than the 'I' is employed, and it takes its own time and cannot be conjured up at will. The 'eye' of revelation comes from many years of relationship and training and dedication to good form.

Thus deeply informed honkyoku playing allows no formal elements of decoration or dynamism to arise, unless in the service of revelation, of opening the window wider onto the form of the piece, of revealing it more profoundly and maturely.

How does a listener know the difference between inspiration and revelation? Just like the player, the listener is an artist and 'knows' by the depth of their relationship with the world.

 

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