The shakuhachi is an unassuming instrument: just a simple wooden cylinder with five holes. However, as Shawn Renzoh Head breathes into it, a wealth of images bloom out. With an exhale, a dragon materializes, swirling underwater, its breath bubbling up to the surface. Another exhale and rocks tumble down a mountainside. Another and wind whistles through a forest of bamboo.
Head performed a collection of shakuhachi music last Saturday in Brandi Recital Hall. During his concert, Head layered the imagery-rich sounds of the shakuhachi with a musical narrative about a pair of cranes and their daughter. Head paused between pieces to illuminate the development in the cranes’ relationships and to stress certain images for the audience to call to mind.
In a presentation the day before, Head provided some history on the instrument , including the fact that it has remained largely unchanged throughout the past 2,000 years. Though its roots lie in China, a great deal of its history lies in Japan, where it was the chief instrument of Zen monks for many years. Today, Head explained, the shakuhachi is seen primarily as a novelty instrument, but he hopes to bring it to greater prominence.
The sounds produced by the shakuhachi are pure and breathy. During the performance, the sounds of Head’s breathing took on a rhythmic quality that worked integrally with the smooth tones produced by the instrument.
Head illuminated that, while most Western music finds its base in the heartbeat, shakuhachi finds its base in breath. Head encouraged the audience to inhale and exhale along with him as he played so as to experience the key role breath plays in the instrument.
Though Head has had a long relationship with the shakuhachi, he never imagined the extent to which it would dictate his career as a musician.
“It was never meant for me to be a performer,” Head said. “I was not going to travel around the world and leave every week to go to a different concert venue.”
Head explained the life-altering power the instrument holds over him. “I feel like it leads me to things and I just do what it wants,” he said. “It’s a partnership.”
Head is currently working on a project where his goal is to commission 20 new shakuhachi pieces from western composers by the year 2020. One of these composers is Kenyon’s Assistant Professor of Music Gabriel Lubell. His composition,“Song of the Little Owls,” was inspired by the Kokosing River.
“I thought it would be a good topic for the piece,” he said, “Especially because there are things that you can do on shakuhachi that are particularly well-suited to water music. You can bend between pitches very easily. You can create these microscopic variations in the sound that to me feel very much like how the water moves and behaves.”
“Song of the Little Owls,” the final piece of the evening, was performed by both Head and bassoonist Banri Hoshi. The distinctive sounds of the shakuhachi and the bassoon wove in and out of each other, creating a striking harmony. The piece evoked images of the river, at times a powerful torrent, and at others a faint trickle, flowing through Ohio.