Riley Lee

Texas shakuhachi masters apply the simple tones of Japanese traditional music to complex spirituality

A while back, Stan Richardson was performing traditional Japanese shakuhachi music for an audience of museum patrons when he received one of the greatest compliments of his life.

"Someone in the museum said it was quieter when I played than when there was silence," says Richardson, a native of England, who has lived in Dallas for the last 25 years.

For most Western musicians, having your playing favorably compared to silence would be vaguely insulting. Western concepts of musical virtuosity are so thoroughly based on shredding, kicking out the jams, blowing away your listeners with sonic force, that being equated with silence is like being told that your music made no impression.

But that is an ego-based perspective, and as Richardson well knows, the shakuhachi is not about the indugence of the ego, but about using music to attain a higher state of spiritual enlightenment.

Richardson likes to say that there are few shukuhachi masters in the West, and as a result, they all know each other well. Two such masters, Riley Lee and Christopher Blasdel, are Texans by birth, and with Richardson a Texan by choice, it seemed like a natural idea for the trio to form a Lone Star shakuhachi triumvirate.

After years of talking about performing together, Lee, Blasdel, and Richardson are finally uniting this month for four Texas shows, under the moniker Los Tres Gaijingos (The Three Outsiders). "We've been practicing our pieces individually," Richardson says. "We're going to get together the day before the first concert, and go over everything."

The shakuhachi is a primitive bamboo flute that commonly contains only five holes and covers a tonal range of slightly more than two octaves. But for all its simplicity as an instrument of musical expression, it is capable of profound complexity as an instrument of spirituality. Zen philosophers claim that a single tone on the shakuhachi provides enlightenment, often describing the act of playing the flute as "blowing Zen."

The flute originated in China, finding its way to Japan around 800 A.D., and becoming a musical tool for the principles of Zen Buddhism in the 15th century. As a young classical-music student in England in the early '70s, Richardson began seeking out music from different cultures, and immediately fell in love with the first shakuhachi record he heard. "It was very unusual, and I was very fascinated by this simple bamboo stock that could create such wonderful sounds," he says. "I was also at a time of my life

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where I began getting interested in different religions, like Taoism and Zen. I saw that this was an instrument which is closely allied with the Zen tradition, so I thought this was a wonderful way to practice a musical tradition and a spiritual tradition at the same time."

While most Western musical instruction emphasizes sight reading and endless repetition of scales, mastery of the shakuhachi involves meditation, running, and other forms of physical training.

Richardson says: "My approach to the instrument - as I learned it and as I teach it - is primarily from a spiritual tradition. I don't even think of some of the older pieces as music, per se, but as a kind of meditation. It developed from a sect of Zen monks in Japan as a sort of substitute for chanting."

Blasdel and Lee are both sons of Texas who eventually moved abroad and studied the shakuhachi from great masters of the instrument. Lee, who lives in Australia, in 1980 became the first non-Japanese shakuhachi player to attain the rank of Grand Master. Blasdel lives in Japan, and has advanced the cause of shakuhachi education with his book, Shakuhachi: A Manual For Learning.

In a reversal of Blasdel and Lee's pattern, Richardson immigrated to Texas from England in 1978, so that he could

do dental research at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Originally planning to stay for two years, he never left, splitting his time between teaching the science of teeth (at the Baylor College of Dentistry) and the Tao of the bamboo flute (with three-hour, three-nights-a-week shakuhachi lessons at his home).

One of his greatest thrills came when he took the shakuhachi back to its source, accompanying his music teacher on 14-city tour of Japan. He encountered a culture engaged in a struggle to hang on to its own traditions.

"It's kind of interesting playing to Japan audiences, to find that some of the Japanese people have not seen shakuhachi performed either," Richardson says. "They seem to be a lot more interested in Country and Western music." •