Obituary: Goro Yamaguchi

THE BAMBOO flute is central to Japanese traditional music. It is played vertically, with a notched mouthpiece and five finger holes - four equidistant on top and an upper one at the back for the thumb.

It is called a shakuhachi, a name derived from the native measuring units defining the instrument's standard length, one shaku and eight hachi, a total of 54.5 centimetres. It is made only from a certain type of bamboo, the mandake (Phyllostachya bambusoides) which is sliced off near the root to create the swelling "bell" at the base. The inner bore is lacquered. There is no reed.

One of the great modern masters of the shakuhachi was Goro Yamaguchi, who was born into a family of traditional musicians. His mother played the koto and the shamisen, and his father, Shiro Yamaguchi, was a leading virtuoso performer on the shakuhachi. He gave Goro his first lessons at the rather late age of 11.

His son showed such an amazing gift for the instrument and made such rapid progress that he was able to give his first concert at the age of 13, in 1947. This was despite the fact that the instrument is considered the most difficult to master. It takes a long time to acquire the characteristic head-shaking that produces its haunting mystical tones, its almost ethereal voice, half-human, half- animal, that sends shivers up and down the spine. Just to be able to produce a sound takes long practice.

The bamboo flute had come to Japan, like so much else, from China in the late seventh century and was included in Japanese court orchestras (gagaku) until the end of the ninth century. From the early 16th century it was associated with the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism. The playing of the shakuhachi was regarded as a spiritual discipline by the priests and a source of enlightenment for the listeners.

The Zen religious practice has endured to the present day, but the bamboo flute has become secularised and is now often heard to sublime effect in works by contemporary composers both Japanese and Western. It has also gained popularity with classic jazz musicians. It is a musical feature of many chambara or samurai sword-fight movies in which it is sometime used as a weapon of a non-lethal nature. The shakuhachi was used in Minoriz Miki's kabuki opera An Actor's Revenge (for which I wrote the libretto) when it was performed by the English Music Theatre at the Old Vic season in 1979.

Goro Yamaguchi's renowned albums of traditional music include the 1968 Zen meditation music for the Nonesuch Explorer series, "A Bell Ringing in Empty Sky", the first widely commercialised West- ern recording of the shakuhachi repertoire, which attracted many Western fans, some of whom took up the instrument and even went to Japan to find teachers and, in exceptional cases, to receive instruction from the master himself. Some of those foreign performers are now stars in Japan and there are even groups of Western shakuhachi players.

In 1977, music from the album was included with work by the great composers of Western culture in a selection of Earth's music rocketed into space by Nasa's Voyager 2.

In 1992 Yamaguchi was designated a "living national treasure" (ningen kokuho). He was also a sensitive teacher, and in the United States was the first visiting Artist in Residence to honour Wesleyan University's programme of classical Japanese music.

Fittingly for a dedicated performer of Zen music, his funeral took place at Zenkojl Temple in Tokyo.

James Kirkup

Goro Yamaguchi, shakuhachi player: born Tokyo 1933; married (two daughters); died Tokyo 3 January 1999.

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