For generations now, the restful, soulful sound of the shakuhachi has captivated Western ears – and Western musicians. Ralph Samuelson has been playing this Japanese flute and studying its traditions since the early 1970s. His new CD The Universal Flute is subtitled “Discovery in a Single Tone: (Mostly) American Music for Shakuhachi.” On it he collaborates with several other musicians in duets that feature the koto, the kugo (an ancient Japanese harp), the shamisen (a Japanese lute), and the bansuri (an Indian cousin of the shakuhachi).
Whatever the nationalities of the composers, the music doesn’t proclaim in obvious ways that it’s “American.” The two pieces for solo shakuhachi, by Henry Cowell and Michael Teitelbaum, sound as beautifully peaceful as any Japanese shakuhachi music I’ve heard. Drawing out the varied tones and harmonics the instrument is known for, Samuelson evokes the same feelings of deep thoughtfulness I’ve always experienced hearing the shakuhachi.
There is something of a different, perhaps foreign flavor to Bun-Ching Lam’s “Three Songs of Shide.” The piece also sounds modernistic in a way, though also presumably evocative of the ancient poems that inspired it. Lam is a Chinese composer who has collaborated with many Western artists.
Elizabeth Brown’s “Afterimage” does have a Western melodic spirit, with shamisen player Yoko Hiraoka’s wordless vocals putting me in mind of Meredith Monk.
The expanded reprise of Cowell’s brief title track adds Steve Gorn’s bansuri. The higher-pitched flute doubles the melody an octave above; then the two instruments switch to a call-and-response sequence over the same long-breathed melody of simple whole steps and minor thirds. When the bansuri takes the lead for a while, it feels as if Samuelson is deferring to a new voice, perhaps even passing a figurative torch to a collective future generation. He tells us in the liner notes that a repetitive strain injury kept him from playing for four years in the 1990s. That’s enough to drive home to anyone the transitive nature of the performing arts, and of life itself.
Still, on this fine Innova album Samuelson sounds at full power, both as a solo performer and as a collaborator. The Universal Flute may not be the most “authentic” place to start appreciating the marvelous sound of the shakuhachi, but it’s nonetheless a good one.