High in the Hills, Notes Play from Ancient Flute
THERE are breathy notes in a house in the hills of the Central Valley, a sound that is more moody and rousing even than the stories behind its arrival there.
A1,000-year-old meditation technique, the playing of the shakahachi flute, has been reincarnated into performance art and purveyed by a recent U.S. immigrant, Peter Ross.
Tradition has it that hundreds of years ago, before Japan crackled with neon lighting and the signals of a million cell phones, travelers could occasionally hear the reedy notes of a bamboo flute.
MONKS, called Komusu or priests of emptiness, paced the countryside in robes, heads covered with baskets that deemphasized their identities and shuffled their egos aside. Peeking from beneath that basket was the stalk of a meticulously carved bamboo flute, the shakahachi, the medium for sui-zen, also known as blowing meditation.
Today Peter Ross is one of its protégés. He shipped his flute workshop to Grecia, coffee town west of San José, from Seattle six months ago.
There, with a hillside view of the Central Valley in a house among palms and cane fields, he blows some of the same airy notes that those anonymous monks played centuries ago.
“Now it’s more flashy because it’s performed,” Ross said. There are musical flourishes that, he supposes, the monks never bothered to innovate. After a pause, he said the music expresses emotions and could have been fair game after all to the meditative monks.
ROSS studied the flute for 10 years with Japanese instructors and has made a career of fashioning and selling the instruments, teaching them to others, performing, and recording both his original songs and those of the flute’s long-standing tradition.
In 1969, Ross first heard the shakahachi on an LP from the open door of a music store onTelegraph Avenue
in Berkeley, Calif. There, amid the din of hundreds of students and window shoppers, he heard the notes of the flute for the first time.
“This sound completely captivated me; it lifted me off my feet,” he said. “I floated into the store. You never hear anything like that, it was a wonderful sound.”
HE bought a flute in a shop in San Francisco after taking the LP home.
“I didn’t know how to play it, nobody there knew how, I just bought it on blind faith,” he said.
He stowed it in his backpack and practiced it during a three-year trek through 20 countries.
After finally landing in Hawaii, he began to study formally with Japanese master players.
He bartered for a second-hand shakahachi at a craft show on one of the islands, then sent it to a friend in Japan to repair a crack.
His friend took the flute to Yamaguchi Goro, the man who’s music on LP had first cultivated Ross’ affinity for the flute. Goro held it up to the light, the story goes, turned it around, and declared that it was one of the instruments that his father had carved.
ROSS went to Japan to meet him, they had tea and they played their flutes together in a trial-by-fire lesson without many words.
“They teach in a non-verbal way, the master plays and the student has to catch it,” Ross said. “They rarely talk about it –they just do it and it sinks in by osmosis.”
While in New Zealand, traveling with his wife, Marisa, he attempted to make his first flute from a patch of bamboo growing in the backyard of one of their hosts’. He cut it and perforated it with the holes in the places where he guessed they should go.
WITHIN two or three days, he said, his first green flute had shriveled.
“It looked like a piece of asparagus or celery. I was completely shocked,” he said.
He did not know then that the wood must be dry. Drying the wood is a lengthy process that begins with heating the bamboo over a coal fire – the liquid and oils bubble out, then it is placed to dry in the sun for six months. After, it is left in the shade for up to six years.
He has made more than 1,000 flutes since then, he estimates, of varying qualities, some more similar to Western flutes than the shakahachi, many of which he sold in craft shows around the northwestern United States.
PRACTICE flutes for beginners sell for $100 and up. Traditional Japanese flutes, he said, fetch an average price of $2,000 – although he has seen some that cost up to $10,000.
The traditional Japanese songs are divided in three types – Zen, folk and classical. Zen songs are those peaceful and airy notes that are the expressions of a blowing meditation.
The folk songs are those that might be heard today in a Japanese restaurant and the classical are performance pieces accompanied by two stringed instruments – the six-foot koto and the banjo-like Shamisen.
Even with an audience, it seems as if he is playing the flute alone to himself – his eyes close as if he is only attentive to the music and his head shakes out the tail ends of each breath into the bamboo stalk.
THERE is a sudden expulsion of the breath at the top of each musical phrase that then trickles more steadily through the melodic warbles until he draws a new breath. The effect reminds the listener of the presence of the player, of the breath itself and demands a state of attentiveness.
He does not shackle himself to the centuries of Japanese tradition, rather he plucks influences from his own experiences as a jazz saxophone player and welltraveled music aficionado.
“It’s not about meditation when I perform, it’s about bringing this tradition to people,” he said.
HIS interpretations have lent atmosphere to TV commercials and movies. He also has taught students and made five recordings. One recording is of the traditional arrangements which he reads from copies of original, handwritten Japanese notes. The others are his own inventions, imbued with his affinity for jazz, other African-influenced rhythms and a grab-bag of sounds that, collectively, he calls world music.
For information about lessons, performances, demonstrations or to buy flutes and recordings of Peter Ross, contact him at or 849-3113, on the Web at www.cloudhandsmusic.com
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