This is the second article by Riley Lee in this series. In the first, which you can find here:, he wrote about his instrument. In this article, he writes about making the music.

I first heard the shakuhachi in Hawai’i in the late 1960s, when my older brother brought home an LP called Music for Zen Meditation. It featured jazz clarinetist Tony Scott improvising with koto player Shiichi Yuize and shakuhachi player Hozan Yamamoto. The album is considered, at least by Wikipedia and myself, as the first ‘new age’ recording.

Of course, neither I nor anyone else had ever heard of ‘new age’ music back then. It is unfortunate that over the next half century, so much disagreeable music has been, and continues to be, made and marketed under this label, giving it a negative connotation to some.

The shortest track on Tony Scott’s recording is two and a half minutes long. Called “A Quivering Leaf, Ask the Winds,” it is Yamamoto’s only shakuhachi solo on the LP. The piece captivated me. I nearly wore out that track on my brother’s LP, and our turntable needle, looping it the only way I could back then, by manually raising and lowering the arm of the turntable every 150 seconds.

Three or four years later, I began studying the shakuhachi in Japan. I had never planned to learn to play the shakuhachi, and initially I went to Japan for entirely different reasons, but that is another story. During the ensuing decades, I met Yamamoto numerous times. Katsuya Yokoyama, my teacher, was a good friend and frequent collaborator of his. Yamamoto eventually became one of Japan’s Living National Treasures. I went on to make a number of my own recordings, some of which were also marketed, for better or worse, as ‘new age music’.

Riley Lee
Riley Lee

I think that I promptly fell in love with the shakuhachi initially because of the quality of its sound. The sound of the shakuhachi is unique. It is unforgettable. Or rather, they are unforgettable, because the shakuhachi makes innumerable sounds, tone colours and textures.

Shakuhachi sounds can be clean, clear and bell-like. Other times, the sounds have the textures  of a reedy flute or a flute-like clarinet or oboe. The shakuhachi’s voice is often dark, rough or breathy. It can sound light, airy and playful, or it can be the stark expression of intense grief and pain.

Multiphonics, microtones, and non-pitched sounds are common, especially in the traditional repertoire. In my opinion, the shakuhachi can be as expressive and nuanced as the human voice. It feels to me as if its sound has the ability to transcend the human condition entirely.

Honkyoku The Original Pieces

I now know that Yamamoto’s little solo improvisation is nothing special for accomplished shakuhachi players. It is a simple, idiomatic melody based on two variations of the most common mode in traditional shakuhachi music. Probably any decent shakuhachi player could make up something similar, with minimal effort.

If Yamamoto’s short improvisation is straightforward shakuhachi music, why was I so attracted to it? I think it was because it manifested many of the characteristics of the oldest, most revered category of shakuhachi music, to which I was instinctively drawn.

Yamamoto’s piece was inspired by and incorporated much from a genre of shakuhachi music called honkyoku (本曲; literally “main pieces” or “original pieces”). My shakuhachi teachers spent nearly all their time with me attempting to teach me these ‘original’ pieces. Playing honkyoku continues to take up most of my own practice. I emphasise these venerated pieces more than any others when teaching my own students.

Shakuhachi honkyoku are meditative and meditations. Over the last four or five centuries, they have been created, transmitted and performed largely in the context of Zen Buddhism. Strictly speaking, the overwhelming majority of shakuhachi players today are not Zen Buddhist practitioners. Still, studying, learning, practicing and performing one of the two hundred or so extant honkyoku are considered by many to be as much spiritual practice as music making. Ideally, both meditation and music making are happening at the same time.

The shakuhachi honkyoku is not the only music that is meditative or meditation. It is however, unique in its centuries-old association with Zen Buddhism in which the act of meditation is the heart of one’s practice and whose name literally means ‘meditation’ (禅, zen).

The Breath

Breath is paramount in playing the shakuhachi. An understanding of how I breathe while playing honkyoku, and why I do so, helps to illustrate the interrelation between music and meditation. It also points to differences between honkyoku and other types of music.


The single most important component of any honkyoku is the phrase. Most phrases are considered, and sound like independent units, mini-pieces, complete in themselves. This is accomplished musically by such things as modalities, tension and resolution, and timbral changes, but in particular by using the breath.

Nearly all phrases are played in one breath. A single breath is thought of as having four distinct parts: 1) inhalation, 2) transition, 3) exhalation, and 4) transition. One breath is like a single 24-hour cycle: daytime—dusk—night time—dawn, complete in itself yet part of larger units of time, like a week, year or decade.

Many people probably do not consider the ‘no-sound’ segments, the pause, as a major part of the music. In music played on non-wind instruments, these pauses do not exist at all. Even players of wind instruments often think of these pauses as necessary evils, unavoidable but to be obscured as much as possible. The opposite is true when playing honkyoku.

In honkyoku, the player’s inhalations are not subservient to ‘the music.’  I was taught to put as much deliberation and awareness into the quality and timing of my inhalation, as well as my ‘transitions,’ as I might into my exhalation. The exhalation usually gets all the attention, because that is where almost all of the sound occurs. When we speak of ‘breath control,’ we usually think about controlling the exhalation.

Yet one could almost say that the inhalation is the important part. My inhalations may need to be fast and full, or slow and deliberate, or just easy, shallow top-ups, but I have to be aware of how I’m doing each one of them and why. They determine the quality of the music to follow.

In honkyoku, rhythm is not delineated or determined by beats or meter. The length and timing of the ‘no-sound’ pauses, and everything else, vary according to the context. Correct timing is dependent on my total awareness of the context.

I try to make each inhalation as deliberately and as consciously as I do with my very first breath of the piece. I try also to be particularly aware of that final transition in the piece, which occurs after the very last note has become inaudible, but before the piece has truly ended.

It may help to view the myriad of sounds that we usually think of as ‘the music’ merely as aids to inhaling properly. The notes and phrases exist in order to create the condition most likely to encourage the player to take the next inhalation ‘perfectly’. The listener may or may not be aware of my inhalations as much as my exhalations. Theoretically, if I am playing honkyoku well, my performance should be able to engage a deaf person concentrating on watching my breathing as much as a person with normal hearing.

Crucially, my music improves by paying attention to my inhalations and the transitions, the ‘no-sound’ bit of each breath cycle. This in turn, is paramount. Improving my music improves my meditation. Honkyoku is always music, and it can also be meditation. Play the music badly and both the meditation and the listener suffer.

Most phrases in honkyoku end with a soft landing, like the end of a sigh or the gentle exhalation of someone asleep. Ideally, the final sound of the piece goes from audible to nearly inaudible…until finally, “Oh! When did the piece end?”.

The cessation of each phrase, and especially the end of each piece is often the moment when both the player’s and listener’s concentration or awareness is most acute. I often think of playing honkyoku as a metaphor to living one’s life. With luck, my own life will end like a good honkyoku, with a soft landing and a fair amount of awareness.

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Riley Lee began studying shakuhachi in Japan in 1971. In 1980, he became the first non-Japanese dai shihan (大師範; literally ‘big teacher,’ usually translated ‘grand master’).  He was also the first non-Japanese to play wadaiko (和太鼓; Japanese drums) professionally (1974). Ian Cleworth and Riley co-founded Taikoz in 1997.

Riley moved from Hawai’i to Sydney in 1986 with Patricia and their twin daughters. Riley’s PhD in ethnomusicology is from Sydney University. He has 60+ recordings; his first (1980) is still available on Smithsonian-Folkways.

In 2016, Riley taught at Princeton University, and performed in six states in USA, in Canada, Switzerland, and throughout Australia.

His year ends in India, touring for three weeks with Taikoz and Sydney-based dance troupe Lingalayum.