James Schlefer fingering a shakuhachi.
How I Got Here (Making New Music with Japanese Instruments)

How I Got Here (Making New Music with Japanese Instruments)

The first time I tried playing a shakuhachi, it was an epic fail. It was the spring of 1979. I had just attended my first performance of traditional Japanese chamber music. I was quite taken with the incredible virtuosity and commanding technique of all the players but paid particular attention to the shakuhachi, the instrument that was closest to my own. There was an incredible richness to the sound of the bamboo and an unexpectedly wide range of color and dynamics, which I found captivating.

“As a classically trained flutist, surely it should not be so difficult to make a sound on an open tube of bamboo,” hrrumphed the arrogant 22-year-old that I was. I tried again, and again, repeatedly, until much to the delight of the three Japanese members of the ensemble, I handed the instrument back to its owner—frustrated but with quiet respect.

Record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.”

At the time, to me, the nascent term “world music” meant Ravi Shankar and Babatunde Olatunji. And record stores occasionally had a small section labeled “International.” It was only years later that I realized how incredibly rare it was to encounter a concert of Japanese instruments, and to attend a performance like the one I had just heard in of all places, an apartment in New York’s famed Dakota building. I related this story to the contemporary flutist Harvey Sollberger, with whom I was taking some lessons at the time, and he replied that he actually had a shakuhachi but had given up on it because he couldn’t make a sound. (I began to see a pattern.) Would I like to borrow it? Well, of course I would, and over several days, with concerted effort, I began to make a sound.

A local cliché is that you can find anything in New York. Well, true to form, I found a shakuhachi teacher in short order and began what was to become a lifetime obsession with learning, teaching, performing, and composing music for the Japanese bamboo flute. The late Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin was my first teacher. My initial approach to practicing was casual, to put it kindly, but over time (decade number one) I began to get better. And as I learned more and more about Japanese traditional music and musical culture, and made multiple trips to study in Japan, I became more and more fascinated. I observed that the rigor of the training, the complexity of the music, and variety of musical genres required a deep understanding of a highly sophisticated and complex tradition and that each had a parallel with that of classical music training for Western instruments. After years of study it became clear to me that while Japanese classical music bears no relationship whatsoever to European music, the rigor of technical mastery and knowledge of performance practices are remarkably on par.

Fast forwarding through the 39 years following my first, singular experience with the recalcitrant bamboo—countless lessons, performances, teaching, and three degrees of certification later—I have at last developed a decent technical ability on the instrument. I humbly lay claim to a fairly comprehensive understanding of both the traditional solo and chamber music repertoires, and I have moved beyond the traditional into the world of contemporary and new music for Japanese instruments.

As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?”

My latent composer genes began to surface in 1997. I began by writing original music for shakuhachi, and then ensembles of Japanese instruments with koto and shamisen. My personal influences of rock, the blues, and Western classical music seeped in and colored my explorations. As my composer courage grew, I thought, “Why not bring my professional training in Japanese and Western music together in my work?” I took the plunge in 2006 and wrote Quintet No. 1 for shakuhachi and string quartet. Three years later, my pursuit of this idea led me to brazenly complete and perform my first concerto and to found Kyo-Shin-An Arts, a contemporary music organization that commissions and presents new music combining Japanese and Western classical instruments. I wanted to play Western-style music again—this time on the shakuhachi—and the repertoire needed to be helped along. Through KSA, the last decade has brought the great joy of bringing some remarkable composers to the Japanese well, convincing them to attempt a work outside of all previous experience, and shepherding the premieres of quite the trove of fantastic music.

In homage to a daring and intrepid bunch of wonderful composers who have joined me in my journey this past decade, my gratitude goes out to Victoria Bond, Chad Cannon, Ciara Cornelius, Douglas Cuomo, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Daron Hagen, Matthew Harris, William Healy, Takuma Itoh, Kento Iwasaki, Mari Kimura, Angel Lam, Daniel Levitan, Gilda Lyons, James Matheson, Paul Moravec, Mark Nowakowski, Thomas Osborne, Charles Porter, Yoko Sato, Somei Satoh, Benjamin Verdery, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Donald Womack, and Randall Woolf.

Spell No. 8 composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Kyo-Shin-An Arts commission, performed by Jennifer Aylmer (soprano), Jennifer Choi (violin), Wendy Law (cello), Kathleen Supové (piano), and James Nyoraku Schlefer (shakuhachi) on November 19, 2017, as part of the concert “Exploding Chrysanthemums” at the Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC.


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James Nyoraku Schlefer is a Grand Master of the shakuhachi and one of only a handful of non-Japanese artists to have achieved this rank. He received the Dai-Shi-Han (Grand Master) certificate in 2001, and his second Shi-Han certificate in 2008, from the Mujuan Dojo in Kyoto. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Tanglewood and BAM, as well as multiple venues across the country and in Japan, Indonesia, Brazil and throughout Europe. Mr. Schlefer first encountered the shakuhachi in 1979, while working towards a career as a flute player and pursuing an... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “How I Got Here (Making New Music with Japanese Instruments)

  1. Mark Nowakowski

    What was amazing for me was discovering (while composing) that the shakuhachi really did sit very well within the string quartet. Thanks for writing this article, James – you do great work which deserves wider recognition!

    Reply
  2. mtvelasco

    About 20 years ago James Nyoraku Schlefer composed and staged a performance at St Marks Church in the East Village of NYC. The piece included parts for a rather large “shakuhachi chorus” (where you would have found me blowing my heart out) which filled the reverberant space with wild, windy clusters of harmony riding the line between order and confusion. The chorus parts were written to include the very enthusiastic pool of NYC shakuhachi students, most of whom were learning from Mr. Schlefer & his teacher, Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin. It was a great experience as a student to have had such an opportunity, and doubtless an unforgettable introduction to one of the world’s great musical instruments for many in attendance. My own studies of music were cut short by a hand injury, but I still treasure those years spent learning with Mr. Schlefer. To me, he is a great example of a complete musician: a lifelong student of many of the world’s musics, a dedicated teacher, a constant and enthusiastic supporter of other musicians, a courageous composer, a killer performer, a resource to his community and a reliable, honest friend. Today’s world of “new musics” as well as tomorrow’s world of “next musics” are made possible and enriched by artist/teachers like James Nyoraku Schlefer.

    Reply
  3. Makeitha Hollis

    I’m very interested in finding someone to play a Japanese instrument(s) for my Memory Care residents. We travel around the world without leaving the building. Our destination for September is Japan. I’m in columbia sc and it’s difficult to find composers that would donate the skills and time. Music heals my Alzheimer’s residents. Music changes them completely. I listened to your beautiful music and it changed me as well. I’m seeking live music for the journey we are going to embark.

    Reply

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