Gorō Yamaguchi (1933-1999)

8. 1. 2008 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, London] Back in the 1960s, our understanding of the world’s varied musical traditions was woefully ignorant by today’s standards. If buying American blues or bluegrass albums was an expensive undertaking involving the adventure of a day’s expedition to the nearest big city or crossing fingers or sending money to a mail order specialist, maybe in another country, then tracking down what was then called “International folk” – like Japanese court music – was similar to shopping on the moon. It could take decades to track down some choice morsel.

Hearing shakuhachi player Gorō Yamaguchi’s Shakuhachi Music: A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky was like having the top of one’s cranium precisely sliced off with sound. It made any number of round-eyes go wild with contemplative exhilaration in the years after its release in 1968. Nonesuch’s Peter K. Siegel only met Gorō Yamaguchi when the album was made but it was one of the most important albums Siegel was ever involved in. Shakuhachi is an upright, end-blown bamboo flute lacquered on the inside. Historically, it was heard in gagaku (court music) and devotional music. In the twentieth century it found a new niche in contemporary Japanese classical music.

Yamaguchi was born into a family of musicians and eventually at the age of 11 he gravitated to his father’s instrument. His career was a long and impeccable one, earning him the designation of “living national treasure” in Japan. As well as teaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut as an artist-in-residence – a regular source of Nonesuch Explorer talent – he taught at Tokyo University of the Arts. The first piece on A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky – oh, the redolence of that title! – is Sōkaku-Reibo (the translation provided, ‘Depicting the Cranes in Their Nest’ sounds too fulsome) while the second is the album’s title piece, Kokū-Reibo.

In 1977 A Bell Ringing in Empty Sky was selected as part of NASA’s Voyager 2 cultural goodie bag. Yamaguchi died of of pancreatic cancer in Tokyo on 3 January 1999. It might be said he died knowing that shakuhachi might find new converts out there in the wild black yonder. A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky is one of the true masterpieces of world music. It opened the doors of perception.

Gorō Yamaguchi: Shakuhachi Music: A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky (Nonesuch Explorer 7559-79988-8, 2007)

Have you enjoyed the article? Digg Del.icio.us

Directory of Articles

Most recent Articles