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8 April 2024

Densokugaku: Shakuhachi, Composition, and Electronics

Front cover of Densokugaku: Shakuhachi, Composition, and Electronics Image: Front cover of Densokugaku: Shakuhachi, Composition, and Electronics  

Following the release of my CD Songs from the Lake (NEOS 12029) in 2021, composer-friend John Palmer invited me to write a book for the British publisher Vision Edition, of which he is chief editor. My brief was to explain how a young (in the 1980s) Australian composer with an inclination initially towards piano and subsequently electronic music came to study the shakuhachi, in the course of the decades becoming a professional performer and teacher of, and composer for, that instrument - particularly in combination with live-electronics, culminating (at the time of writing the book) in the aforementioned CD.

Despite a degree of trepidation - my life's aspiration was and is to be a composer and performer of music, rather than an author of texts - I accepted the challenge. Densokugaku: Shakuhachi, Composition, Electronics is the result.

As I planned the book, it became clear that a task which at first might seem primarily autobiographical actually involved many facets. I had to explain the origins of my musical and personal inclinations, particularly those which led me to the shakuhachi and specifically to its classical solo repertoire (the so-called honkyoku, 'original pieces'). In discussing the honkyoku, I found that I had to write in a musicological vein, providing detailed analyses of the tangled interrelationships of pitch, timbre and time in those pieces - aspects which have had a profound influence on my work. I then had to examine the nature of this influence as manifested in my compositional and performative activities, particularly from the viewpoint of the shakuhachi as a supremely 'embodied' instrument. (Despite its apparent simplicity - an unadorned bamboo tube with five finger-holes and an angled blowing edge - every part of the performer's body, from the toes to the top of the head, has an influence on the sound.) And of course, it was necessary to provide tangible illustration, in the form of analyses of the structure of Songsā€¦ and of at least some of its movements, with discussions of earlier pieces providing additional background. Along the way, I also had to present a degree of technical detail, explaining my usage of electronic instruments, specifically those suited to live-performance, and how this dovetails into the sound world of the shakuhachi.

As I wrote, I found myself cogitating more clearly than ever before on my reasons for composing and performing - why am I doing all this? For me, this question is ultimately a spiritual one, which links closely to the origins of the shakuhachi honkyoku within the circles of Zen Buddhism. The final chapter of the book is dedicated to this spiritual facet.

Densokugakuā€¦ is thus about many things. It does not attempt to provide answers to all questions which a composer or performer may have, and it consciously does not to adhere to the norms of academic writing with thorough searches of related literature or cross-referencing to parallel endeavours of other composer/performers; instead, it focusses on the specific experiences which have shaped me and my work, and their results. Nevertheless, I hope that my description of my musical trajectory may be of interest or assistance to others who may be seeking or developing theirs.

In a brief review of the book, shakuhachi master Riley Lee wrote:

"There are a number of apparent paradoxes in Jim Franklin's book, Densokugaku.

It's not a book about musicological theory, yet it contains quite detailed and useful music analyses, well supported with scores and charts. It's not meant to teach one how to compose music, but it does just that, partly by explaining the composer's mind. The book is not an autobiography, but the context of Jim's life is what binds everything together, making it a readable story. Densokugaku is not about spirituality, nor is it not not about spirituality.

In this respect, it's very much like Zen Buddhist teachings, which are littered with paradoxes and contradictions. And like Zen Buddhist teachings, it somehow works. I suggest you read it."

I would feel honoured if some people decide to follow Lee's advice.

Jim Franklin
Seta, Japan, March 2024

PS. 'Densokugaku' is not a standard Japanese word. It is a neologism coined from the Japanese ideograms for 'electricity', 'breath', and 'music'.

Visit Jim Franklin's website: www.bambooheart.com
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@Jim_Franklin_Shakuhachi_Modern/videos

Read more about Densokugaku: Shakuhachi, Composition, Electronics

Purchase the book online from Vision Edition: https://www.visionedition.com/publication/densokugaku

Dr Jim Franklin studied composition in Australia with Peter Sculthorpe and Anne Boyd and in Europe with Milko Kelemen und Ton de Leeuw, and ethnomusicology in Australia with Allan Marett. Parallel with postgraduate composition studies, he studied shakuhachi with Riley Lee in Australia and Furuya Teruo and Yokoyama Katsuya in Japan, receiving his master title from Yokoyama in 1996. 

After many years as senior lecturer in music technology at the University of Western Sydney, he emigrated in 2004 to Germany, working as a shakuhachi artist. In 2006 he was instrumental in establishing the European Shakuhachi Society, and was programme and finance director of the World Shakuhachi Festival in London in 2018.

In 2021 he emigrated to Japan. His activities now focus on performing, composing and recording with shakuhachi, often in combination with live-electronics.


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