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Q&A W/ Riley Lee: The Roots & Reverie Of The Japanese Shakuhachi Flute

Q&A w/ Riley Lee: The Roots & Reverie of the Japanese Shakuhachi Flute

Riley Lee Headshot

“We humans continue to use music to express our full range of emotion, from abject grief to profound ecstasy, from youthful exuberance to complete and focused calm.”



To start, for any of our readers who are interested in an introduction to your music, which of your albums should they start with as an entry point?

For someone who has never listened to traditional shakuhachi music, I recommend “Breath-Sight”. Alternatively, for some listeners, “Rainforest Reverie” might sound more melodic, and therefore might possibly be more appealing than the traditional pieces.  Which recording a person prefers will depend on the individual.

What lit the flame of inspiration for you?

The unique tone colour of the shakuhachi and the captivating timing and pace of much of the music continue to inspire me after nearly five decades of playing.

What lead you to traveling to Japan, and how was it as a young person living and studying in Japan?

I first went to Japan soon after entering the University of Hawai’i. I took what in Australia is called a ‘gap year,’ the idea being that travel overseas for a spell before buckling down at college is a good thing. I think all young people should have the opportunity to travel abroad.

Japan in 1970 was still almost a third world country. Everything was very inexpensive. There was very little western influences compared with even the 1980s. Non-Japanese were few and far between, even in the big cities. Many people still wore kimonos as everyday dress. In the country, there were, for example, still a few steam locomotives and many big old farm houses with thatched roofs. Yet a tremendous optimistic spirit pervaded the entire country. I worked at Japan’s first World Expo in Osaka in 1970. Their first World Olympics had just been held in Tokyo, in 1967, The economy was booming. Shakuhachi and other traditional Japanese musical instruments were even sold in big department stores. It was wonderful!

You are the first non Japanese person to have attained the rank of Dai Shihan (grand master) – how old were you, what was involved in achieving this milestone and how was it recognized?

I was 29 years old.

There are many ways to receive this rank. I know some people who basically just asked their teacher for this because they thought the title was a good thing to have after their name. In other words, be careful —the rank may not mean much in terms of the mastery of the player.

Though Dai Shihan is usually translated as “Grand Master”, it literally means ‘big teacher’. The difference is that fundamentally, it is not an award, like 1st prize in a competition, or even an indication of one’s mastery. It is instead a responsibility. It testifies to the importance of handing down the shakuhachi tradition from one generation to the next.

In my case, I first had to learn and be able to play a predetermined set of pieces, which totalled about 80 honkyoku (traditional Zen-inspired meditation pieces) and about 150 traditional ensemble pieces. Once my proficiency with these 200+ pieces met my teacher’s expectations, I was eligible to take a five-part exam in front of a panel of four or five elders in my lineage.

The exam took several hours. I was so nervous! It involved playing a honkyoku by memory; singing a piece in solfège; composing a piece and writing it down in traditional notation, and then performing it; performing an ensemble piece; and completing a written exam, in Japanese, on traditional Japanese and Chinese music theory.

I successfully passed that exam in 1975, and was given a Shihan or teacher’s license. I wasn’t a ‘big teacher’ yet. In my particular lineage, one cannot ask for the rank Dai Shihan. If, after a minimum of five years since attaining your Shihan rank, the powers-that-be thought that you were continuing to fulfil your responsibilities as both a performer and a teacher, then they might give you the Dai Shihan rank. Fortunately for me, in 1980, they thought I was, and so they did.

Compared to other flutes around the world, what makes the shakuhachi special?

In the broadest sense, the shakuhachi is not special at all, or rather all flutes are special. What might be unique about the shakuhachi within the flute family is its range of tone colours and dynamics, its repertoire and its stated association with Zen Buddhism

What is the thread that links shakuhachi playing with Zen Buddhism?  How far back does the tradition run?  Are there other historical contexts for the playing of this instrument?

I suppose the most obvious ‘thread’ that links the shakuhachi with Zen Buddhism is the repertoire of meditative or sacred pieces called honkyoku, which I mentioned earlier.

The shakuhachi first came to Japan from China around fourteen centuries ago, as part of the court ensemble. Exactly when and how it began to be played in the context of Buddhism is unknown, but there is evidence that by the late 1400s this transition had happened. It’s use as a meditative tool within the broad stream of Zen Buddhism was clearly evident by the early 1600s.

The shakuhachi has also been used for centuries in Japanese folk music and in traditional Japanese chamber music. Since the mid-20th century, it has been used to play all kinds of music, including nearly every type of ‘western’ music, from jazz to orchestral works.

Please finish these sentences:  Silence in music is…           Breath is….

Silence in music is often its most powerful part. The space allows the notes to resonate in our minds.

Breath is the first thing we do when we are born and is the final thing we do before we die. We are breathing all of our lives, whether awake or asleep. It deserves our attention.

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You recorded for two days in the reverberation room at the  National Acoustic Laboratory in Sydney – please tell us about that experience, what you recorded and what it was like, both from a technical point of view and also in terms of the experience of performing single takes from memory.

I recorded about six hours of music in seven hours. Technically it wasn’t difficult for me, as I knew the music very well. Physically, it was a challenge.

I think the following excerpt from a review of one of the CDs that I recorded there answers your question better than I could. It is by Huib Schippers, published in the “Music Forum” in 2005:

“[In 1996] Lee recorded a series of 7 CDs with honkyoku, solo repertoire from two major shakuhachi traditions, which is considered the core of the canon. The list of titles is a work of poetry in itself. including Empty Sky, Autumn Field, and Searching. Volumes 2-7 are first takes: six hours of music recorded in two consecutive afternoon sessions in a single space [a massive concrete ‘box’ at the National Acoustic Laboratory]. That gives the recordings the intensity of a live performance, and is a tribute to the mastery of Lee, whose fabulous control of the instrument and the subtle repertoire lifts these recordings beyond the ordinary.

This sense of a landmark recording is reflected in Lee’s own account of the recordings: ‘Towards the second afternoon of recording, in the middle of playing a piece, ! suddenly started crying. Not sobbing; I didn’t stop playing, and the piece was recorded successfully. Just tears. This had never happened to me before. I still can’t explain why this occurred. I wasn’t sad; I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular other than the performing the piece. It was a good feeling, a bit like, I imagine, the tired, yet excited contentment of having reached the top of a very challenging mountain. That moment seemed to make the years of practice, and the hours playing in that cold concrete box all worth it.’ ”

Do you employ any mental or spiritual practices to help you stay on track when performing long pieces?

When played as they should be played, the pieces themselves help the performer stay on track. In any case, we sometimes forget, particularly in the West, that playing music without looking at notation is the norm, not the exception.

How do you handle mistakes?

Mistakes are inevitable. After all, we humans are not perfect. I view mistakes as opportunities to improve. They point me to the bits that I need to work on. They also remind me of the importance of humility, for which I am very grateful.

Please describe the most arrestingly beautiful place you have played shakuhachi.

That is an interesting question. In retrospect, I have been fortunate to play in many arrestingly beautiful places. The thing is, I usually play with my eyes closed. My sense of sight is basically disengaged while playing, so the beauty or possible lack of beauty in a place is not as important a part of my experience as one might think.

You are an authority in the field of ethnomusicology with a PhD from the University of Sydney; can you give us any insights in how the role of music in society has transformed over time?  Obviously a large topic!

I’m not sure if the role of music has transformed much over time. It appears to have always played (forgive the pun), and continues to play many roles: spiritual, ceremonial, celebratory, entertaining, etc. We humans continue to use music to express our full range of emotion, from abject grief to profound ecstasy, from youthful exuberance to complete and focused calm.

Please tell us about your breathing workshops; what are they, what do you focus on and why? Are there any techniques you could share with us here?

Assumptions underlying my Breathe! workshops:

  • There is a healthy (optimal) way to breathe.
  • Most of us do not breathe in this way much of the time (due largely to       bad habits).
  • Simple breathing exercises can benefit almost everyone, both physically and metaphysically.
  • Better breath awareness leads to better control over all aspects of our lives.
  • Tension hinders optimal breathing.
  • Awareness encourages optimal breathing.

Here is a breathing exercise common in Tai Chi:


Relax. Stand erect. Empty lungs.

Inhale slowly, deeply, while gradually rising on toes.

Turn head to left and look behind you.

Let eyes take head further. Do NOT turn shoulders or twist hips.

Inhalation is completed on fully raised toes, looking as far behind as possible.

Hold for count of three while holding breath on inhalation.

Exhale back to original position. Pause for count of three at bottom of exhalation.

Repeat on right side.

Both sides repeated twice (three times total)

What words of advice would you give to anyone reading this who is preparing for, or already underway on, a life of focus and dedication to mastering a particular instrument, craft or practice?

Work with and under the guidance of the best teacher you can possibly find. Learn how to practise correctly your instrument, craft or practice – practise incorrectly and you will just get good at being incorrect. Be determined; stay humble.

Autumn Field Album - Riley LeeRainforest reverie album - Riley Lee


Riley Lee in ConcertAbout Riley:

Riley Lee began playing the shakuhachi in 1970, and began his studies in Japan in 1971. In 1980, he became the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of dai shihan (大師範; literally ‘big teacher,’usually translated as ‘grand master’). Riley was also the first non-Japanese to play wadaiko (和太鼓; Japanese drums) professionally (1974), as a founding member of the group now called Kodo. Riley grew up in Hawai’i. He moved to Sydney Australia in 1986 with his wife Patricia and their twin daughters. Riley has a PhD in ethnomusicology and is on the staff of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He has released over sixty recordings since his first LP in 1980, entitled Shakuhachi Honkyokuand still available on Smithsonian-Folkways. In 2016, Riley was Artist-in-Resident and Guest Lecturer in the Music Department at Princeton University, his fifth visit there. In 2017, Riley performs, gives workshops and teaches in Switzerland, Germany, the USA and throughout Australia. He is a regular tutor at the Shakuhachi Summer Camp of the Rockies, and will also be a tutor/performer at the Hawaii Shakuhachi Festival, to be held in Honolulu in December.

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