Zen Shakuhachi: the Way of Breathing Bamboo (entry 2)

The 5 Elements of Zen Shakuhachi, the way of breathing bamboo

In entry 1,  I refer to “all the elements of this path” and here is an overview that I have arrived at after 16 years of deep involvement.  Each intention, action, and tone on shakuhachi contains all of these 5 important elements, and the lists below them just help to shine light on my personal experience of these 5 elements.  You should explore them your own self and see what happens, what you feel.

Always evolving and, like the general worldly elements–air, fire, water, earth, space–always interpenetrating and cross-pollinating. Engage, absorb, beckon on and penetrate any and all of these at will…


sound, vibration, resonance, structure, texture, feeling, flow, power, combination, invisible relations, mystical transmission, rhythm, melody, breath, Life, styles, development, lineage, sages, songs, composition, voice, mind, heart, tone


presence, space, clarity, stillness, Tao, qi, awareness, consciousness, clear mind, open heart, Zen Buddhism, ancestors, sutras, lineage, koans, transmission, wordless teaching, interdependent co-arising, illumination, realization, meditation, contemplation, suchness


sun, trees, roots, soil, air, atmosphere, green, photosynthesis, grass, hills, mountains, valleys, water, river, lake, ocean, pond, creek, creatures, animals, Life, bamboo, Joy, fruit, Pan, nano-worlds, moss, cosmos, Earth, organism(s), death, space, light


depth, Life, air, qi, lungs, ribs, blood, oxygen, connectivity, interconnectedness, inter-relatedness, divinity, God, smell, taste, Joy, presence, awareness, health, movement, flow, clarity, vastness, expansion, wind, atmosphere


composition, imagination, tea, beer (fermentation), waffles, pancakes, albums, books, comics, TV shows, film, stories, songs, myth, art, color, Life, relationships, performance, learning, fun, enjoyment, celebration, reverence, gratitude, sex

In Entry 3, I will outline an example of applying these elements in shakuhachi practice.

Zen Shakuhachi: the Way of Breathing Bamboo (entry 1)

In teaching woodwinds for 20 years, and primarily (and ultimately, only) shakuhachi for the past 7 years, I have seen a trend in Incorrect View.  This usually treats value or “success” in one’s shakuhachi endeavors  as a kind of equation directly calculated on results.  Results such as: I can or can’t play Song X or Note Y.  Why? We have this approach in life these days in general, and activities that are intrinsically Zen do not play this way.  If you “get” a result–songs or note–but are not truly deeply present when it unfolds, what has really been accomplished?  And further: what did you really even get out of it?  (And stating this as a goal is also questionable, but let’s roll with this pleasure principle for a moment.)

The important thing is regular engagement with the bamboo, the teachings, and all the elements that comprise this path, as I am calling it, “the way of breathing bamboo”–and regular guidance.  Choose your resources wisely, or let them wisely choose you.  Results never fail to appear, in my experience, one way or another, but it is the engagement itself that contains the enrichment, fulfillment, ah-ha moments, joy, etc. (as well as ego-dissolution, frustration, dead-ends, etc.)–so, like in Zen, it all comes back to presence.

Just be with the sound, hold nothing back, and eventually, beautiful sounds and “difficult” songs flow through.  But, sometimes, there are blockages to the “be with” part of that instruction, so, all expectations need to be set aside at that time.  Literally all expectations.  So check that.  Also, the “eventually” part can be in years or decades, and is almost never in the case of our friend, the shakuhachi, get to measure it in minutes or days.  But, you never know! Expect surprises, as they say.

Deep Breath, Clear Mind.

The Mental Twist against Life in Music

Outside the mainstream and rejected by the avant-garde.

 My own experience is music as a force of nature, not only as a figment of a corrupt human psyche.

Because I come up with unusual project concepts and deeply embrace rare instruments and topics, most of the music I dinosuar robot at Japanese hotelhave created or helped to create over the past 25 years cannot be considered “mainstream.” In music, generally the “mainstream” is narrow-minded, uncreative and increasingly derived from market interests that have nothing to do with art. So the Unknown is increasingly toxic to it. This wasn’t always the case, but it is more and more.

Fortunately, there is always a thriving “counter” stream from which those who desire something more refreshing may drink. And our global digital age is great for supporting small and strange forces, to some extent. However, a big slice of the experimental avant-garde of the last several decades is often primarily characterized by a dubious marriage between a deconstructionist dogmatism on the one hand, and a neurotic clean-room aesthetic on the other.

That’s why symphonies with laptops have been supported more readily than, say, chamber music with djembe or throat-singing. If it still stinks of being from the Earth—and honors too much the beating heart and pulsing hot breath of biological life—don’t admit it into the concert hall. Or even into the dirty urban warehouse art-performance space. Cigarettes and booze (or hors d’oeuvres and wine) are preferred over potted plants and medicinal tea. Everywhere, toxic substances are prized above pure soil and clean air.  Because the Madness is high on the idea that it “made” them.

To me, this is another demonstration of the diseased human mind that self-conceives as separate from, apart from the natural world. And to me, this is the most prescient issue of our time. In fact—in actual point of pure, unbiased FACT—we are a part of this tremendous place, this planet. Actually, in deeper spirituality we are that and, at the same time, one with it. If it still feels “woo woo” for someone to say ”this living, breathing mother Earth” then that’s a huge clue right there: the very twist that is uncomfortable with that phrase IS the leading face of our collective mental illness. And at times, I admit to still feeling that too. But it is a living, breathing organism that gave birth to us. There is no work-around for that fact. And it is a beautiful and ridiculous fact.  And saying it superficially isn’t going to help, you have to know it from deep in your pants.

What was our place in this Garden of Paradise? Our role was to be masterful participants, not “masters.” We kind of fucked that all up. So, my music is rooted in music and the natural world, derived from the experience of the flow of energy, many kinds of energy. Yes, also transcendent and cosmic energy, but none of this is separate from earth energy, breath and sex energy.  I try not to just create status reports of the fever dreams of a sick psyche.

In my opinion, many sectors of the experimental avant-garde need to loosen their grip, admit to what they are, and what they are not. An “open mind” that is actually only open to 50% (or less) of what the dominant minds are closed to—this would need a different designation, not “open” or free. Something like “open for deconstructionist auto-neuroticists.” We are all breathing here, and we all have beating hearts, for Christ’s sake.  But not all of us want to take drugs and jump up and down to giant sound systems either.  We are also mystics, and obsessed with the invisible—including concepts—but let’s also try being more holistic, more practical. More sane, harmonious and sustainable. More reverent, grateful and humorous.

More aware.  MORE ALIVE.

You should also know that I know that I’ve got those other three fingers pointing back at me.

Dio Days 2015


BEFORE – the sum total of my Dio library before Dio Days 2015

Dio Days 2015 Booty: after

AFTER – The expanded DIO library after Dio Days 2015

DIO – Lord of Roar secret compilation click here

Ronnie James Dio is one of the legends of rock.  Actually, he is a legend of metal, hard rock and classic rock, but let’s just elevate past all of that and say ROCK.  I first discovered his voice as I followed the thread of in-depth Black Sabbath study and listening exploration in 2006-7.  I had always been a mild fan of Black Sabbath, then in 2003 a friend gave me a copy of Master of Reality and that spun me all the way around.  Their writing reflected my own thinking back to me.  That 3rd album from the original (Ozzy) era Sabbath was much more fitting to my tastes than the ever-popular Paranoid, which perhaps I had just grown tired of.  Then in 2006, I got the remastered Black Box, all 8 of the Ozzy-era albums from the 70’s.  For almost two years, all I listened to were those 8 albums, Eckhart Tolle books-on-tape, and nature sound CDs.  Then in summer 2007, I came across the newly remastered compilation of Dio-era Black Sabbath.  It was so different, and yet, just as high-caliber as any other Sabbath.  I mean, if there was any doubt that they are the best band in rock history, to completely reformat in the early 80’s with a new vocalist, and sound so different and yet so good and still maintain continuity (Tony Iommi’s genius guitar playing and riffage)–this erased any lingering doubts for sure.  And this Dio stuff introduced me to one of my favorite singers of all time, which is a short and selective list to be sure.  With very few Caucasians…

Anyways: then my pal Nils played the epic track “Stargazer” one fateful New Year’s Eve for all of us (2007 or 2008).  Yet another great band that this Dio guy was in? Yes, Rainbow from the mid-70’s.  So my interest grew another dimension.  Then he rejoins with the Black Sabbath guys around this time (2008) and records a whole new album.  At this point, he is a 50-year music business veteran, an absolute master of his craft, and one of the brightest shining examples of creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, integrity and respect that you might ever discover in any “business” or “industry.”

So then he dies from stomach cancer on May 16, 2010.  Well, he had been working perhaps overly hard.  So every year since, around that time in May, in spite of not really paying attention to the general music press, I still get the urge to listen to lots of Dio.  This year just before the 5th anniversary of his death, the urge was particularly strong, and it became clear that the time had come to delve into the works that he had created with his own band, DIO, that existed more or less continuously from 1983 until 2004, and slightly beyond, and released 10 studio albums.  Dio Days 2015 also included the arranging of two Dio (with Sabbath) songs to add to my solo shakuhachi repertoire, but that will be the focus of a later entry (Dio Days 2015, Part II, most likely).

What can I say?  It is like a magic realm.  Correction: it is a magic realm.  You are either in and you have your mind blown wide open, or you are not in and remain outside the stone wall and iron gates of The Land of Dio.  There is a kind of long pathway that leads to this gate, mainly featuring the “hits” or classics, as it were: “Heaven and Hell,” “Holy Diver,” “Mob Rules,” “Children of the Sea,” “Rainbow in the Dark,” “Man on the Silver Mountain” and “Neon Knights” and others.  Lots of people know these and like these: how can you not?  These are some of the best rock songs of all time.  But there is a beyond: a Deeper Dio, if you will.  Lots of people know about it; most of them were, like, between 15 and 25 in 1983, when Dio made the leap from Sabbath to his own project and, in that era, 1981-85, his voice and performance prowess reached its ultimate peak, in-my-not-so-humble-opinion.  He always sounds good–really good–but some of the live shows and studio albums from those years contain an extra bonus–something.

Now understand this: because I was only 9 years old in 1983, I was still listening to Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, Billy Joel and–like everyone else who was not a Dio fan–Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  So I came to the band Dio with relatively fresh ears.  Sure, I have the bias that “Children of the Sea” and “Stargazer” are two of my favorite songs of all time, but those aren’t from Dio, the band, so this year’s study was begun with some uncertainty: will I like DIO, the band?

So here are a few caveats: there’s some keyboards, so expect that.  And what’s more, within the sphere known as “early 80’s metal,” that’s where the Sword of the Land of Dio was forged, so, like every house or property that has its own style and era it hearkens to, it is kind of perpetually 1983 in the Land of Dio, or so it can seem when you first arrive.  Even songs from the final DIO studio album Master of the Moon often have an 80’s flavor added, like a spice, even though it is a fresh, creative album from 2004. Just accept it and the visit will be more fun.  Then–even though he is widely and wildly respected and championed among musicians and metal fans in general–there’s sometimes the classic metal-snob gripe: “Dio sings too much about wizards and rainbows and witches and dragons and dreams.  That’s too, like, wussy or D & D or whatever.  REAL metal is just about, like–hate, death, Satan or rotting corpses and stuff.”  Fine.  Stay in your dark hole if you want.

Part of Dio’s genius was his deep understanding about balance and the ultimate sham that is dualistic thought, whether that’s in life, society or mythology or religion.  Given a choice, I’ll take the vaster, larger viewpoint, thanks very much.  And thanks RJD for seeing that clearly and sticking to it.  (Although in the 90’s, he did get pretty angry and pushed his dark edge much more.) Angels and demons are among us every instant.  Stand in the shadow for awhile and look back to the light more clearly.  It is all a play.  With some really great album artwork, too.

“There’s perfect harmony in the rising and the falling of the sea.” -RJD

“The closer you get to the meaning, the sooner you know that your dreaming.” -RJD

Now go listen to some DIO!

DIO – Lord of Roar   secret compilation   click here

Shakuhachi Master Tattoos (Arm Diplomas) 12/13/14

Swamp T Straight On cropTamuke Notation.crop

“A ‘master’ has clear awareness of what he knows and doesn’t know.  He has the confidence and resources to continue his explorations and guide others on theirs.”

One year after earning my shihan (master teaching license) in Zen shakuhachi flute, I then added the Bonus Arm Diplomas—i.e. tattoos.  These were created in collaboration with an incredible Bay Area tattoo artist, ceramicist, and master gardener, Nakona Macdonald.  The idea is to emblazon my physical self with creative artifacts that link to my metaphysical self. General themes of shakuhachi, Zen, Taoism, primordial forests, Swamp Thing and green man mythology.  These are my first tattoos so I had zero experience with this, and we had one meeting and five tattoo sessions to complete all of it.

The specific themes and designs are (playing a bit on left/right brain duality):

Left Arm: Reverence and Impermanence, the shakuhachi notation for “Tamuke,” which is a song played in reverence to ancestors and those recently departed.

Right Arm: Aliveness, an ambitious and complex piece by Nakona that I have come up with a few names for. “Nakona’s Green Man,” or “Swamp God in the Redwoods.”  We managed to get in a fat shakuhachi with the waters of life flowing through, as well as bamboo foliage, roots, fungus, a redwood, other forest textures and even a flute embouchure.

There is an additional “metaphysical reminder” on the left forearm, a quote from verse 16 of the Tao Te Ching, which also links in nicely to many other wisdom teachings as well as the imagery of the forest scene and the roots of the shakuhachi. The theme here is Clarity.Return to the Root crop

What follows is a deeper explanation and backstory to these pieces of body art.

On 11/12/13 I received my Shihan (master teaching license) in Zen shakuhachi flute from Grandmaster Michael Chikuzen Gould.  You can read the blog I posted about that milestone at the time.  A few months before, as I was still working towards this goal, Michael had mentioned something like “maybe for Chikuzen Studios there should be some extra aspect to the attainment of the shihan level.   Hmm…I know! Tattoos perhaps…”  Sure he might have only been half serious, but actually he was pondering this for a few reasons.

1) He had finally gotten arm tattoos of the famous Buddhist deity statues a few years before.  These are Kongōrikishi (金剛力士) or Niō (仁王): two wrath-filled and muscular guardians of the giant Buddha statue in Nara.  We had visited them in 2009, on our field trip to Japan.  Around the time he was getting those tattoos, I had also written a new composition inspired by them.

2) There had not yet been a shihan given out by Chikuzen Studios since he established it in 1998.

A more significant train of thought for me had to do with the Shaolin tradition of branding their graduating priests on the arms with the Tiger and the Dragon.  Anyone who has seen the TV show Kung Fu is familiar with this practice, and while some claim that this is a false legend,  the Shaolin Grandmaster’s Text says this: “The Order used the brands to represent a permanent “diploma,” having suffered the loss of all physical objects many times in their history…(…many non-Shaolin authors writing about the ‘myths of Shaolin’ claim that the tradition of arm branding is a martial arts fairy tale because they have never seen such brands, or because these brands aren’t historically documented.  No matter.  The tradition stopped around 1900, so few people living today would have even had an opportunity to see them.)…We have no intention of ever resurrecting the branding practice, as in today’s culture it would only serve to inflate the ego.” (p. 110)

Well, I have discovered that shakuhachi for me is not only the two parts of meditation and music that are commonly known, but it has an equal third facet of qi gong itself—meaning it is an energy practice.  Therefore, it is appropriate to link up the ethics, goals and methods between shakuhachi and Shaolin Kung Fu philosophy, in itself an exquisite synthesis of Zen Buddhism and Taoism.  Elsewhere in the Grandmaster’s Text we are reminded:

We emphasize a focus upon individuals, but to the ends of self-development and liberation.  The ultimate authority, for any person, lies within the individual.  Look into your own heart for the authority to assess what you [encounter], and ultimately to make all your decisions in life.  [Name and form] are ephemeral, but they are also powerful as tools of the ego.  Shaolin is about extinguishing the ego. (p. 18)

Swamp T Back Side crop Swamp T Front Side crop








The Zen of Danzig

I consider my Zen shakuhachi playing to be part Tony Iommi and part Watazumi. This is the inward self, or a concept of a part of it. The outward shakuhachi self is turning into part Danzig and part Zamfir. A similar combo, but more Z’s are involved.  Z is for Zen. Sometimes. Maybe.  Our Primary One Sound on shakuhachi, “RO” has been inserted into the middle of this Danzig arrangement to illustrate Emptiness Realization.

When Glenn Danzig sings “Until you call on the dark” he also sings “I want to be your emptiness.” We all know, from Buddhism, “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form,” but sometimes we just parrot these axioms. Danzig, we might say, has a vital interest in “the great problem of life and death,” which is also very Buddhist. Duality is a persistent hobgoblin. Our culture has spent a great deal of energy creating and bolstering a “one-side of the coin” mythology. Truth, Justice, Right, White, Shining, God.  Hercules, Superman.  Glenn knows that this is total bullshit. There are no one-sided coins, and “until you call on the dark,” that is, until you KNOW from your very core that as long as you have light, DARK COMES WITH IT—then you are suffering, and suffering from your own, self-created delusion.  Or, another description might be: a vast stream of ignorance that had a great deal of momentum long before you or I were born.  The bigger picture is made into an enemy.

Of course, a Zen Master might tell Glenn that he is “attached to the dark,” but Danzig as a force of darkness, redressing an imbalance in Western pop culture, this has seemed to be his “correct situation.” And God bless him for it.  Sometimes. Maybe.

There’s no question that, like Black Sabbath, Glenn has taken all of the raw power from blues and rock streams and channeled them into something dark and appealing at the same time; but in terms of personality and worldview the question remains: is he a huge asshole, or just a frighteningly honest realist?  Is there a difference?

Excerpt from 1992 interview with Danzig:
Q: Where do you get most of your ideas from in your songwriting?
Danzig: Anger. Frustration. All that kind of stuff. I pretty much hate everybody and everything.
I like to take personal emotions, and mix them with things I see around from other people.  That’s what I like to do.
Q: In a recent video you wrestle an alligator.  There’s also a scene with you running with wolves…
Danzig: I get along very well with animals.
Q: What do you like about good bands?
Danzig: I think originality should be encouraged—rather than just having people imitate what’s popular because they want to make money or have naked girls in their beds every night or something. That’s not what music’s about.

Excerpt from 1995 interview with Danzig:
Q: Why don’t you like Sinead O’Connor?
Danzig: It’s bullshit. Insincere.
Q: Which bands do you consider bullshit that were playing here today?…apart from Sinead O’Connor…
Danzig: Most of them.
Q: What’s wrong with them, to me they seem like nice, sincere bands, can you explain?
Danzig: Right now in music I see a trend towards, uh, if someone’s your friend, that means their band is good.  To me that doesn’t necessarily cut it. Okay?  And, I like music that I like.  I look for sincerity, I look for realness in the music.  If it’s not there, I don’t like it.  So, maybe reality for you is different than reality for me, if you know what I mean.

Excerpt from 2009 interview with Danzig:
Q: You’ve never been married, right Glenn?
Danzig: No, I’m not an idiot.


A Brief History of Edmund Welles: the bass clarinet quartet

As I became infatuated with the sound and possibilities of the bass clarinet back in 1995, a timeline unfolded that we have a good perspective on now as another Era draws to a close on September 12 in San Francisco.  The following brief outline centers on the existence of a “heavy chamber music” bass clarinet quartet, known as Edmund Welles.

Edmund Welles in Berkeley January 20101996-1999
Inspirational Era includes the earliest compositions and arrangements and one performance, alongside the existence of The Cornelius Boots Trio, the robot bass clarinet and Faun Tumnus

Pre-Classic Era includes magnesium, the songs thereof (some of which became core EW pieces), and several failed attempts to recruit qualified bass clarinetists in Chicago and Eugene

Early Classic Era includes the first Bay Area performances and personnel, as well as the core compositions and the release of Agrippa’s 3 Books

Classic Era includes the primary activity both locally and regionally, the release of Tooth & Claw and Imagination LostSwitchboard and Clarinetfest appearances; shows with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Faun Fables and others; and the emergence of interrelated bands/projects Simulacra and Sqwonk.

Late Classic Era
 includes the release of Hymns for Christmas, the international debut of the group in Assisi, Italy and the bass clarinet-a-palooza concert in San Francisco.

For more information, visit edmundwelles.com.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 11.03.56 AM


The Evolution of Metal in 4 Songs

This micro-collection of iconic metal songs has been brewing for quite some time in that same part of the brain that used to make “mix tapes”: how to introduce a complete uninitiate into the world of metal? This is not intended to be a “best of” or definitive (as if that were possible) collection, but rather an enthusiastical musicological blitzkrieg into the essence of metal, as I have experienced it as a fan and a composer.

Black Sabbath “Black Sabbath” 1970 from Black Sabbath


Iron Maiden “Powerslave” 1984 from Powerslave

Sepultura “Roots Bloody Roots” 1996 from Roots 


Lamb of God “Blacken the Cursed Sun” 2006 from Sacrament


I really did deliberate about this last selection: I knew it had to be Lamb of God, and I had it narrowed down to about 6 of their most epic and brutal (well, they are all brutal, especially to newbies who struggle with the so-called “screaming” of modern metal vocals)  but this track does exemplify the key facets I was looking for: excellent riffs and epic structure and/or triumphant mood.  It does break the streak of “title track” features (which was unintentional) but it also happens to be (by some degree of coincidence) the most difficult arrangement I have created in my Renegade Nature Music series of arrangements and compositions for shakuhachi.

In fact, I now realize that I have arranged songs from each of these groups, including the Sepultura track “Roots Bloody Roots” featured above.  At live shows, these often incite a brand new enthusiasm in unsuspecting listeners to explore metal, so I guess even though the original goal of this post was to present only the original songs, this “wind arranger” perspective has wedged its way in.

Sepultura’s “Roots Bloody Roots” arranged for four bass clarinets
(Edmund Welles)

Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name” arranged for four bass clarinets and vocals
(Edmund Welles with guest Gene Jun)

Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” arranged for four bass clarinets
(Edmund Welles)

The above Edmund Welles arrangements are featured on the albums Agrippa’s 3 Books and Imagination Lost.

12 Days of Christmas 2013

John Denver and the Muppets sing the 12 Days of Christmas     Highly entertaining holiday music.  2nd only to Bob and Doug McKenzie’s version of this song.



Last year I released a Christmas album and wrote an entry about Christmas music.

So what’s the deal with this time of year? I feel strongly that there is great benefit to paying extra attention to your internal and external worlds at this time of year: the shortest days of the year and the transition on through to the next solar cycle. Our need for “cheer” and coziness at this time makes a lot of sense given the long dark and cold nights: what could be more natural? This pull towards indoor fires, lights on trees, sparkly ornaments, gift-giving and the company of those you love is only marred by one fact: all these things are poles on a dualistic scale.  In other words, although I personally support “giving in” to the pull towards these things (oh yeah, I forgot hot chocolate) it behooves us to remember that true joy, true peace and true universal love are states of being and not subject to the laws of duality, whereas these other things are.  They are kind of substitutes and pleasant in their own right unless and until they are not there for you anymore.  Freezing to death outside, alone in the snow seems to be at the other pole, for instance, from chestnuts roasting on an open fire, just for example.

This is why lots of people take on an “anti-Christmas” stance.  They may say they are championing anti-materialistic consumerism, correctly pointing out that our binging in this season is strongly anathema to the teachings of Christ, BUT—some of them are simply afraid of “happiness” and “good cheer” because they have experienced the loss of it too deeply at some point.  This is where real awakening comes in: the Star of Bethlehem, the Holy Spirit and a few other symbols from Christian mythology are strong reminders/pointers towards the internal light of divinity that is within us and is the source of unchanging Suchness or, in more Christian terminology, Love.  It cannot be lost, it simply Is.

“Sic Luceat Lux” (thus, let the light shine)