Can you satisfy God with one sound? This is a question often posed by the shakuhachi grandmaster Kaoru Kakizakai towards the beginning of his lessons.

Lachlan Skipworth Lachlan Skipworth. Photo © Nik Babic

The shakuhachi is an end-blown single piece bamboo flute with five holes. Using manipulations of breath, fingers, and the angle of one’s head, this simple instrument is capable of producing a remarkable range of tones and colours. Regardless of one’s stage of development, though, each lesson begins with both student and teacher repeatedly playing the note ro. The question is a kind of challenge: have you made progress? Are you closer to mastery of this, the shakuhachi’s most fundamental note?

The question is also philosophical. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, it is known as a koan (think the sound of one hand clapping.) The point is not to elicit an answer but to prompt meditation. Kakizakai’s koan reminds his students that problems of technique are connected to the music’s basic spiritual purpose.

This question was posed repeatedly to composer Lachlan Skipworth during a period of intensive study with Kakizakai in Chichibu, Japan. With an impish smile, Kakizakai would answer his own question: “I...

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