Today we introduce Brian Furner, who oversees the music for Rashomon and plays the shakuhachi.
Q. How did you come to get involved in doing the music for Rashomon?
Brian: My wife saw the Rashomon audition flyers placed around Hyde Park, and encouraged me to take part. It’s the kind of thing that I generally would not have noticed, so I am grateful that she was mindful and encouraging.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the shakuhachi, and what makes its sound so distinctive?
Brian: The shakuhachi came to Japan from China with the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the 6th century, where it was used solely as part of meditation practice by monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism. This was not a musical instrument as we conceive of it, but a tool monks used to focus on their breath and provide an audible measurement of the depth of their practice. If the mind and body are not still and tightly focused, the tone of the shakuhachi will waver and this will be audible. The early repertoire for the shakuhachi consists primarily of chant-based pieces with long uninterrupted phrases that would have been played on temple grounds, and nature-based pieces that reflected those sights and sounds monks encountered as they roamed the countryside. The instrument itself is of very simple construction, being a length of bamboo with the nodes opened, a diagonal cut to form the blowing edge, and five finger holes. This simplicity belies the difficulty of playing the instrument well. The distinctive sound of the shakuhachi are the product of both its physical construction, which promotes a sound rich in overtones and enables total pitch flexibility, and its historic association with meditative practice.
Q. What made you decide to learn the shakuhachi? What other instruments do you play?
Brian: I play saxophone and guitar to varying degrees of success, but at this stage, my primary instrument is the shakuhachi. I came to the shakuhachi through a remarkable act of generosity. I was first introduced to the instrument from the Tarkovsky film The Sacrifice in which the protagonist plays a recording of 20th-century shakuhachi master Watazumi. This was in the late 1990s and at the time I was working in a lab with a sixty-some-year-old Japanese scientist, Yasushi Nakagawa. During conversation one day I casually mentioned how drawn I was to the sound of the instrument and, fortuitously, his childhood friend happened to be a shakuhachi instructor in Japan. About a month later, Dr. Nakagawa called me into his office and presented me with a gift that had been sent from his childhood friend in Japan: a beautiful shakuhachi. The instruments are handmade and in this case it was likely that I had been given a gift of roughly $500 by a complete stranger based on nothing more than a stated interest in the sound of the instrument. So, I had no choice but to learn to play the instrument to in some small way repay this act of kindness. I have studied the shakuhachi seriously for more than 15 years under the mentorship of shakuhachi grand master Chikuzen. Unfortunately I never had a chance to meet the man who gifted me the flute that started my journey to learn this remarkable instrument. In some respects, it is better this way.
Q. Have you developed a score for Rashomon that will be more or less the same every time, or is your approach more improvisational?
Brian: The approach I have taken with Rashomon is to have a number of set pieces for important moments in the play that will remain largely unchanged, but for the rest of the incidental music to emerge from the action and be primarily improvisational. In particular, the percussion elements of the music are built from a number of recurring gestures that can be freely selected from and expanded upon as the play proceeds.
Q. What are some of the other ways in which music is part of your life?
Brian: Instrumental music has been a part of my life in varying degrees since I was a child. I have always been drawn to it’s remarkable ability to communicate emotional and intellectual meaning in the absence of spoken language.
Q. Is there anything else you would like people to know about you or your music?
Brian. If people have an interest in the shakuhachi they should reach out to me to learn more. A remarkable set of circumstances led to my engagement with this instrument and I feel a duty to act as an ambassador for it in whatever way I can and to continue the legacy of generosity that led me to this moment.
Brian Furner with Susan Harris