Forest Knolls musician gets gritty on his Japanese flute

David Briggs
MUSIC:  Musician and music teacher Cornelius Boots started playing the shakuhachi (above), a Japanese flute with origins in Zen monasteries, over a decade ago. In 2008, he picked up a recently invented version called the taimu shakuhachi, which has a deeper, rougher sound.   
10/22/2015

A sinuous melody built of dark, airy phrases and the harsh echo of breath emerges from Cornelius Boots’ taimu shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. It is a warm autumn morning, and he is practicing a song called “Sycamore Trees” on the instrument made of root-end bamboo that slightly curves up at the tail. 

“It’s super moody, so I hope it doesn’t bring you down,” he said, before launching into the piece in his Forest Knolls kitchen, where he typically practices. 

Mr. Boots, a musician and music teacher, has always gravitated towards the lower registers: he played baritone sax in high school, and the bass clarinet in college, and, later in a longtime quartet he has led in the Bay Area. In 2008 he took up the taimu shakuhachi, which he will play along with a traditional shakuhachi next month at the Dance Palace’s Local Music Restoration Night. The event also features Bolinas-based band Milly Wandering and mask maker and dancer Ernesto Sanchez.

The shakuhachi, played vertically like a clarinet, is an ancient flute typically just over a foot and a half long. The instrument traces its beginnings to Zen Buddhist monasteries, Mr. Boots said, though there is more than one story about its origins.

But the taimu shakuhachi, developed by a modern shakuhachi maker named Ken LaCrosse, can be over two feet long and is much thicker. The latter feature gives it a truly distinctive sound: breathy, textured and, as Mr. Boots said, “gritty.” That grittiness is a large part of what drew Mr. Boots, a loquacious man who practices Zen Buddhism, to the larger version of the instrument, which he discovered in 2007.

“If Zen’s about one thing—well, if it’s about one thing it’s about direct realization of true self,” he said. “But if it’s about two things, it would also be hard core paying attention. But the background of those two things is…that there’s no escape from reality. So for a musician, that means embracing the full range of energy, the full range of expressive modalities. It can’t just be nice sounding, or Japanese-folksy-nature sounding.”

He also surmised that the groundedness of the instrument—as well as other things he is drawn to, like pu-erh tea—balances him out. “I’ve got too much fire, too much wind, energetically,” he said.

He believes that he wasn’t progressing as he would have liked on the smaller shakuhachi because he was tightening up his hands and body. “With the big flutes, there’s a certain amount of tightness, but there’s also a lot of letting go,” he said.

Mr. Boots, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clarinet performance and composition from Indiana University, first heard the shakuhachi on a recording when he was living in Chicago in 2001. Soon, he met Mr. LaCrosse through a community music school where he taught. 

Eventually Mr. Boots made his way to a shakuhachi camp in Colorado. His teacher there influenced the way he himself teaches and plays. He sums it up by saying that playing the instrument is more about self-discovery than self-expression.

“You’ve got to get yourself out of your own way,” he said. “People developing self-expression...might think, ‘What am I drawn to, or why am I doing this? What do I have to contribute?’ That makes sense out in the world, but for something that’s more tied to spiritual tradition, like Zen or Buddhism or even Hinduism with sitar music and tabla music, it’s more about inner work.”

Five years ago, Mr. Boots released an album of 27 songs for the taimu. It drew from the honkyoku—a group of 36 pieces, collected from Zen monks in the 1700s, considered the traditional shakuhachi repertoire—as well as arrangements of other songs and his own compositions, which are often influenced by the blues. 

When Mr. Boots moved to the Bay Area in 2003, he was also focused on the bass clarinet. He led and composed for a quartet called Edmund Welles, made up of four bass clarinets. It has, as Mr. Boots said, the form of a chamber quartet but is greatly influenced by jazz and progressive rock. The group has played at festivals, had a commission from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and shared the stage with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Medeski, Martin and Wood. 

But Mr. Boots said that last Tuesday would be his final clarinet lesson; he was giving up the instrument to focus on the shakuhachi. 

He says he will continue to compose for other instruments; he recently wrote pieces for saxophone. But playing reeded instruments requires specific embouchures and biting down on the mouthpiece, which are at odds with the technique for his flute. For the shakuhachi, he presses his chin against the top, but his lips never even touch the instrument as he blows into it. “To go further on the shakuhachi, I feel like I need to focus on it,” he said.