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frank denyer - music for shakuhachi, played by yoshikazu iwamoto

for more information about frank denyer, go to  

or for an interview with Frank Denyer from the Paristransatlantic website click here     

“This record is all about a friendship between Frank Denyer, for years a teacher at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, and shakuhachi master Yoshikazu Iwamoto, who also taught at Dartington in the 1980’s.  The two first met on an ethnomusicology course at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where they played Japanese music together.  Already interested in flute making and microtonal tunings, Denyer wrote a series of demanding compositions for Iwamoto over the next 20 years.

                          On, On – It Must Be So  from 1977 is, as the title suggests, driven and dynamic.  The shakuhachi’s agile gymnastics are egged on by castanets and bass drum.  The music sounds tough to play, and there’s a lurking sense of the performer leaping through hoops.  By contrast Quite White is a solo built from serene, swooping glissandos.  Wheat  is a suite of six short pieces: Iwamoto’s shifting tone colours and ambiguous pitches are complemented by delicate tapping on stones, bamboo slit drums and an artillery shell.

                           While these three compositions have already been heard on the 1984 album Wheat, the reason Music for Shakuhachi  has been so keenly awaited is the 45 minute monster Unnamed, a piece with legendary status among shakuhachi players, which Iwamoto recorded in 1999 and has never been released.  Iwamoto retired from playing after a serious illness several years ago, so we are lucky he recorded this when he did.  Unnamed  may be a pianissimo epic, but it’s strongly structured and sustains the interest.   Broadly we are in the territory of Morton Feldman’s second string quartet, but Denyer patiently explores an extraordinary range of timbral colours, from quavering in-breaths to gasps of sobbing notes.  Iwamoto plays with quite magical delicacy.  Many of these notes are so spectral that a hypnotic aura descends like a veil, only to be shoved aside by vocal cries or monk-like growls.   Always keen to build from scratch on uncharted land, Denyer constructs an unusual soundworld here – though some improvisors have also ventured into this territory recently via a different door.  Iwamoto dedicated himself wholeheartedly to realising Denyer’s challenges, and this record is a crucial part of his testament.”       

                                                                                                                      -     Clive Bell  -The Wire

“While the shakuhachi is a notoriously difficult instrument to play, its tonal colors and mysterious sonic density have drawn interest from Western composers as well as improvisers like Ned Rothenberg, Philip Gelb, Clive Bell, Steve Cohn, and Richard Teitelbaum. This release, on the new label Another Timbre, presents music that composer Frank Denyer wrote for the instrument of the course of two decades. The British composer had been working on the intersection of aleatory strategies, the use of exotic and homemade instruments, and composition during the late ’60s before heading to Wesleyan University. It was there that he met Japanese shakuhachi master Yoshikazu Iwamoto and began to write pieces for the instrument. (Iwamoto  was part of the fantastic trio along with Eddie Prevost and John Tilbury captured on the CD Such)

                                             The first three pieces on this disc are from the late ’70s and grapple with the formal extensions of the shakuhachi. Two look at the interactions between the breathy woodiness of  Iwamoto’s playing with percussion. The six short episodes of the piece “Wheat” are particularly engrossing as the timbres of the clack of stones, tuned sound of bamboo slit  drum, and the metallic resonance of struck steel plates are contrasted with the sighing microtonalities of the shakuhachi. The centerpiece of the release is the more recent ”Unnamed” for solo shakuhachi. This stunning piece is a study in subtlety, traversing the dynamic range of quiet to barely audible.   But it is in these gradations that the music finds its structure. Here are calibrations of dynamics and sonic densities; pure tone, pure breath and vocalizations; high overtones and dark low notes. Iwamoto traverses the graphic score, extending the framework of intervallic microtones and contrasting shadings into a piece of dramatic intensity. While outside of the constructs of most of what is covered in this magazine, this one will certainly repay concentrated listening.”                                                                          -     Michael Rosenstein – Cadence

“Frank Denyer is a very fine composer (and so very little known!) who whilst writing acoustic music invests it with an enormous amount of life, of chance and of ‘clinamen’ through the use of unusual modal scales, silences, extreme nuances and the use of unconventional instruments.  The history of these pieces begins when Denyer underwent a compositional crisis after hearing a shakuhachi record whilst at the Wesleyan University.  There he met Yoshikazu Iwamoto, the virtuosi shakuhachi player, with whom he began to create the marvellous works on this disc.  Twenty years separate On, on, it must be so from Unnamed  (the highpoint of this unique collaboration).   There is a perfect correlation between the writing and the playing, based round a pentatonic scale whose notes are microtonally shifted by a combination of embouchure, breathing and fingering.

                 The first piece On, on it must be so (1977) is accompanied by castanets and bass drum and retains a rather classical phrasing, its expressive pointillism still relating to western criteria.   But with Quite White (1978)  the results of the collaboration with Iwamoto begin to be heard.  The tempo slows, the inflections tend towards electric silences, the glissandos and held notes are played in a way that gives a truly new twist to the melody as Denyer envisaged it.  Wheat (1977-81) takes up and concludes the working out of this first salvo of pieces.

                And then Unnamed (1997) twenty years later....  John Cage tells us that in India aesthetic emotion (the ‘rasa’) is aroused through one or two simultaneous states from an ensemble of eight permanent emotions.  These eight emotions can be eclipsed by a ninth, which subsumes all the others and is called Tranquility.  The superb 45 minutes of Unnamed do precisely this; it is a hymn to tranquility, an aural  ataraxy which brings us to the power of serenity.  Iwamoto can snatch from the shakuhachi’s column of air incredible pianissimo nuances and hold them, or make them pulse, clearly or grainily, with all kinds of inflections.  It is magnificently assured and leads us to the edges of a world of true equanimity, with a perspective of such enormity that a million years seems like nothing.

                The smallness of Denyer’s discography, and the rare beauty of these pieces for shakuhachi means that this disc is truly significant.  It is like no other, and allows us to hear a work which has evolved over 30 years.  Finally it gives us a tranquility and a restorative enjoyment that is ultimately very rare. “      

                                                                                                         -        Boris Wlassoff,  Revue et Corrigée

“This CD is a landmark of contemporary works for the Japanese end-blown notched oblique bamboo flute, the shakuhachi, written by the British composer Frank Denyer and played by Iwamoto Yoshikazu.  The shakuhachi is one of the most successful non-Western instruments to enter the world of new classical or avant-garde music in recent years.  The CD comprises four compositions, written between 1977 and 1997, and through them the listener can follow how Denyer ventures ever deeper into the possibilities of the shakuhachi and utilises to the maximum Iwamoto’s impressive playing skills.  More than most composers, Denyer creates his own unique sound world. His music here sounds completely unlike traditional shakuhachi music, the so-called honkyoku played by the komusô monks of the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism, nor does it fit any particular genre in contemporary music. Rather, it constitutes a distinctive musical world, perfectly rendered by Iwamoto’s otherworldly playing.

Denyer and Iwamoto met in the 1970s at Wesleyan University (USA), where Iwamoto was artist in residence in the World Music programme and Denyer a doctoral student in ethnomusicology.  Denyer is also a koto (Japanese zither) player and has a thriving career as a pianist, alongside his professorship in composition at Dartington University (UK).

Denyer’s shakuhachi compositions are very difficult to play, requiring almost inhuman control of this already very difficult instrument. The player is forced to create new techniques in order to play the material as written. Denyer’s deep engagement in Indian music seems to have influenced his rhythmic aesthetics, providing his compositions with a complexity in sharp contrast to traditional shakuhachi music, which calls for a free interpretation of time and phrasing.  And yet Denyer’s compositions for shakuhachi suit the instrument very well; the difficult writing is not due to a lack of knowledge of the instrument  – Denyer just writes difficult music.  In fact, the careful listener soon discovers the consideration the composer has taken to remain true to the nature of the instrument while at the same time challenging it.  Denyer’s dynamics markings and his writing require a player of the calibre of Iwamoto, who fearlessly accepted the challenge and dedicated a large part of his performing life to deciphering Denyer’s music.  This CD is thus the fruit of an intense and unique musical friendship and collaboration between composer and player.

The first four minutes of “On, on – it must be so” (1977-8) are in a tempo and density that takes the breath away from even a listener who plays the shakuhachi.  The melody line, accompanied by castanets and bass drum, moves restlessly on to the next finger-twisting challenge.  After a stroke of a metallic percussion instrument, the percussion becomes silent and the piece slows down and enters a realm of beautiful serenity before ending as energetically as it began.  Iwamoto’s dexterous rendition of the portamento alone makes this piece impressive.

“Quite White” (1978) is characterised by restrained dynamics at the top of the range of a shakuhachi. What most strikes the listener is Iwamoto’s skill in playing pianissimo in registers where the instrument, in the hands of most players, can only produce notes in forte.  Together Denyer and Iwamoto are exploring new possibilities of timbre and expression on the shakuhachi.  The tempo of “Quite White” is slow, although Denyer has expressed his reluctance of writing slow pieces for the shakuhachi as most of its traditional music is slow.  However, in “Quite White” Denyer again shows his mastery in creating his own music.  The music is as elusively transparent as water and, at the same time, as solid as a rock.

“Wheat” (1977-81) consists of six pieces, all of very different character.  ‘Instruments’ such as stones, bamboo slit drum, sandpaper blocks and various steel plates employed as gongs all accompany the shakuhachi.   Here, Denyer explores new and surprising possibilities of tempo and intonation for this instrument, and Iwamoto moves with dexterity through these novel melodic lines.

“Unnamed” (1997) is a celebration of restrained pianissimo playing and microtones.  Denyer has notated the score in several colours to differentiate the conflicting scales, so that the player knows which scale is being played. Although Iwamoto has written on his systematic approach to playing microtones on the shakuhachi, he does not seem to have anchored his system sufficiently in his students before abruptly retiring from shakuhachi playing – a great loss to future shakuhachi players of new music.  

Although the CD was released ten years after the last piece “Unnamed” was written, the musical fruits of the collaboration between Denyer and Iwamoto are as cutting edge today as they were at the time the pieces were written and performed.   No performer today can really match Iwamoto in his dedication to playing music so extremely challenging to the player’s rhythmic precision, dynamics and technical skills.

This CD is a testimony to a collaboration between composer and performer that took shakuhachi playing to a new level.  It is also an important milestone in the history of the instrument and an affirmation of the role it can play in genres outside its own tradition.  The popularity of the shakuhachi is growing rapidly outside Japan.  Players throughout the world, enchanted by its unique and haunting timbre, are introducing it in new genres and inventing new playing techniques.  This CD is a living monument to shakuhachi music without roots in any particular tradition. It demonstrates just how much an instrument of the world the shakuhachi has become.”

                                                               -  Kiku Day, Ethnomusicology Forum

“You are inside a snow globe. But instead of a mini landscape and plastic snowflakes there are notes and sounds. Some of the notes swirl past your head, birds flapping their wings and calling. Others ricochet off the glass of the globe, spinning unpredictably. Some plummet to the floor and splinter into shards while other congeal and swell into soft pulsating masses. Welcome to the shakuhachi world of Frank Denyer as realized by Yoshikazu Iwamoto.  

              You get the sense of uncompromising personal vision, generating music having few precedents and quoting no one. Spare and austere. The sparseness of the proceedings gives minute gestures sweeping powers. The purity of the tone echoes in space, sounds continuing in your head after they are no longer audible. Like a Japanese karensui rock garden which depicts the universe with a few stones and some gravel.
               The Performer: Yoshikazu Iwamoto comes from the KSK shakuhachi line of Katsuya Yokoyama. This school produces excellent technicians and Iwamoto was one of the very best. “Was” because since producing this recording he disappeared into self imposed exile after renouncing all his human relationships. It is said he no longer plays. This is particularly strange because prior to all this he was an advocate of the shakuhachi life, encouraging students to play as much as possible.
               The Music:  “Quite White” is a solo piece exploring pianissimo on shakuhachi with notes that would not usually be played quietly. Iwamoto displays remarkable control of pitch and dynamics.   “Wheat” I-VI are a series of short musical vignettes alternating between percussion/shakuhachi duets and solo pieces. Although the CD is billed as music for shakuhachi it is also a remarkable display of percussion as atmospherics and texture. The percussion never settles into an obvious rhythm, which is very refreshing.   Titling songs “Unnamed” or “On, On, It Must Be So” seems Beckettian and this music shares some of the arid rigour of Beckett’s aesthetic.
               Denyer and Iwamoto met while both were on the faculty at Wesleyan University in the ‘70’s. Iwamoto challenged Denyer to compose music for the shakuhachi and promised to learn it no matter how difficult and how long it would take. Thus this CD is replete with technical hurdles handled with aplomb by Iwamoto. For this reason and for the intense compositional discipline the CD is a landmark shakuhachi recording.  There is something heroic about Iwamoto and Denyer creating this mountain of music to climb.  It'll be a long time before anything as extreme as this comes along.   Anybody who is interested in shakuhachi or contemporary wind music will find this
album fascinating.”                                                              -    Brian Ritchie,  Shakuhachi Forum

“British-born (1943) composer Frank Denyer has all of the post-postmodern credentials imaginable: thorough studies in ethnomusicology, hands-on experience with New York School (Cage, Feldman, Wolff) indeterminate scores as a founding member of the Barton Workshop, solo piano chops (having recorded the post-Shostakovich modernist sonatas of Galina Ustvolskaya), and an album on Tzadik. His primary area of interest, compositionally, is the expanded nature of relationships between melody and timbre, which accounts for the unusual instrumentation of his own works—one such, The fish that became the sun, includes eight cornets, sitar, and contrabassoon among its 40 participants. His music for shakuhachi (traditional Japanese bamboo flute), however, narrows this focus down to its purest, most essential qualities.  The shakuhachi is an instrument of infinite nuance, so much so that the sound production ranges from barely coloured breath to complex, harmonically shaded degrees of pitch.  Three of the pieces here date from 1977-81, and what emerges from them is a sensuality of tone and an ironic contrast between the instrument’s traditional sparse, pastoral gestures and the occasional intrusion of Western motion and linear shaping, especially in the six brief episodes of Wheat, where the characterizations alternate between spry, fluid, fluttering, and bent inflections. Their percussion component—variously castanets, bass drum, bamboo slit drums, stones, and an artillery shell chime in the three works—accompanies the shakuhachi in the sense of accompanying someone for a quiet walk, and occasionally making a comment. Sixteen years later, Denyer was motivated to use the shakuhachi again, this time to express an extreme vision of pitch and presence. The 45-minute Unnamed (1997), like Morton Feldman’s later, longer works, is a challenge to the listener’s attention and comprehension. The music often hovers on the brink of inaudibility, and the melodic material—based on a seven-note division of the octave and affected by microtonal “satellite” sounds and gradations of tone and attack—is stretched so thinly across an extended empty space that its movement is barely traceable and conventional musical associations are all but lost, replaced by a contemplative stillness. The periodic vocalization has a theatrical effect, and the few dynamic leaps and uptempo riffs are like momentary earthquakes. It’s all brilliantly performed by Yoshikazu Iwamoto, but the lingering impression is that there’s more here than meets the ear.”      

                                                                                                    -   Art Lange, Point of Departure

“Only in recent times has this English maverick begun to receive a well deserved wider attention. Born in 1943, Frank Denyer -  who has been into deepening the sonic structures of non-Western materials for many years - uses both regular instruments and modified media to create music whose character is largely microtonal.  This CD presents four pieces for shakuhachi masterfully interpreted by Yoshikazu Iwamoto, an artistic collaborator and friend of the author since 1974.   A major point  of interest for the composer (whose love for the shakuhachi was sparkled, as a student, by a Goro Yamaguchi LP on Nonesuch) resides in finding new solutions and alternative approaches to the "melodic obsession" that he developed in the 70s.  Denyer mostly focuses on micro-pitch control, highlighting a performer's ability to render the "subtle nuances" that his imagination envisions in single-line melodies, something the shakuhachi lends itself to perfectly.  Iwamoto was able to get into the flesh of Denyer's scores, infusing them with passion, impressive technical wizardry and rigour.  What transpires avoids sterile reproduction and insignificant bows to Japanese traditions and rituals.  On the contrary, this music makes great use of silence and space as foundations of a virtuosity that is expressed through incredibly precise designs and extremely complex evolutions, occuring amidst continuous variations of intensity and dynamics. The concept  of "total command" definitely applies to the performer's style, the 70 minutes of music elapsing in thorough aural gratification.   A noteworthy result.”                                       -    Massimo Ricci   -  Touching Extremes


at03     Frank Denyer  music for shakuhachi

played by Yoshikazu Iwamoto - shakuhachi

with Paul Hiley & Frank Denyer  (percussion)

1.   On, on - it must be so  (1977-78)           8:31

2.   Quite White  (1978)                             7:37

3.   Wheat  (1977-81)                               9:30

4.   Unnamed  (1997)                              45:28

                                               Total time:            71:01

Youtube extract (from ‘Unnamed’)

4 compositions for solo shakuhachi or shakuhachi and percussion by Frank Denyer, performed by Yoshikazu Iwamoto.   Including the first recording of the immense solo piece Unnamed.   Jo Kondo has written that “Denyer has made music of such remarkable personaiity that the shakuhachi now  emits just  Denyer sounds”

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