"In one moment of silence, become the Buddha!’’ By Philip Horan

The role of silence is an essential part of Japanese sound aesthetics. This is conceptualised in the concept of time and space called ma (間). This concept can represent moments of silence in music or empty space in ritual and performance contexts.

This famous haiku of Bashô (1643-94) epitomises the Japanese conception of sound and silence. In these few words we have the visual image of an old pond, the random action of a frog and the sound of water which shatters the silence. The Japanese sensibility appreciates the visual, kinesthetic and sound phenomena as one aesthetic whole. In Zen, there is non-duality and the ever-evolving nature of seemingly opposite concepts like sound and silence. In the words of Hisamatsu: “A master lives in emptiness while working in form.” (Hisamatsu 1823)

The space and silence between one-breath tones represents the ma in honkyoku. It has even been suggested that the moments of silence are more important than the moments of sound. This can be seen in other arts; e.g. in the monochrome ink-drawn paintings of sumi-e where the positioning of the blank white spaces are crucial. I will refer to the moments of ma as ‘breath silences’. It is not measurable but a felt experience.

The following are some suggestions about how to cultivate your sense of ma. This is based on my own individual journey. Getting to the essence of a honkyoku often depends on how well you have mastered the breath silences.

First, try out these different types of breath silences:

Listen to the sound your breathing makes in the breath silences. Is it noisy or quiet? Variety is the spice of life! The different types of in-breath can add colour to your breath silences. What are you thinking of during each breath silence? This is a trick question as your mind should be empty!

The next step is to move beyond just having enough air to finish the breath tone. This means plenty of different types of ro-buki to extend your breathing and control. Some of the most effective breath silences are when no breath is inhaled. You have taken in enough air for two short one-breath tones and pause only for effect and the expectation of an inhalation. Try holding your breath for a moment after inhaling and start at an unpredictable moment. At the end of a one-breath tone enjoy blowing out the remaining air before a sudden inhalation and start to the next part. The possibilities are endless.

How you finish a one-breath tone and start the next are crucial to how you shape your breath silence. Do you end with a meri, suri-agi or ori? Does the next breath tone come from nothingness or does it burst into existence? A tone can fade away so the boundaries of where the breath tone ends and where the breath silence begins is ambiguous.

This is only the beginning of a long journey. Aim to start and finish every breath tone differently and make every breath silence unique. The length and volume of the one-breath tones will vary as will the breath silences. You will discover revelations in the honkyoku that you will reject on a future playing. Enjoy the whistles or air sounds that happen on purpose or by accident. Play with the confused fingering, break in octave or confused tuning so they are part of the performance! Once you think you have found enlightenment, you will soon realise that there are more challenges to be overcome. Be like Basho’s frog: jump into the unknown and make a big splash!