Empty Sky Ko Ku

Title: Empty Sky Ko Ku
Composer: Elliot Weisgarber
Region: Vancouver, British Columbia
Date: 1990

Elliot Weisgarber was a composer that I had never heard of before, but was introduced to his music by a professor at the University of British Columbia. Weisgarber was a clarinetist, composer, and ethnomusicologist; all of these aspects of his musical life come together in Empty Sky Ko Ku. A lot of Weisgarber’s works fall into the more traditional American, mid 20th century aesthetic, but he  also has composed works, for a variety of instruments, that are based on Japanese music. Empty Sky falls into the latter category being a condensed transcription of a shakuhachi flute piece. Shakuhachi flute is a Japanese vertical wooden flute that is played by blowing across the open top. There are no keys, only holes, and it is used for meditation in Buddhism. The full title and caption that Weisgarber provides for this piece is:

Empty Sky

A meditation on the Void – the Darkness beyond the star.

“The Voice of the Buddha
is liken to the sound of a bell
ringing in the sky.”

I found this piece in the Canadian Music Centre collection. As well, through the Canadian Music Centre web catalogue, there is a recording of Weisgarber performing Empty Sky.

Empty Sky is intended for A clarinet and requires a number of extended  clarinet techniques to achieve standard shakuhachi sounds.  Weisgarber provides a few notes  to the  performer on how to achieve these sounds. I found his notes to be only somewhat helpful. He  describes the sounds and techniques he wants achieved and provides suggestions on how to play  them. I found the descriptions to be more helpful then the actual technique. Most of the performance concerns I came across in learning this piece were trying to find ways to produce the likeness of the shakuhachi.

Ultimately, I believe that Empty Sky  is a conceptualization of a shakuhachi piece for clarinet, not a literal interpretation of shakuhachi music. Coming to the understanding that through this work I will learn about Japanese traditional music and shakuhachi flute, rather than imitating and “owning” this music has allowed me to explore this piece without fear of cultural  appropriation, and to acknowledge that there are sounds that I can not achieve on the clarinet that are can be produced on the shakuhachi. For example, Weisgarber describes a technique called meri-kari where the shakuhachi player moves there head up and down to achieve a type of vibrato that goes above and below the principle pitch. It is easy to produce a note below, by bending a note with the lips on the clarinet, but above is much more difficult/impossible without changing fingerings. The solutions that I came to are an embarrassing bastardization of the  shakuhachi skill; basically, I used quick trills with vibrato.

Weisgarber published an article in the journal,  Ethnomusicology, which explains in detail the history of the shakuhachi flute, composition, and technique. I found this article very helpful to understand Empty Sky, particularly with regards to tone quality. In Weisgarber’s notes he says that the tone: “… should remain very plain throughout in keeping with the austerity of the music.”. This idea of plain tone quality is further elaborated in his article.

“Delicacy and refinement of tone such as we find, let us say, in Western flute playing-particularly that of the French-are not highly valued in the shakuhachi world. What is often sought after is a quali- ty of roughness-not crudity, but a roughness not unlike that which is desired in a valued piece of pottery such as a tea bowl. In other words something which is old and faded.”

To create this tone quality was an equally frustrating and liberating experience which required me to do the opposite of everything I typically do on the clarinet to create a good tone. Instead of having a firm upper lip, I poked it out,  and even at times let my cheeks puff. It was a very difficult task to un train the techniques I have learned to produce a focus and refined tone. I also cheated a little and used trill fingerings and quarter tone fingerings, bent up or down, to create a more plain tone quality. The note B (middle line B) is used often in this piece; I used A with the first trill key for its more spread tone and slightly flat pitch.

Performing Empty Sky  is a meditative experience for the audience and performer. However, I always like to preface each performance by stating that my performance is not shakuhachi music. It’s my attempt to understand shakuhachi through the work of someone else trying to understand shakuhachi.

Weisgarber, Elliot. “The Hon-kyoku of the Kinko-ryu”, Ethnomusicology. Vol. XII no. 3  Middle tone, Connecticut: Weslyan University Press. 

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