Elizabeth Reian Bennett is the first woman to be certified a Grand Master of the shakuhachi and one of only a handful of western players trained in traditional Japanese music. She has studied and performed with living National Treasure Aoki Reibo, recognized as Japan's foremost traditional shakuhachi instrumentalist, for 30 years.
"Song of the True Hand" consists of six of the ancient pieces of the wandering monks of the Fuke sect, a modern piece by Kineya Seiho (d. 1991) and an improvisation based on Reian Bennett's traditional training.
The monk solos belong to the Meian and Kinko schools, all handed down aurally except "Song of the Moon", a nineteenth century piece, and represent ideas or images the monks were familiar with. Because they were expected to be on the road begging, the monks spent much of their time outside, and many of the titles of their pieces reflect this – the titles speak of wind in the pines, the moon and the sky. And there are many others yet to record: deer, cranes and rushes are a few that come to mind. This is why Elizabeth Reian chose to call her improvisation at the end of the CD after the hawthorne, a nature image of spring, when the piece was created.
Other pieces have to do with metaphysical ideas or activities related to Buddhism. The first track, after which the CD is named, "Song of the True Hand", is one of these – it is a true hand that a player seeks, not just the accomplished hand of the musician, but a hand that expresses a changed mind and being. Even some of the nature pieces have deeper implications, such as "The Sky", for example, which can also be interpreted as ‘the void’. And the ‘A’ of the first sound of the Buddha of Light’s name, in "Meditation on ‘A’", is a pointer to breath itself and the human being as a conveyor of breath from one world to the next.
BLOGCRITICS.ORG NOMIMATES "SONG OF THE TRUE HAND" INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR!
"...(exemplifies) the way a single individual with a musical instrument can wordlessly conjure the human spirit out of thin air."
From "fRoots", Jan/Feb 2007 No. 283/284
"Many students of foreign disciplines are tempted to record prematurely, without necessarily mastering their style at the highest level. But this is not a concern with the American shakuhachi player Elizabeth Reian Bennett...The music on her very fine album "Song of the True Hand" is all in... a very clear and classic style... (with) a lovely tone..."
From "The Hartford Advocate", November 30, 2006
A Burst of Creativity From Local Female-fronted Bands and Soloists
By Dan Barry
"The word "haunting" is easy to sling around in music reviews, but if one were to be haunted, the accomanpanying sound would probably be that of a shakuhachi. This traditional instrument is the instrument of wanderers and seekers...On "True Hand", Bennett wrings a dazzling variety of techniques from the bamboo; though the music is quite unlike jazz, her technical vocabulary is reminiscent of Coltrane in his prime."
Music Review: Indie Round-Up for August 24 2006 - Bennett, Swann, Angelo
By Jon Sobel
"...Elizabeth Reian Bennett's mastery of the traditional Japanese bamboo flute is evident in every moment of this fascinating hour of music. No recording can replace the experience of sitting in a room...listening to a live shakuhachi performance, but Reian Bennett's haunting, sliding tones and seemingly infinite variations in attack, volume, and breathiness are quite capable of taking the listener on a deep sonic and spiritual journey even through a pair of stereo speakers..."
From “Asian Music, The Journal of the Society for Asian Music”. Volume 39, Number 2,
Summer/Fall 2008. By Jay Keister, University of Colorado at Boulder.
"The shakuhachi is the most international of all Japanese traditional instruments – aside from the world-famous taiko drum – and has proven to be adept at “walking on its own” on a global scale (see Blasdel 2002). In its long history this bamboo flute has gone from an instrument used exclusively for religious meditation and alms gathering to an instrument easily adapted to Japanese art music (hogaku). The span of music for the shakuhachi ranges from the most conservatively regulated repertoire of iemoto guild systems at one end of the spectrum, to avant-garde experimentation and jazz improvisation at the other end. Considering the ready adaptability of this hearty bamboo flute to so many styles of music, it is hardly surprising that the world of shakuhachi performance has become populated by so many Westerners who have traveled to Japan and won hard-earned licenses from recognized schools allowing them to perform and teach. These days, some musicians returning to the West bringing the gospel of “blowing Zen” with all its exotic and mysterious connotations might rely on experience that falls short of such certification and play the instrument as freely as they choose in today’s free marketplace of world music; not so, Elizabeth Reian Bennett.
Bearing a Japanese name bestowed upon her by Aoki Reibo II, one of the most renowned shakuhachi masters still living today, Elizabeth Reian Bennett has produced a CD that makes a fine introductory primer to the Zen-influenced honkyoku (solo) repertoire of the shakuhachi. One of the first women to be certified a Grand Master (daishihan) of the shakuhachi in a musical world run by men, Bennett displays the results of her accomplishment on this recording that documents an impressive mastery of honkyoku in the Meian style. For those who are looking for a sampling of traditional shakuhachi, this CD is highly recommended as it literally has no “bells and whistles”, which is a nice change of pace from the many shakuhachi recordings these days with accompaniment by the various assorted acoustic instruments meant to provide an exotic Asian flavor to an instrument originally played solo for meditation and not for “musical” consumption. Thus, the “true hand” referred to in the title of the CD is fitting indeed.
The first track, “Honte Jyoshi” (“Song of the True Hand”), is in itself an introduction to the instrument in that this short and simple piece is comprised mainly of long-held pitches with very subtle variations of tone color so characteristic of shakuhachi phrasing. As suggested by the word jyoshi, which literally means “tuning”, this is a type of warm-up piece that covers the basics of shakuhachi playing, but is important for all players regardless of level. The inclusion of such a piece suggests Bennett’s belief in maintaining what is referred to as the “beginner’s mind” that prevails in Japanese Buddhist arts. The slow and steady ascent of long, drawn-out tones functions like a demonstration of the main pitches of the instrument, both open-holed and half-holed notes. After a brief climax of relatively busier phrases, the music returns tot long tones separated by the crucial element of silence or space (ma) common in Japanese music. Even in this display of the basics of shakuhachi, we can hear the full extent of Bennett’s impressive technique. In her decay of the last extended tones there is a delicate sense of fragility and even a feeling of “weakness” that is ultimately more powerful than “strong” tones. This effect is best described by the Japanese aesthetic term wabi, meaning a kind of warped or deliberately imperfect sound, and is something that only the most skilled and sensitive players can execute well. Finally, her choice of such a basic learning piece for the first track is appropriate as it functions as a prelude to the entire set of music that follows on the album.
Much more expansive is the second track, “Tsuki no Kyoku” (“Song of the Moon”), a Kinko-style piece that demonstrates well the programmatic nature of shakuhachi music in its depiction of an evening moonrise. Composed by Arai Chikuo, a shakuhachi player who lived during the latter half of the 19th century, it is often said that the piece is “unfinished” in that Chikuo died before completing it. Since the piece functions as a complete work today, it is perhaps better to think of this composition as “infinite” rather than “unfinished”, in that Japanese artistic development is often thought of as a process that continues for as long as one lives. The striking programmatic imagery of this composition is heard in the quiet opening notes in the lower register suggestive of evening and the eventual rising in pitch of a bright moon out of the darkness. At a climactic moment about 3 minutes before the end, the flute makes a sudden leap from the low register up 2 octaves and pushes slightly higher, suggesting an image of the moon shining high in the night sky. For those less familiar with shakuhachi music, such techniques achieve powerful dramatic effect only after listening often and for an extended time, as modern ears typically need be prepared or “tuned” to hear such subtle music in this way.
Following the Kinko piece are several anonymously composed honkyoku of the Meian school that reveal differences between the two styles. In the two-part “Matsu Kaze” (“Wind in the Pines”), Bennett calls attention in the liner notes to her use of a “b-flat” that she claims demonstrates a tonal difference from the previously heard Kinko style. The next track, “Ajikan” (“Meditation on ‘A’, the Sound of the Buddha’s Name”), showcases the more active style of Meian, compared with the Kinko, but again it takes careful, repeated listening to detect these subtle distinctions. The third of this group of pieces is “Koku” (“The Sky”), a classic honkyoku that appears in many of the different schools of shakuhachi, composed by a Kyoto monk, according to legend, after he heard these sounds in a dream. The most impressive aspect of Reian Bennett’s version of this well-known and often-recorded piece is the gentleness with which she delivers every phrase, compared to the almost aggressive treatment it has sometimes been given by many shakuhachi performers over the years. Having already noted Bennett’s ability to display “fragility” and “weakness”, it is important to note that her subtlety in playing these pieces is definitely not due to a limitation of her being a female playing a “man’s instsument”, as some older Japanese male musicians might be tempted to suggest. Her skill with the instrument is clearly world-class and worthy of her title. We are fortunate as listeners that Bennett can feel comfortable exploring the full range of expression on the instrument without having to “prove herself worthy” by overcompensating with a more aggressive or “masculine” sound.
Departing from the honkyoku style is “Henro” (“Pilgrimage”), a beautifully wrought composition by Kineya Seiho that suggests the imagery of a pilgrimage. This is the best example of a programmatic piece on the album in that it is almost narrative in its structure and is divided into distinct sections with contrasting moods. After a few characteristic opening phrases on the fundamental shakuhachi pitch ro (D on standard length flutes), the first section of the piece departs from the usually calm and spacious sounds of honkyoku and instead features more active, agitated, and shorter melodic phrases, suggesting the stirrings of more self-conscious thoughts of excited pilgrims about to embark on an important journey. After about 3 minutes the journey is well underway with short snippets of melodies that suggest folk songs, perhaps being sung by traveling pilgrims. This is followed by more agitated lines with a great deal of breathy tones (muraiki) that paint an image of individual struggle, but the folk-like melodies eventually return. After this lengthy middle section comes to a close, a final section ends the piece as a kind of epilogue to the journey, recounting with breathy tones, even more haggard now, the ordeal of the journey, having breathlessly reached the final goal. A sense of hard-earned rest and resolution can be felt in the two long final cadences on ro that brings the journey to an end.
“Hawthorne in May” is an improvisation that closes the album. As a testament to Bennett’s deep understanding of honkyoku, this improvisation flows seamlessly from out of all the tracks that came before it. There is such purity to her playing here that, although one might be tempted to want her to explore more extended techniques and freer playing of the immense possibilities of the instrument, the fact that she does not stray from the idyllic bamboo grove she has evoked on this album is a blessing. This listener is satisfied that any “stretching out” on shakuhachi for Elizabeth Reian Bennett is something well left for another day."
Blasel, Christopher Yohmei. 2002 “Snapshot: Syakuhati Walking on Its Own.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 7, East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea, ed. Robert C. Provine, Yoshihiko Tokumaru, and J. Lawrence Witzleben, 707-9. New York: Routledge.