Art Talk with James Nyoraku Schlefer

By Paulette Beete
James Nyoraku Schlefer playing an instrument.
James Nyoraku Schlefer. Photo by An Xiao

"I don't ever feel that I have failed anything; I just simply have been told no." -- James Nyoraku Schlefer

James Schlefer, a lifelong flute player, was taken with the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, the first time he heard it played. The shakuhachi, however, didn't immediately take to him. As he told us during a phone interview, he heard the flute during a concert by classical Japanese musicians. After he told one of the musicians that he too was a flute player, the musician offered Schlefer the opportunity to try the Japanese instrument. As Schlefer remembered, "I could not make a sound.... It's really hard." Schlefer persisted, and today he's not only a premier player of the instrument, but he composes for it and other Japanese instruments, and runs Kyo-Shin-An Arts, an organization devoted to the composition and performance of music that melds both Western and Japanese classical instruments and traditions. Read more to hear from Schlefer on the challenges of working with new music, how he defines success and failure, and why he thinks the arts are vitally important. NEA: How did you start playing the shakuhachi flute? JAMES SCHLEFER: I've been playing the shakuhachi flute now for, I think, 36 years. Prior to that and well into that first part of that period of time, I was a [Western] flute player…. I heard for the first time the shakuhachi flute when I was attending a small concert of traditional Japanese music that included shakuhachi, koto and shamisen. I'd never heard anything like this before, and I was very intrigued by the sound of the bamboo flute. I found a teacher in New York from whom I started taking lessons, an American teacher…. I got more and more interested in the traditional Japanese music and got better at it. After many years of study and meeting other teachers and traveling to Japan on several occasions, I was given a degree, a kind of license, like a martial arts brown belt, what they call a Jun-shihan, like an associate's degree. My name Nyoraku was given to me at that time, and that was a boost, a shot in the arm. I'd been playing for 15, 16 years, and I started teaching shakuhachi. I started my own dojo. Like a karate dojo, any traditional Japanese arts [studio] is called a dojo. Whenever you start teaching something, you realize how much you don't know about what you're doing. I really enjoyed that process and I'm still very much actively teaching shakuhachi both privately and also at Columbia University. I essentially gave up playing the [Western] flute professionally and started getting some work playing shakuhachi and, of course, a fair amount of work teaching. At a certain point, I decided I wanted to start writing music for shakuhachi. When I'm writing music I use both the sounds of Japanese instruments and Western classical ensembles, like string quartets and orchestras. [I’ve written] a piece for a piano trio in shakuhachi and also some pieces for just Japanese instruments as well. I'm doing more and more composing, trying to bridge the two musical worlds in my own way. NEA: What led to the development of Kyo-Shin-An Arts? SCHLEFER: Kyo-Shin-An Arts is my dream child. [I wanted] to have an organization that is devoted to commissioning and presenting music that brings Japanese instruments into the fold of Western classical ensembles. With that company, we started raising money—that's my wife and I—and commissioning composers to write music for different ensembles of either shakuhachi, koto, shamisen, or a combination, or presenting music that's already been written for that. We have a series of concerts that we do every year, five concerts a year in New York City where we're the presenter, but more and more we're partnering with ensembles in various parts of the United States, particularly string quartets but also two orchestras in Texas. We work with them to bring this music to different parts of the country. NEA: You talked about the mission statement of Kyo-Shin-An Arts; what's your personal mission statement as an artist? SCHLEFER: Part of what I want to do as a performing artist is make my shakuhachi instrument, more well known to the world through playing different kinds of music, not just traditional Japanese music, but contemporary music as well. As a composer [I want] to bring focus to not just shakuhachi, but also the koto and the shamisen as instruments that are on a par with Western instruments in terms of their ability, their virtuosity, their timbre. Even though in a lot of ways philosophically the instruments are different, they're still beautiful. Classical training on classical Japanese instruments, it's very similar to conservatory training here and in Europe. There’s a divide though because Japanese instruments are considered ethnic and exotic. I just want to blur that line a bit. NEA: You just said that philosophically the Western instruments and the Japanese instruments are different. What do you mean by that? SCHLEFER: Probably a good parallel would be the [different] approach to a Japanese garden and say an English garden or a European style garden, where you have these lush plants and many, many flowers. You go to Japan and you go to these Zen temples and they have a little garden in the back that's very, very small and every space is utilized, yet there's still a space somewhere that is not. There's nothing there and you want to go and fill it up, like, "Wait, why is that space empty there?" We as Westerners have this idea that space is something to fill up, certainly that's how we feel about time. With music, it's the same thing. But in a lot of Japanese music we have this idea, this concept called ma, that's a translation of a Japanese character that means nothingness or emptiness and the idea that the space actually can inform what happens with the sound. That’s a philosophical difference in approach to sound really. You've heard this in other ways from certain musicians like, for example, Miles Davis who has said it’s not the notes, it's what happens in between the notes. Count Basie said the same kind of thing to some degree. Also, certainly with my instrument, shakuhachi, but also with other Japanese instruments, they're not as developed as Western instruments. They don't have the mechanism, the mechanics. A flute is a machine of many, many keys and a mechanism to move this key there, and you try and get this perfectly even sound on every single note. Whereas on the shakuhachi, you have only five holes and to play all the twelve pitches, some of them are going to be very, very covered-sounding and thin, and some are going to be big and bright. That difference in timbre is something to cherish and to work with rather than to try and overcome. . NEA: Can you please talk more about the challenges of working with music that melds such distinct traditions? SCHLEFER: Some of the challenges are, of course, getting players to accept the challenge because it's the players who make it happen…. Most Western players approach it as new music and, of course, anything that combines the two [types of] instruments is automatically new music, it's a new idea. Getting players to embrace the idea is a little bit of a challenge and then finding composers who are engaged by the idea… One of the biggest challenges, ultimately, as a presenter, is finding an audience for this music, for any new music, but particularly music that uses this combination of instruments. In Japan, they're totally not interested at all; it’s much more of an open thing in the U.S. It certainly is a lot of work for very little monetary reward, but there's an awful lot of musical reward. I think ultimately one of the goals of Kyo-Shin-An Arts, and myself, is to establish a repertoire of music, some of which may end up becoming part of someone's repertoire in the future. To have this be a moment in time where there's this burst of new music for Japanese and Western instruments that forms the basis of, perhaps, a new school of music or a new direction of music where Western classical players can be a little more open to music of other cultures that share a similar classical tradition. There’s a certain amount of that going on with other instruments, certainly with Chinese instruments and Arabic instruments and Indian instruments…. but not so much Japanese. I like to think that we're establishing this kind of legacy that can be built upon. NEA: What’s the experience that you want your audience to have with this music? SCHLEFER: What I want them to walk away with is not being fearful that they're going to sit there and be bored, but they're going to be engaged by a new piece of music that's being born in front of them. We want an audience that is open to a new experience and has some sort of basis of knowledge or no knowledge at all but says, "Hey, I like the way that sounded." We have people who come for the very first time to hear any kind of live music and, since it's a chamber music venue, the performers are very close to the audience. There's a lot of interaction, there's lots going on. I want the audience to welcome new sounds into what they may think that they already know. NEA: What about what you want the musicians to get from the experience? SCHLEFER: I want them to not be afraid of working with new sounds. As a classically trained musician, you spend your whole life learning a canon of repertoire and experiencing a certain kind of musical aesthetic. It’s the same with traditional Japanese training. But it doesn't mean that they're mutually exclusive, so I want performers to be open and ready to experiment with new sounds, with new ways of hearing music. And to some extent, as I said earlier, philosophically, as well, be able to realize that it's not just one way of experiencing sound in the world, but sometimes sound isn't what you might expect. [I want them to understand] the idea of silence being very important rather than something that's, "Oh, quick, let's get over that fermata and move onto the next section." Maybe you need a few moments for people to breathe and hear their heartbeats. NEA: Every artist has to deal with the idea of failure and of success in some way. How do you think about those terms? SCHLEFER: If you want to be a creative artist, you better get used to failure because you get told “no” more often than anything else when you have an idea, whether it's a funding idea or a creative idea or a practical idea like, "Let's do it in this theater." "No, we don't have the money for it," or, "No, it's the wrong space." Failure in that sense is something you better be willing to endure and to take a very small percentage of positive feedback that is generally enough as long as you're convinced that what you're doing is worthwhile and valuable. I don't ever feel that I have failed anything; I just simply have been told no. The mission doesn't fail, you don't fail. Things don't always go as you would like them to and you work around that but you don't fail. NEA: How do you measure success? SCHLEFER: When you have a successful event where the money works, the audience works, the music works, you say, "Yes, that's what we're talking about now let's build on that." Success is a building block. It's a shot in the arm that says, "This does work, now let's do another one. Let's find another way; let's keep going. Let's move in this same direction." I think being successful at something is the reason you do it. When it works well, it's a great joy. NEA: Finish the sentence: The arts matter because… SCHLEFER: The arts matter because they make people look at their own lives in a different way, in a way that's not just myopic day-to-day. When you have an artistic musical experience or a visual art experience or some kind of movement experience, you realize that you're seeing your world in a new way, in a different way, and that allows for a reevaluation of all the things that you take for granted or that you have been stuck with.