Interview: New Living Magazine

This interview took place in July 2000 at the time of release of the “Sanctuary” CD.

First, I really enjoyed your new CD and wish you much success with it. What inspired you to take up the shakuhachi flute and how long have you been playing it? How did you get into music to start with?

I’m glad to read that you liked the CD. I should point out that it is not new for me, as I recorded it nearly 20 years ago! I was inspired to take up the shakuhachi mainly by the sound of the instrument (which I first heard on the venerable but still popular Tony Scott album “Music for Zen Meditation”); and secondly by a series of circumstances or coincidences which got me to Japan and with a teacher. I began lessons in Japan in 1971. So I’ve been playing for almost 30 years.

But how many years someone has been playing a musical instrument is relatively meaningless. Some of my students practice only 30 min. a week; others practice 3 hrs a day. The former will have played their instruments only 26 hrs the entire year, while the latter will play the same amount of time in only 9 days! (I would be in the latter category; I was averaging 6-7 hrs a day during the first decade.)

I first began playing piano at the age of 8, but gave it up for football after two years. I played French horn for 5 years in school band, and was bass guitarist in a rock band in 1965-1966. Also, I played taiko (Japanese festival drums) professionally for 3 years with the group now called Kodo. I co- founded, with Ian Cleworth, Australia’s premier taiko group “TaikOz” 3 or 4 years ago, and play them as often as possible. The balance between the flute and the drums is a good one.

What inspired the composition of your new CD?

The inspiration of the CD was (as near as I can remember) an interesting and very personal combination of ‘nature’ as I remembered it best in Japan and ‘nature’ as I knew so well in Hawai’i, where I grew up and where we were living when the recording was made. Japan and Hawai’i are quite different in their natural environment, but the beauty of, and at time the inner quietness received from both environments are very similar.

How do you prepare yourself when composing? Do you work out?  If so, what do you do, do you meditate, practice martial arts, etc?

I enjoy long distance running and swimming. I used to do a fair bit of bicycling. Snorkelling is high on the list of pleasurable activities. In the late 1970s, while living in Japan as a member of the taiko group now called Kodo, I ran marathons, but these days the distances are 10 kms or less. I also work out at a local gym when possible. Playing the shakuhachi is my meditation, as it has been for many shakuhachi players for centuries. This practice is called ‘blowing zen’. Though I firmly believe that regular seated meditation is essential in addition to “blowing zen”, I don’t practice what I preach.

What’s your nationality?

I am a citizen of both the USA and Australia, though my family and I live in Australia now. My father is Chinese; he immigrated to the USA in 1941 from China. My mother is American of Irish/English descent.

Last question… I was wondering how I might go about purchasing a shakuhachi flute ASAP and about how much it would be with shipping and handling. Do you know a good source?

The fastest way to get an inexpensive flute in Australia is to contact me. The fastest way to get an inexpensive flute in the USA is from Monty Levenson. His email is He has a huge website: www.shakuhachi.com. Monty’s cheapest flutes are a couple of hundred dollars I think. Since you [the interviewer] are from New York, there is a fellow in NYC that makes shakuhachi. His name and email is: Perry Yung, slantgroup@earthlink.net. His flutes are more of the ‘homemade’ variety, but are still very playable and in fact can be more visually pleasing than the cheaper Monty flutes. Perry’s flutes are $200 or less, I think. The really good traditional flutes are almost all made in Japan and can cost as much as $10,000….