Where Bamboo Meets Metal:
Woodwind Explorer Cornelius Boots Finds Common Energy in Shakuhachi Traditions and Hard Rock Hits
In the beginning is the breath. It roots all music, from Japanese Zen chant to hard rock anthem. Bay Area-based Cornelius Boots, woodwind maverick and shakuhachi pioneer, sensed this.
“I had a dream when my clarinet professor told me to try to play an etude like Eddie Vedder would sing it,” Boots recalls. “I tried it and started to write my pieces. Tone issues I had struggled with began to resolve themselves. I could play my own piece, or play like a singer, and then quickly put up a Mozart piece, and it would come together.”
These experiments culminated in Holy Flute (release: May 12, 2017), an unexpected homage to where bamboo meets metal. Boots’ shakuhachi resonates, sighs, and roars in new versions of Dio, Sabbath, Danzig, Led Zeppelin, and Lamb of God classics and on originals that extend the tradition. It’s not an easy way to go, even if it bears a faint resemblance to a novelty gimmick. “I don’t recommend it as an approach. I’m doing this with a very discerning intention,” says Boots. “For every Black Sabbath song that works, there are twenty you shouldn’t try to do. It’s a picky process.”
This picky process stems from Boots’ experience of the act of playing itself, a guiding force in the way he learns from the shakuhachi. “When I play an instrument, I really tune into it. It’s an almost animistic approach,” explains Boots. “What it feels like to make a sound: that has kept me playing all these years. The actual sounds come into consideration next.”
The classically trained player doesn’t set any genre limits on what comes next. Though a licensed master (shihan) in the shakuhachi tradition who holds the solo Zen repertoire in high regard, he often tries his hand at familiar jazz, blues, gospel, or rock songs, to refine his tone and explore his instrument further. And sometimes, the engagement with the song goes deeper, and it becomes part of Boots’ repertoire.
Boots’ embodied relationship to music making suits the shakuhachi, the deceptively simple and remarkably demanding bamboo flute made famous outside Japan via 80s synth patches. “It grows as a tube,” Boots muses. “It seems so simple, yet it’s deviously hard.” One shift of the head or lips, and the tone changes. And with only five holes, creating an entire 12-degree scale is no easy feat. “It’s hard sometimes to get it to make a sound at all, forget a sound that’s close to what you’d like.”
The shakuhachi is linked to Zen Buddhist practices, to the chants that help support a practitioner before and during meditation. “The centeredness and the focus on the breath; both connect the shakuhachi with chanting traditions,” says Boots, “as does its spirit. You can’t play it without being transformed. You have to know that to play it.”
Boots has sought new approaches to the spirit, that energy that moves with, and because of, the breath to generate sound. He finds them by tackling pieces outside of the body of work traditional to the instrument. “My priority when writing new repertoire,” pieces like “Hymn to the She-Dragon of the Deep,” “is to play pieces that expand the boundaries of the tradition, and to arrange rock, blues, and metal to see if they work. Your body needs movement. Playing big band music, it’s about breath and energy movement,” notes Boots. “Metal and rock come out of that. They came out of R&B and gospel, the expressive quality of the spirit. That energy level connects it all.”
Many classical music fans have an affinity for metal, with its complex solos and quasi-fugue moments. Yet Boots intuits a different bond between his classical and Zen training and certain hard rock heroes. “There are moments of Zen philosophy in this music. Dio and Black Sabbath navigate this non-dual edge. It’s another level of awareness,” reflects Boots. “Darkness dominates metal today, but the classic stuff has a lot of the light and the dark. That’s the ground of being. You can’t create the one-sided coin. Classical and jazz, it’s very clean and can feel very one-sided at times.”
Reviving the multiple facets and potentials of an instrument or music through exploration has been something that has fascinated Boots for decades. In his mind, and in his pieces, purism doesn’t serve the living form. “People hold the line on a traditional approach. It’s important not to lose that pure form, but why does it have to be the only form?” asks Boots. “I want things to live, and experience an evolution of the artform.”