Adrian Freedman interview
Adrian Freedman is a composer and performer with a very diverse range of musical skills. He lived 7 years in Japan studying the shakuhachi zen flute (尺八) with renowned master Yokoyama Katsuya. Later he lived in Brazil, immersed in the music of sacred forest rituals. He has composed soundtracks for contemporary theatre and dance and has collaborated in a great variety of performances and recordings with musicians from across the spectrum of classical, traditional and world music. His music is infused with the twin aspects of world music and spirituality. He plays solo shakuhachi concerts in a deeply contemplative setting and has received a beautiful sequence of over 100 devotional songs.

Infinite gratitude to Adrian Freedman, Andy Macgregor, and Gabriella Domingues for making this interview possible.
All images are provided by Adrian Freedman.

In a warm summer afternoon in Canggu, Bali, I was sitting in a small cafe with my earphones listening to my newest mp3 download – Adrian Freedman’s Shakuhachi album, “As I Breathe.” The music at the cafe was rather loud, but as soon as I hit the play button for Clarity”, an energy immediately transported me to another time and space. A powerful wave hit me. Slow, yet metamorphic. It was a very peaceful moment in which I had been yearning for a while. At that time, I did not expect Adrian’s answers to my questions would impact me on a personal level.

See, I always believe that music has the power that could change anything. When musicians put their intentions into each note they perform, it has the capability to transform listeners from within, and Adrian’s Shakuhachi performance certainly provides that kind of energy.

“As I Breathe” contains mostly solo Shakuhachi music. It also includes collaborations between Adrian Freedman and musicians from Japan, Belgium and Cornwall.

How I discovered Adrian Freedman

My encounter with Adrian’s music was purely a sequence of coincidences. I was eager to establish connections with people from the travel industry around the world, and that was when I met Andy, who I met through Travel Massive and who was contracted to re-develop Adrian’s Digital Identify and presence online (Adrian Freedman official website.) After exchanging some conversations, Andy shared Adrian’s music with me. I was quickly attracted to the essence and the spirit in his music after listening to a few tracks.

I interviewed Adrian via e-mail, and Adrian answered the questions in an audio format. Adrian’s voice is like his Shakuhachi playing in which delivers a sense of calmness that really draws all of your attention. It took me days to digest his correspondences, and the responses became something beyond answers as they triggered something deeper – It’s a revelation of a musician’s spiritual path and his ongoing journey.

You studied classical music before you took the path of becoming a shakuhachi player. Before you encounter Japanese traditional music, what other paths (musical or none-musical) had you imagine yourself partake? 

In answer to this question, Adrian describes his musical upbringing since the age of five and how his studies at Manchester University opened the doors for him to explore all musical styles. He also talks about how these immersions eventually led him to Japan to study Shakuhachi with Yokoyama Sensei. In addition, Adrian was also thirsty for answers to spiritual questions that he was drawn to different spiritual teachings and practices such as Sufism, Zen Buddhism, Ramana Maharshi, and Advaita.

Japanese Shakuhachi Master, Yokoyama Katsuya (橫山 勝也) in his studio room, where Adrian Freedman used to have lessons with him.

I never really imagined anything for myself in this lifetime other than making music … When I was at college at Manchester University, where I did my undergraduate music studies, I became kind of drunk on all the possibilities of musical styles, genres, historical periods, instruments, and ensembles. I wanted to listen to everything and play everything.

Excerpt of Adrian Freedman on his early musical journey (August 2018)

I’m a classically-trained musician, so I’m particularly curious about your study with composer *Iannis Xenakis. What are his influences on you as a musician? In addition, what or who had significant impacts on you throughout your musical journey?

Adrian speaks about how he came to study with the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. He also talks about the other significant influences on his musical developments such as German musician Stephan Micus, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, as well as pieces he was drawn to including Bach’s Goldberg Variations performed by Glenn Gould and 17th-century Italian recorder music, among many more.

For readers who aren’t familiar with Xenakis’s work, Adrian recommended Xenakis’s Cendrées, for mixed choir and large orchestra (1973) as a starter. It’s one of Adrian’s favourite works by Xenakis, and the piece really captures all your attention as well as emotion from the beginning.  

Xenakis’s music has a real visceral emotional power which hits you right in the gut and demands all of your attention. Every part of your being down to the molecular level as well as your spirit, your soul. Every part of your being is drawn to the music. At least that’s the way it felt to me, and I can see now looking back that’s exactly the same thing I felt a few years later when I first heard the music of Yokoyama. I think the other thing that’s in common between Xenakis and Yokoyama and the Shakuhachi tradition is this sense of discipline, and focus, rational attention to detail. This necessary to get to the point where such emotional intensity and refined expression of sound can be achieved.

Excerpt of Adrian Freedman on Iannis Xenakis in relation to Yokoyama (August 2018)

*Iannis Xenakis: A Romanian-born, Greek-French composer, music theorist, architect, and engineer. After 1947, he fled Greece and became a naturalized citizen of France. He is considered an important post-World War II composer whose works helped revolutionize 20th-century classical music. (Wikipedia)

(8:26): Adrian mentioned that while living in Japan, he worked a lot on creating soundtracks for Japanese contemporary dance groups in which he used Japanese instruments including Biwa, ShōKokyuKotoShamisenTaiko, as well as Shakuhachi together with electronics.

You lived in Kyoto for 8 years to study shakuhachi with renowned shakuhachi master Yokoyama Katsuya. What was it like living in Kyoto in the 1990s and what is your favourite place in Kyoto (or other destination in Japan)?

Adrian discusses his experiences living in Kyoto (1990 ~ 1998) as an expat – He talks about how the culture influenced him and his interaction with Japanese traditional arts and music. He also shares one of his favourite destinations and times in Japan.

Hirauchi Onsen – The beautiful outdoor natural hot spring in the island of Yakushima.

Looking back to Kyoto in the 1990s, it’s almost like I looked back through rose-tinted spectacles. It seems like it was a perfect world of discovery and study, creativity, expansion, stillness, wonder, gratitude, magic. It was also a time in my life when I had a complete emotional breakdown, but somehow that all seemed to make sense as well. It was such a rich culture to live in, those years.

Excerpt of Adrian Freedman on his life in Kyoto (August 2018)

What brought you to Brazil, and what was the most significant moment when living in Brazil in the Amazon?

Adrian discusses the music and the traditional rituals that had opened up an unexpected path in which led him to Brazil, as well as a valuable lesson he learned in the Amazon forest.

At that time, on the surface, I guess I seemed to have everything. I had my beautiful wooden house in the mountains. I had my very sweet Japanese friends. I had interesting work. I had creative musical collaborations, projects. I had an income. But I guess underneath, something was rumbling, and things I hadn’t given time to come into the surface, and this rumbling became a meltdown, and I was looking around for help, understanding, relief, healing of some kind.

Excerpt of Adrian Freedman discussing his connection with Brazil (August 2018)
Adrian in South Africa

In “Hafra” from “As I Breathe”, what inspired you and Iwan Kushka to use Persian scale for the piece? Hafra means happy in Urdu from the Arabic region. What’s the title’s connection to the music?

When I heard “Hafra”, I was intrigued by the flow of the opening rhythm played by Iwan on the frame drum. The melody of the Shakuhachi intertwines with the drum perfectly in which created a mixture of colours that takes my imagination to the desert, to the break of dawn, and to the sound of wind. I was also curious about the title of the piece, so I asked Adrian to share the idea behind “Hafra” (Visit Iwan Kushka’s website):

When I first met Iwan, and when we first started playing together, it was always a duet with my Shakuhachi and his Persian lute, the Ud. And so I came to associate these kinds of Persian modes and moods when playing with him. And on this occasion, when we put some time aside to record, we put on some microphone, and we just launched into an improvised piece that was unrehearsed and unplanned.

Excerpt of Adrian Freedman speaks about his collaboration with Iwan Kushka  (August 2018)

Your music has a lot of elements that are fueled by your travels. If you can teleport to any destination in the world right now, where would it be and Why?

In this section, Adrian shares his special connection with Yokoyama Sensei as the moments he had with Yokoyama Sensei are what he would like to get back to if he can teleport to any destination now. 

Adrian recommended Yokoyama Sensei’s performance of “San’an”He describes that this piece “has the most complex and subtle melody and technical requirements of the many pieces in the komuso (traditional shakuhachi) repertoire, and is considered to be the most profoundly expressive. The piece was used as a prayer for safe delivery during childbirth. In folk tales, it was said that a woman would deliver her baby safely if she heard this tune after eating gruel made from rice that was given to a komuso and had been poured through his shakuhachi. In a more general sense, San’an is played as a prayer for charity and virtue in this world. It is believed that the piece expresses the pains of creation and, by extension, the realm in which the spirit can find peace.”

… But I still feel his spirits strongly whenever I play the traditional Shakuhachi pieces from this repertoire of meditation music, *Honkyoku. I remembered so clearly the lessons and the time I spent with him. It’s so special, and how the deepest influence of all of my musical evolution.

Excerpt of Adrian Freedman talking about Yokoyama Katsuya (August 2018)

*Honkyoku (本曲, “original pieces”) are the pieces of shakuhachi music played by mendicant Japanese Zen monks.

I was going through the online selection “A Life in Music” from Adrian’s website and found the musical elements that are incorporated into “Musical Priest” on track 07 (Listen) very intriguing. Can you share the recording story behind the piece?

In addition to “As I Breathe”, on Adrian’s website, there are also music selections performed and produced by Adrian throughout the years. I was fascinated by “Musical Priest” as it is arranged and performed in the style of traditional Irish folk music, which is quite different from other pieces in the album.

“Musical Priest” was recorded in Łódź, Poland (December 1994) with Adrian on the alto recorder, Joe Townsend on the violin, Melissa Holding on the accordion, and Hugh Nankivell on the guitar. The four formed a band called “East Whistle” back in the early 90s. In this section, Adrian told the whole backstory of how the ensemble came to live, which started with a railroad journey across continents.

So this goes back to the early 90s when I took a trip on the Trans-Siberia Express from Beijing in China to Berlin all the way through Mongolia and what was then the Soviet Union. And on that train where we spent 6 days, there was a lot of merry music making in the restaurant cart. A lot of amazing choral singing from what we assumed were the Russians travelling on the train, but actually, we found out later they were Polish people. And I was travelling with a friend called Hugh, who was one of my musician friends from the old days back at the Guildhall school of music, and he came to visit me in Japan and then we were taking this train trip together … 

Adrian Freedman on the travel and recording story behind “Musical Priest” (August 2018)
“East Whistle,” a 4-piece band Adrian formed with friends in the participation of a folk music festival in Poland.

When I requested for images to go with this interview, Adrian shared a photo of him playing for His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Later, I asked Adrian to share more about this experience, and here’s his writing:

Adrian performing for His Holiness The Dalai Lama

It was in April 2014 when I was travelling around Japan on a very special three-week trip with my son who was 12 years old at the time, and it was such a magical trip, spending that time together as father and son on the road, and seeing the wonder of Japan through his eyes. The Dalai Lama is something of a hero of mine, and as for many others of my generation, he has been a standard bearer for the deep wisdom of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, as well as for minority rights, religious rights, and peaceful opposition to brutal oppression. I had read many of his books, and my music studio has for many years had a quote of his on the wall:

Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama

At that time when I was in Kyoto with my son, the Dalai Lama was also there for a few days in his capacity as president of the Mind and Life Institute, who were having a conference hosted by Kyoto University. On one of those days, I gave a shakuhachi recital at a downtown Kyoto arts club called Urban Guild. A member of the Dalai Lama’s entourage, an Italian journalist by the name of Pio d’Emilia, came to hear me play, and after the concert, he asked me if I would like to play for His Holiness the following day. And that’s exactly what happened – Pio was well-connected enough for him to simply be able to arrange a time for me to play a piece as a personal presentation for the Dalai Lama. 

It was an amazing moment for me, all the more so for being totally unexpected. After I played my piece for the Dalai Lama I felt kind of slightly stunned by the nature of the occasion and I started to stumble away when he called me back with a warm and twinkly smile, clasped my hands and complimented me on a ‘truly wonderful’ sound. He took out a long white silk scarf and put it ’round my neck, looked deeply my eyes with a gaze that was both infinitely soft and deep. Then he took the shakuhachi from my hands held it for a while, musing over its simple form, and asking me a few further questions.

Those were special moments – what to say about being called to play for the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Yes, I was starstruck, feeling blessed and inspired, but also I felt the simple, intimate warmth of meeting a beloved brother.

Adrian Freedman on his encounter with the Dalai Lama (2018)

Final Thoughts

After listening to all of Adrian’s responses, I found an additional track that Adrian recorded. This track is a summary, as well as a further exploration of another aspect of music making that connects to Adrian’s musical journey. In this audio track, he talks about the relationship between the audience and the performer. He also talks about the time when he stopped performing back in 2007.

At the end of the interview, I’d like to share my favourite excerpt in this section with you:

… And in that way, this sort of spiritual practice of one’s life deep and alongside musical practice always giving your inspiration. New openings, new tributaries to the universal stream of music. It’s interesting to me that the teachers that I’ve felt closest to over the years have the strongest connection with have been the ones that have really emphasized to me the qualities of the feeling of the heart. So yeah everything comes back to that – simple way that music lifts our hearts, expands our hearts, and claims our hearts, and open new pathways for us.

Excerpt from Adrian Freedman’s interview (August 2018)

To purchase and download “As I Breathe” or other recordings by Adrian Freedman, visit the official online shop.

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