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The International Shakuhachi Society

Phil Nyokai James

James, Phil Nyokai

Phil Nyokai James studied composition, conducting, and orchestration at a young age with his father, who was a noted composer and head of the music department at New York University. Rejecting the conservatism of his father’s intellectual milieu, he began composing music for off-off Broadway theater in 1972, with performances at the Ensemble Studio Theater, New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, Fordham University, and a host of downtown venues. A few years later he worked extensively with postmodern dancers such as Simone Forti, Heloise Gold, Vicky Shick, Ellen Webb, and especially Deborah Hay. He also became known as an experimental performance artist, doing Fluxus-influenced pieces at New York galleries and loft spaces throughout the seventies.

James began formally studying shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) with Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin in 1978 and is one of a handful of licensed American masters of the instrument - Nyokai is the professional name given to him with his master’s license. He has also studied extensively with Yoshio Kurahashi.

Throughout his career James has been interested in electronic technology, and besides composing many pieces for electronic instruments he is known as a skilled audio engineer. He has recorded many classical and popular ensembles, and his record label, Sparkling Beatnik Records, has been at the forefront in introducing traditional Japanese as well as recent improvisational music to new audiences. Artists appearing on Sparkling Beatnik include Elliott Sharp, Pauline Oliveros, Yoshi Kurahashi, Stuart Dempster, and Kazue Sawai.

James is committed to sharing his knowledge of music with children and adults alike. He has taught workshops alone and in collaboration with Simone Forti and Heloise Gold, among others; he has been an Artist in the Schools in Austin, Texas; he has been an Artist in Residence and guest lecturer at various universities; and most recently he was the musical director and adjunct professor for the Stephens College Summer Dance program.

James’ major compositions include:

Grace, composed in 1980 for the Deborah Hay Dance Company, for accordion, saxophone, violin, flute, voice, and percussion

Dinay dinay, for chorus of non-musicians, 1981

Already Gone, a tribute to friends who died young, for voice, shakuhachi, harmonium, piano, pedal steel guitar, Native American flute, percussion, turntables, and electronics, 1999

You Were Dazzle, for untrained voices, shakuhachi, electric guitar, bass, cymbals, and video, 2002 (text by Carole Maso)


The International Shakuhachi Society - 2018