Asheville Art Talk: Jem Klein and the shakuhachi bamboo flute

FINE TUNED BAMBOO: Jem Klein works on a shakuhachi bamboo flute in his home studio in Burnsville.
FINE TUNED BAMBOO: Jem Klein works on a shakuhachi bamboo flute in his home studio in Burnsville. Photo courtesy of Jem Klein

In 2013, artist and craftsman, Jem Klein arrived in Burnsville. He had spent the previous decade on both sides of the continent, as well as overseas. Raised in Northern California, Klein says much of his youth revolved around the outdoors, immersed in nature and fascinated by its patterns and forms.

Music was another of his early passions. At age 11, Klein made his first ocarina — a small, capsule-shaped clay flute. It caught the attention of his neighbor and master flute maker, Monty Levenson. By 16, Klein worked as Levenson’s apprentice, and learned the art of creating the shakuhachi bamboo flute.

“It’s a complicated process,” Klein says. It begins with harvesting the bamboo in the late fall and early winter in order to fire-cure the plants before boiling out the sap (that also kills off any remaining bugs). For the next three years, the bamboo is cured. During this period, Klein notes, about a third of the supply cracks. He transforms the remaining two-thirds into flutes.

“Most bamboo is sort of zig-zagged,” he says. “I have to heat the joints that are bent the wrong way, and I actually straighten them.” The nodes’ insides are then drilled out and buffed with rough steel wool. “After this, I shape the top of the flute for the mouthpiece and insert an acrylic and sterling silver inlay into the blowing edge to help it maintain its sharpness over time.”

Klein continues, “For these flutes, the interior must be shaped with extreme precision in order to play all the notes well. Even the smallest variance in certain locations inside the bore can make a very noticeable difference in the resonance strength and tone color of the flute.”

Once complete, Klein applies a non-toxic lacquer to the inside and polishes the outside. Not factoring in the three-year cure, the entire process takes Klein roughly four hours. “It’s a fairly uncommon instrument,” he says. Despite this, Klein estimates he has shipped his shakuhachi bamboo flutes to over 25 countries.

Just as the backwoods of Northern California fascinated Klein in his youth, the hardwood trees, fireflies and rainstorms of Western North Carolina now influence and shape his present-day work. This is most evident in his latest endeavors in woodworking. Klein creates a variety of items, including wooden hair clips that resemble maple and oak leaves, as well as rustic wooden branch hooks, wooden coasters and holiday ornaments. “I found I could make a decent living from the flute, but sometimes I go through periods where nothing sells for a month or two,” he says. “And so I thought, ‘Okay what else can I do?’”

Klein’s works are featured in several local galleries, including Woolworth Walk, The Grovewood Gallery and The North Carolina Arboretum Gift Shop.

Find more at avl.mx/34q

SHARE
About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.