The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A unique world of koto music connecting points and lines   Koto Musician Michiyo Yagi
There must be some things that you only could have learned by being a live-in apprentice.
Mr. And Mrs. Sawai were busy with concerts and teaching, so there was little time for them to teach us apprentices. So I would listen to Mr. Sawai teach other students, listen to him practice, and watch how he prepared himself backstage. There were other kinds of lessons to be learned, such as the art of turning ingredients into fine meals. In other words, it was not a place where I learned things like technique from an external framework, but rather a place where I was able to absorb the internal aspects of being a koto performer. I think all the things I learned at that time are being put to use in my career today. For example, the proper mental attitude when one is about to play the koto, or the importance of creating a “place” of your own in music.

So you begin to search for your own place with the koto?
Yes. And that work continues to this day. The first really big hint came to me in 1989 when I performed at New York’s Bang on a Can Festival as an accompanist for Kazue Sawai. One of John Cage’s latest works was performed, a piece which involved all different sizes of tin plates positioned all around the hall, and a group of these macho men beating on them. It created a maelstrom of sound, with interacting rhythms overwhelming the hall. Here were professionals from the music world as well as ordinary folks from the neighborhood, listening together to this piece by a great contemporary composer. I was simply amazed to see music functioning as entertainment in such a way. This was when I began thinking that, if I was going to continue playing the koto, I should aspire to a music that is not bound to genres. At that time, even as I practiced the existing repertoire, I was always full of ideas about how I would do a piece if I were performing on my own. It was around that time that I began to think that I might be better suited to the task of creating my own music, though I knew it might not be easy.
Two years later I was invited to teach koto as a guest instructor at the Ethnomusicology Department that John Cage started at Wesleyan University in the USA. That was another culture shock. The university had four performance halls, and every Saturday and Sunday there would be performances of new works by the students. There were collaborations of music and film, there were lots of pieces that went beyond the realm of “music,” and it was very stimulating to me to see how these works were presented not as special performances but as the natural extension of the daily presentation of work that was going on. I realized how important the creative process is to art. During the year that I was there, I began to get an increasing number of requests to perform new works. I performed pieces by Christian Wolff and John Zorn, and began to receive more and more information about different types of music. In part it was evidence that I had finally gotten used to being in this new place. I was enjoying each day and I didn’t want to go back to the closed world of Japan. But at the same time I had my doubts. If I stayed in the U.S. without having ever really mastered the classical repertoire of the koto, would I be able to return to Japan when I reached 30 or so and make it as a solo performer? This led to my decision to return to Japan and start from scratch.

Wasn’t it rare at that time in Japan’s koto world to find performers like you who were intent on creating “your own world of music?”
Around me, there was no one else of my generation who shared my thoughts, and no one was doing it. Around the time the Kronos Quartet became popular, I was playing in a quartet with three other women of kindred spirit, and like Kronos we were playing new works on commission. Presently I am playing with four bands besides Kokoo, and I find this situation very rewarding because I’m able to express aspects of my own music in all of them. However, I believe that these activities are possible only because I am first and foremost an independent solo performer of my own music. So I’ll continue to place special importance on my solo work.
When playing in ensembles with other Western instruments, the koto has a sonic range that’s neither here nor there compared to other Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi for the shamisen. And if you try to imitate the styles of other stringed instruments such as the guitar or the piano, you’re bound to end up displaying the deficiencies of the koto as a musical instrument. It is the kind of instrument that you have to approach from the standpoint of the things that only a koto can do and the qualities that only the koto has to offer. Without this point of view, the only impression the koto leaves is one of imperfection.
There is also the problem of pitch that is common to all Japanese instruments.
Ordinarily, the pitch of the koto will begin to drop during performance. During a concert, heat from stage lights as well as humidity causes the strings to slightly stretch and the pitch begins to go flatter. This is an important point of concern for someone like me who often plays in ensembles with Western instruments. I can adjust the bridges to raise the pitch, or continue playing as is—when playing a blues there it can actually be more effective to have a reduced interval between E and F—or I can change the nuance of the pitch by pressing down on the string. One needs to make on-the-spot decisions about these things.
However, when I am playing own music solo, none of the instrument’s imperfections have an adverse effect. Solo performances of my own compositions, where everything can be approached positively, will continue to be the foundation of my activities as a musician.
Another of the appeals of the koto is that, although most people associate it with a particular tonal quality, there is actually quite a diverse range of sounds you can get out of it. We tested it once using ProTools and found out that fluctuations in temperature and humidity produce quite a bit of change in the waveforms of its sound, which means that it is quite an interesting instrument in terms of its sensitivity to natural phenomenon such as weather. Besides that, we discovered that different performers produce quite different waveforms. The sound is affected by the way the picks hit the strings—the attack, the angle, the shape of the player’s fingers, even the physical qualities of the finger bones. Also, there is the fact that the koto uses open tuning. You can create your own tunings of the koto just by moving the bridges. Even with the basic pentatonic scale of traditional Japanese music, you can still create your own nuances in the tuning. It’s a fascinating instrument in that the process of preparing the instrument for performing, that is, tuning, already reflects your individuality.
In his essay for the program notes of my album Seventeen, the music critic Manabu Yuasa wrote: “One is amazed by the sheer variety of the cell structures of the wild creatures that live in Michiyo Yagi’s koto. These cells grow by feeding on the reverberations of the strings and come out at night to cause all sorts of mischief. And that is why, in this album, you will hear the laughter of demons–big/medium/small demons, blue demons, white demons, red demons.” I believe that the unique character of the koto enables it to “harbor demons” and with the right kind of playing they can be unleashed.
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