The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Artist Interview
A unique world of koto music connecting points and lines   Koto Musician Michiyo Yagi
Nonetheless, don’t you still have problems with the instability of the pitch and the volume limitations of the koto when you play with musicians of non-traditional instruments or when playing with foreign artists overseas?
I commissioned electric kotos and no longer have volume issues–I can be heard virtually anywhere under any circumstances.
Lately I’ve been enjoying musical communication through improvisation with musicians I’ve met for the first time. If I have about 20 minutes of rehearsal time with another musician, I can usually work out some tunings and go right into a performance. During a quick sound check, I’ll think about what kind of environment this person comes from, what he or she listens to, what kind of musical education he or she had, how that relates to their music, and all this helps to create the actual performance. It’s great fun.
Many foreign musicians want to play with traditional Japanese musicians when they come to Japan, and I often do improvisation sessions with these artists. There are times when some of the typical qualities of the koto, like the fact that the pitch gradually starts to go down, can actually bring an unexpected element of tension to the performance that works in positive ways. What’s most attractive about a collaboration with a visiting artist who knows nothing about the background of the koto are the various pressures I encounter which force me to transcend the structural limitations of the instrument.

You seem to be performing the traditional koto repertoire as well lately. Where do you think you are headed now in terms of finding a “place” of your own music that you mentioned earlier?
About seven years ago I was asked to play a folk ballad named Yuki (Snow) with a shamisen artist. I took that opportunity to listen to a lot of recordings, but they didn’t communicate anything more than the musical score, so the performances sounded like mere formalities. Just when I had decided how I should play it, I happened to find a videotaped performance by the late Hatsuko Kikuhara, who was a designated “Living National Treasure.” It was the same piece, Yuki, and yet it was completely different. Thinking about how it could sound so unique, I suddenly realized something about her posture. She was sitting flat on the floor like an old grandma, bending forward slightly from the base of the backbone. The way she wore her kimono was different too. Not tight and high up on the ribs like it’s usually worn today, but lower and with the collar looser so she could sit very relaxed as she played. I realized this was part of the reason that she could play with such expression and nuance. Surely this was authentic traditional playing. In traditional performance technique you usually let the noise of the picks on the strings be heard, and if you vary the angle of the picks depending on the amount of pressure on the strings, you can control the amount of noise you produce. I realized that with a posture as relaxed as Kikuhara, you can get a sound out the koto that is like the sound of the wind.
I have played many different kinds of music, from the traditional repertoire to contemporary music and improvisational music, but if I were to describe what kind of musician I want to become, I would say “a genre unto myself.” Whether you’re hearing me improvising or playing traditional music, I want you to hear “me.” That is the very least that I aspire to. This spring I happened to see an exhibition of the works of Katsushika Hokusai at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Looking at his portraits of women, I noticed how simple the compositions were, with no unnecessary flourish, and the backgrounds looked distant and yet were depicted with great clarity. There was something to enjoy in every part of the work. I began thinking: How wonderful it would be to be able to do the same with music. Or to be even more ambitious, my ultimate goal is to create music resembling the ancient scroll paintings of samurai battle scenes. The musical story unfolds horizontally through time, like a scroll. And yet, at any one moment during the performance, the musical design and quality is sophisticated and clear, like an individual scene in a scroll painting. That is the kind of music I aspire to in my solo work.
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