Kazue Sawai as a koto musician. Born in Kyoto in 1941, At the age of eight she began studying at the school of Michio Miyagi and in 1963 she graduated from the music department of the Tokyo University of the Arts. In 1979, she and her husband Tadao Sawai started the Sawai Koto Institute. In 1979, her first solo recital won her the Award of Excellence in the music division of the National Arts Festival. She has engaged in a wide range of artistic activities, from her “Koto Yugyo” tours, in which she will go virtually anywhere in Japan that makes a request, the contemporary music concert series “Triangle Music Tour” with Toshi Ichiyanagi and Sumire Yoshiwara that has performed at some 70 venues around Japan, recitals produced by Yuji Takahashi, and collaborations with a variety of artists in the genres of pop music, jazz, classical music and contemporary music. In 1989, she performed a new version of John Cage’s Three Dances for two prepared pianos in an arrangement for four prepared kotos, which she premiered at Studio 200 in the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. Sawai has also been very active overseas, with invited performances at a variety of festivals in North America and Europe, including the New York Bang on a Can Festival, Germany’s Moers Jazz Festival and at the Paris Metropolitan Theatre, as the world tour of her Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble. In 1999, Sawai performed the world premiere of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s Koto Concerto (commissioned by the NHK Symphony Orchestra) and toured to the USA for performances (New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Boston Symphony Hall, the Chicago Symphony Hall and Lincoln Center, etc.).
Beginning in 2003, Sawai participated in the NPO Music Sharing school visit project led by violinist Midori Goto. In 2010, she played in the premiere of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Concerto for Koto and Orchestra
. In addition to her Kazue Sawai – Koto 360° Viewpoint concert series with young artists from Japan and abroad since 2010, she has also toured with fellow koto artist Souju Nosaka in their “Two Maestros – Hengen Jizai” tour since 2011.
Sawai Koto Institute
|Souju Nosaka and Kazue Sawai “hengen-jizai” concert (Dec. 6, 2012 at Sakura Hall, Shibuya, Tokyo)
Photo: Tomoko Hidaki
Mar. 12, 2013
|Kazue Sawai is one of Japan’s a koto (traditional Japanese harp) music composer/player who has continued to venture into new realms with her instrument, from the traditional classics to contemporary music. At the age of eight she began studying at the school of Michio Miyagi and in 1963 she graduated from the music department of the Tokyo University of the Arts. In 1979, she and her husband Tadao Sawai, a koto artist who has composed over 90 works for the koto in his career, started the Sawai Sokyoku Institute with the aim of teaching the next generation of young koto players. Although she had quit performing for several years after marrying, Sawai began performing again as a soloist in 1979, with a recital that won her the Award of Excellence in the music division of the National Arts Festival organized by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Since then, while continuing to perform the contemporary music in the Japanese Hogaku tradition, she has also expanded the variety of her musical activities in collaborations with musicians and composers such as Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yuji Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, John Cage, John Zone or Sofia Gubaidulina, constantly seeking new connections for the traditional Japanese sokyoku with other musical genres range from Western classical music to contemporary music, jazz and improvisational music. All the while Sawai has remained an avant-garde presence in the sokyoku world, and in 2011 she launched into a new challenge with the start of her “Two Maestros” tour with fellow koto player Souju Nosaka. This interview explores Sawai’s varied and prominent career.
Interviewer: Kazumi Narabe, journalist
In this interview, I think two of the key words will surely be tradition and innovation. You began studying at the school of the famed koto artist Michio Miyagi at the age of eight. Miyagi was an innovative koto musician who introduced elements of Western music into his composing. However, when we listen to his music from today’s perspective, it is music still retains a strong flavor of traditional Japanese music. Would you please begin by telling us how you came to be involved in contemporary music?
I first began to question what I should pursue in music was when I entered Tokyo University of the Arts. I felt that the Hogaku
(traditional Japanese music) department was like a separate world from the other music departments. I felt ashamed, because when I went to the other parts of the school where they were playing Western instruments, even though we were also playing music and what we played on were also instruments, I felt that they looked down on us as if Hogaku
wasn’t really music.
I’m sure it is different today, but at the time it was common for Hogaku students not to be able to read sheet music written in Western style staff notation. One music theory professor I had a class with said, “Since you people probably won’t understand the terminology of my lecture, I will play examples on the piano.” But, at the time it was true, so it didn’t really feel like we were being discriminated against. Still, that is an example of how things were for us. Even looking at our professors, the difference was clear. Our Hogaku teachers were mostly ones who still wore kimonos and had the students walk in line behind them in the old formal style when we went somewhere, while the teachers in the Western music departments wore casual clothes or even rough attire and had a completely different air about them. At orchestra concerts I used to wonder why the koto wasn’t an instrument that could perform up there on the stage with them.”
Did any of your classmates in the Hogaku department think the same way you did?
There were only about twenty students in the Hogaku department, eight of whom were koto players. I don’t imagine any of them felt the same concerns that I did. Of course, Michio Miyagi was a master who had performed with orchestras, but it was normal for us to just work hard learning the old traditional pieces in our daily lessons. But, after entering Tokyo University of the Arts, I continued to wonder what made the koto different from the other [Western style] instruments and what I could do to have it treated on equal terms with the other instruments. After graduating, I began playing a small repertory of pieces that Osamu Shimizu and other Western music composers had written for me, and I began to ask for more compositions, believing that new possibilities would open up if I searched for ways to work with Western music composers.
However, at the time we only knew how to use the traditional koto music notation written in Chinese characters, so when I was given a score written in Western music notation, I had to experiment and find out how to play it on the koto. Traditional Japanese music is based on a pentatonic (5 notes per octave) scale, and all the music I had been doing was based on that five-tone scale. So, I had to earn to play from sheet music written in the heptatonic (7 notes per octave) scale of Western music. Since the koto uses a pentatonic scale and has only 13 strings, there are always a lot of notes coming in between [from the heptatonic scale]. To play the compositions I received [written in the heptatonic scale], I worked desperately to find ways to make those notes that didn’t normally exist on the 13 strings of the koto. Eventually I got compositions also written in the dodecaphonic (12 note per octave) scale. That really made things difficult. We had to start from zero and figure out ways to make those sounds by ourselves.
After graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts, you married Tadao Sawai, who was a koto performer and composer trying to create new koto music for the contemporary age. Later you started the Sawai Shokyoku Institute together to teach the young generation of koto players. Did the two of you from the beginning have similar ideas of the direction you wanted to pursue in koto music?
Immediately after graduation I married Tadao Sawai, who was an upperclassman three years my senior at Tokyo University of the Arts. When I married, I stopped performing for a while. One particularly scary person in the koto world had told me that if I wanted to help my husband become a successful koto musician, I should stop performing if I was going to be his wife, and at the time, I thought that perhaps that person was right. I could have gone on to graduate school, but I was also told by my professors that I should give up that idea if I was going to marry, and I thought, “Is that the way things should go?” (Laughs). Tadao Sawai was not from an established sokyoku family [with a school of its own], and there was no one in particular who was trying to promote his career, and since he didn’t have and students of his own at the time we were married and thus had almost no income, there was no guarantee that he could make a career as a koto musician at the start.
We had one child, and since my husband was a kind and gentle person, we were able to live together at my parents’ home, where we could get by fine without much income. I felt that I had some duty as a wife to be a supporting presence for my husband, but after three or four years I began to feel sad for some reason. Then my husband said to me, “It’s because you are not playing the koto. Why don’t you start playing again?” So, I gradually began to play again.
At first, or perhaps I should say for quite a while, I was content to play accompaniment for my husband, but gradually I became more haughty and began to get it in my head that I, too, had things I wanted to do musically. So, when I finally asked to be allowed to do just one recital of my own, I was already 39 years old. I thought that my having music of my own that I want to present would be a good thing for my husband too. But, as it turned out, that recital unexpectedly won me the Award of Excellence in the music division of the National Arts Festival. That started it all. So, what had always appeared to be humble me always been supporting other people, turned out to be nothing but a lie (laughs).
So, the music you must have had in your heart from your university days finally came out, did it?
Yes. For that first recital I played pieces composed by Toshi Ichiyanagi, Maki Ishii, Seihou Kineya, Yoshiro Irino and Tadao Sawai among others. All of these were composer friends of my husband and I.
During the time that I wasn’t doing the music I wanted to do, I feel that I was still expressing myself musically to some degree through my husband by telling him which type of concerts I thought were good and which musicians it would be good to commission. I had told him that he should definitely do a concerto with an orchestra and I had even had a German composer and Maki Ishii compose concertos for koto for us. My husband was a bit annoyed by this, asking why we had to work with an orchestra, but I told him the time will come when concerts like this will become popular, so I him to definitely do it. I convinced him by saying that I would do all the negotiating for the commission of a work and the negotiations with the orchestra, so all he would have to do would be to practice for the concert.
In that way, I was able to do what I wanted to some degree, and what had originally been a plan for just one recital led to more and more. But, perhaps for that reason it also led me away from the rest of the koto music world, with its orientation toward the classical koto works.
Winning the Award of Excellence of the National Arts Festival surely meant that your music had been very highly appraised by people in various fields, but what was the reaction like from the masters in the koto world who had worked primarily with the traditional koto music?
There were some who told me to keep up the good work with what I was trying to do. But, even some of the specialists who were working to become koto professionals said they couldn’t understand the music in the work Dokuso Junanagen to So-gun no tame no ‘Homura’
by Tadao Sawai that premiered in the recital.
Is that so? It must be because you were ahead of your time. I believe young performers were inspired by Tadao-san’s composition and your performance.
I don’t think we were ahead of our time, rather I think we were off on a different course. It is still the same today, as I often say, I think we are outcasts of the Hogaku music world. (Laughs)
Then, with the people in Tadao Sawai’s circle we started the Sawai Sokyoku Institute in 1979 with the aim of nurturing the young generation of performers, and since it was made up of people had a difficult time in the koto world because weren’t satisfied to remain within the confines of the traditional music oriented, it was quite a young group.
What you began back then can be said to have reached the mainstream today, rather than being seen as something new, so I am surprised to hear what you say about the conditions at that time.
Yes. At the time, when I would go to a recording studio to make a recording, the Western music oriented people there would say things like, “Are you kidding? You want to record with a koto? The tuning won’t even match.” It was a time when I had to bow and put up with it, even though I was thinking, “What are you talking about? I’m tuning dozens of strings every day.”
When was it that those conditions began to change?
At first, Even Maki Ishii told me he wouldn’t write music for traditional Japanese instruments. I don’t know whether it was because they felt a need to begin composing for our genre or because they just couldn’t refuse because we were asking them, but regardless of the reason, I believe the change started with the composers. In 1981, Toshi Ichiyanagi asked me to join in his “Triangle Music Tour” with Sumire Yoshiwara on percussion, Ichiyanagi on piano and me playing koto. There was a big change happening around that time, I believe. But it was a new movement that had was separate from the Hogaku world.
When he asked me, I honestly wondered if there was anything the koto could contribute to the music. In Ishii’s work Tadayou Shima
there was a duet part where I played koto with Sumire-san on percussion. Although it didn’t seem to me that the music had really come together, we completed the tour around the country. As it turned out, the reactions to the koto parts had been quite good, and that made me began to think that the koto wasn’t such a bad instrument after all. To tell the truth, until then I had been somewhat disappointed by what I felt to be the limitations of the koto as an instrument. It only has 13 strings, or at most 17 with a modification that adds three lower strings. So, there is a definite limitation to the range of sound it can produce.
But, when we played the traditional Kamakura piece Ran
, the music critic Hidekazu Yoshida came to hear our performance and he ranked it among the top five performances of the year in an article in the influential Asahi Newspaper. Things like that made me feel that I should stay with it and work even harder.
Another important thing was meeting the composer Yuji Takahashi and the influence of his approach to music. He is a genius beyond my understanding and he has composed works for me several times. His works seem to be statements about what music should be, and his perceptions of the possibilities of the koto as an instrument have broadened my perspective.
What made me feel that the koto may actually be quite a good instrument was my experience of performing overseas. When was it? I went on tour with an ensemble led by Yuji Takahashi consisting of a violin, piano, two kotos and percussion, which started in Brazil and went to New York. We also performed at the Tanglewood Music Festival where Seiji Ozawa was serving as artistic director. After the performance he came running backstage with a composer from over there and he said to me, “I just got a talking down from this composer. He said if Japan has such wonderful instruments as this [koto], why am I conducting Western music?” That really gave me new confidence.
The koto may have more possibilities than I thought. However, my knowledge alone would not be enough to develop those possibilities, so I asked composers to help me. Even if they didn’t know the koto, as long as they looked at it as a viable instrument, I asked them to compose for it. Sometimes they say, “Try this,” and ask me to do things with it that I never would have imagined. From that process I got a lot of experience to try to make new music from the instrument.
How did you adjust the koto to play works written in heptatonic or dodecaphonic scales?
The most difficult was trying to make adjustments to play composer Toru Takemitsu’s guitar piece Umi-e
(Toward the Sea). I really wanted to play that piece on the koto. Looking back on it now, It might have been better for me to go in the direction of Souju Nosaka, who developed 20- and 25-string kotos to increase the number of notes it could play, but I have always liked the sound of the 17-string koto. I wanted very much to use that sound to play Umi-e
. It is a nine-minute piece in three movements of tree minutes each, and during that time I had to adjust the positions of the bridges on my koto about 80 times to get the right notes. After each phrase I had to change the bridge positions to change key for the next phrase. It was a constant repetition of that process. Nonetheless, I did it, because I truly wanted to perform the piece. That was the most difficult piece of all in terms of re-creating the necessary notes. And, no offense to guitarists, but the koto definitely made it sound better than a guitar. (Laughs)
So, rather than increasing the number of strings to increase the range notes the instrument can produce, you chose to seek new ways to produce sounds within the limitations of the existing instrument?
Yes. I thought that increasing the number of strings would be like making it closer to a harp, and in that case it would be much more convenient just to use a harp and the sound would reverberate harmoniously. Increasing the number of strings on the koto would also make it more difficult to find the sounds you want, so I chose not to increase the number.
The 17-string koto was first created by your former teacher, Michio Miyagi in 1921 add depth to the low end of its sound range. Are you saying that you like the 17-string koto more than the 13-string one?
The 17-string koto has thicker strings that increase the possibilities of getting more nuance out of each note and it adds more notes to the scale. I like the richness of the tonal possibilities within each note on the 17-string koto. Perhaps it is partly because I have a relatively low voice myself.
In addition to Japanese composers, you have also had foreign composers write pieces for you, including ones such as Sofia Gubaidulina, who compose things because they want you to perform them on your koto, I hear. Are the pieces written by foreign composers different from those of Japanese composers?
Some composers want to create very Japanese-sounding things, and others ignore that aspect completely when they compose. There is a lot of difficulty in playing things that ignore the Japanese sound aspects, but such pieces can also inspire me with revelations of new musical aspects. Sofia Gubaidulina is the composer with which this is especially true. Since her last name is so long, I simply call her “Guba-chan” (laughs). When Guba-chan came to Japan, I believe it was for the second time, someone said to take her to my place to have her hear the koto. That is how she came here to my studio. I played a number of things for her. The instrument seemed to draw her to it. She came right up to it and began making sounds on it herself. She just came up to it, without concern for the actual position the koto is played from, and she playing on it from the opposite side. I was surprised to hear what beautiful sounds she could get from it. She got so absorbed in it that I said, “If you like the koto that much, I will give you one to take back home.” That really delighted her, and she actually ended up carrying one of the big instruments back to Germany by herself.
That time I had some young players accompany me in playing some traditional pieces and Tadao Sawai’s piece ‘Homura
.’ Gubaidulina said the pieces were wonderful, too, and with excitement she said that she would write some music that was different from what she had just heard, but for the same type of ensemble arrangement. I said, “Yes, please do.” At that time I didn’t know what a famous composer she was, and I thought that all of it had simply been said in the excitement of the moment, she did write a work and sent it to me. It was for a seven-instrument ensemble. When I played the premiere performance of that work, I had Gubaidulina come to Japan and it was performed in the rock garden of Sogetsu Hall in the Aoyama district of Tokyo.
Some time later, it was arranged that Gubaidulina and I would do an improvisational session together, and it was recorded at a studio in Paris and a CD titled Ihojin no Katarai
(Talk with a foreigner). And, at the time of the recording she said off hand that she had been asked by an orchestra to write a work and wanted to know if I would perform it if she wrote a concerto for the koto. I thought at first that I had heard here wrong, but five years later I got a call from the NHK Symphony Orchestra saying that they had asked Gubaidulina to compose a work in celebration of the orchestra’s 60th anniversary and she had agreed, as long as it could be a koto concerto to be performed by Kazue Sawai. They said that the work had been completed and they wanted me to perform it. It was a work that included improvisation and a variety of things.
It is full of innovative techniques for producing sound that are not confined to the koto tradition, you feel?
Yes. John Cage has a piece for two prepared pianos titled Three Dances
, but I think it would be even more interesting to do with koto, and in 1989 I tried doing it with prepared 17-string kotos. So, in general I thought I would not surprised by most new things, but Gubaidulina’s concerto went beyond anything I ever expected.
In Cage’s score for that work, it was written in detail what things should be inserted among the strings of the pianos, but they didn’t make a good sound when I tried them with the koto. When I asked Yuji Takahashi for advice he said that depending on the piano, the type of reverberations produced could be completely different, so he suggested that I take an approach that fit the koto. So, I tried a number of materials to insert between the strings, and I found that the thing that produced the best sound was the cheap split-apart type wooden chopsticks we call waribashi
. When I inserted those chopsticks in the strings, it produced a sound like the Indonesian gamelan. To me it felt like I had created a new instrument. With the establishment of the koto tradition, a preconception of what the sound of a koto should be has been handed down to us generation after generation, but for a long time I had been thinking about what would happen if all the things that had been added on by the tradition were stripped away and only the essence of the koto remained. When I did the prepared koto, I felt that it was a case of stripping away that added-on information in a way that left only an essence of the instrument itself. It was quite difficult finding a way to make a satisfying sound, but it was an interesting experience.
Gubaidulina came to stay at our home for several days once to learn more about the koto, and at that time I had her stay in a room where there were several 17-string and 13-string kotos lying around. It tuned out that she lay down among them and played with them, making different sounds. Before long I heard the sound of her voice as well. She was singing along as she played with the instruments. The next morning, she showed me one of the sounds she had gotten from the koto, and when I looked, I saw she was taking the cup I had given her for brushing her teeth and sliding it along the strings of the koto. So, in the concerto she wrote, there is a part that uses the technique of sliding a cup along the strings. It really does produce a good sound. What’s more, she had gone to the cup department of a big store in Tokyo and tried all the different types of cups, and in her score for the concerto she had written down which type of cup should be used in each part.
It appears that Gubaidulina really surprised you with the extent of her search for new sounds.
It was a true revelation for me. It blew away all type of preconceptions about how we should practice to produce the different type of sounds. I thought it was truly wonderful. It didn’t detract at all from the essence of the koto. It was a case of doing things that only the koto could do. The koto is an instrument that is laid down facing the ground, the earth. So, the sound that is produced by sliding a cup along the strings is surely different from what you would get from using the same technique on a harp. There is also a technique in which a bow is used to create melody from the strings while plucking them with the fingers, and here again I felt it was probably a case of doing something that could only be done with the koto. It was truly a revelation for me. Would you like to hear what it sounds like when we use a cup to create sound on the koto? It really is interesting. (Here Sawai actually plays the koto with a cup) It creates a sort of metallic sound, doesn’t it? It doesn’t sound like I am simply doing something eccentric, does it? If you try to produce the same sound using the normal koto finger picks, it can’t be done. In [Gubaidulina’s] musical score for the concerto there are detailed drawings of what the shape of the cup should be and what part of the cup is used against the strings.
Surely this is an idea that would never occur to someone who has studied and trained with the koto.
That’s right. People like us think within the context of the tradition, and the Japanese as a whole think in terms of the tradition as well. When I first tried sliding the cup along the strings, I felt like I had gone off to the horizon.
I see that you don’t need to use much force to get a sound that way.
Yes, it doesn't require much strength and it can produce a variety of sounds. As I said, it was a real revelation for me. I had long practiced ways to get a sharp sound out of the koto by using the finger picks in different ways, so I was amazed to find that the cup could produce such a sharp sound so easily.
It is a sharp sound but it doesn’t lose the inherent soft sound of the koto completely, does it?
The body of the koto is made of paulownia wood, so it has a soft sound. That is one of the inherent qualities of the koto. When I did this unconventional practice of using a cub to play it with, I thought hard about how to do it in a way that was still unique to the koto. I finally came to the conclusion that it was something that could be done this way exactly because it was with the koto. So, I decided I was going to do it, no matter what people might say.
We can imagine that, like Gubaidulina, people once played the koto using their imaginations more freely in the time before the koto tradition became established.
I’m sure they must have! They must have been drawn to the koto just like Gubaidulina was, thinking what a wonderful instrument it was and perhaps playing it from the opposite side like she did in her first encounter with it, and still producing beautiful sounds. What I experienced was a feeling that I had never gotten sound like she did out of the koto. And, I’ll never forget the words she said after coming to Japan and hearing me play a concerto with orchestra and a traditional koto music concert and some contemporary music. She said, “I’m going to write some music that is even different from the things that I have heard here!”
That spirit of a composer who has determined to do things that no one has done before is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It seems that your encounter with Gubaidulina was a significant turning point for you.
It was indeed very significant. It was seeing a process of taking everything apart. I had considered myself one who had tried hard to follow a path of taking things apart and breaking them down to essential elements, but I felt that Gubaidulina took things apart more completely for me. And, in the process I truly came to think of the koto as a wonderful instrument.
Having come this long path of ‘taking things apart and breaking them down to essential elements,’ you began a new project in 2011 with your “Futari no maestro – hengen-jizai” (Two maestros – varying strings at will) concert tour with Souju Nosaka, in which you also explore the appeal of the traditional koto repertory. We hear that this project resulted from a rare affinity that the two of felt from the start.
Although we had both been koto players for a long time, we had never actually played together. It was such an enjoyable experience when we did play together for the first time at the mountain lodge of the koto merchant Yoshinao Nakajima of the Joetsu region, who has long studied the shapes of our finger picks. I would play something and then Nosaka-san would say, “Well then, allow me to play this,” and after listening to what she had answered with, I would play something in response. It was very free and very much fun, and we just wanted to play on and on. That experience eventually led to our concert tour. So, we were just playing because we enjoyed it so much. There wasn’t any thought about what we wanted to do with the concerts at first. But, as we toured, we heard so many people saying how much energy they received by listening to us play, and it made us realize that in itself was one positive effect that concerts could have.
I went to hear your concert in Tokyo in December of 2012 and saw how intently the audience listened to your music. They listened seriously but there was also an atmosphere of great enjoyment to the concert. The first thing you played was the classic Rokudan. It is a piece from the 18th century that is written for the 13-string koto, but you played it on the 17-string koto.
It is difficult to arrange it for the 17-string koto, but I find that the increased sound range of the 17-string koto adds a different type of interest to the old standards of the traditional repertory.
Do you find, after being involved in musical activities that were largely outside the traditional koto repertory and then returning to the classics recently, that the means of expression are different?
What I have felt since long ago is that no matter what kind of music I did, the spirit was always the same as when I played the classic pieces. The way of concentrating is the same. It is not a matter of whether I am doing contemporary music, or the classics, or whether it is improvisational music or if I’m using the cup to perform, the way I confront the music, my approach, it is always the same. I feel more comfortable playing the classics when I am sitting on the floor, or should I say that I prefer to do it that way and try to whenever possible, but my approach to the music doesn’t change. In the world of traditional koto music, everyone is taught thoroughly that a given classic piece must be played in a given way, and everyone practices to be able to play it that way. But, for someone like me who has gotten off that track long ago and worked outside that tradition, my approach is always the same, because all I can do is play the music as I feel it.
In the “Music Sharing project with violinist Midori Goto, you teach children to play the koto.
I go to play the koto at four or five schools a year. I begin by playing Rokudan
for the children. As I start to play I tell them, “ This is a sleepy piece from 350 years ago, so if it makes you sleepy, go ahead and sleep. But, if it doesn’t make you sleepy, listen to it with your ears out like Dumbo.” Then they listen to it with concentration. Then the teachers often say, “I can’t believe the children listened to it with such concentration.”
Even for children who have never had any encounters with the koto, there are ways to get them to make music. I say, “Today you are touching a koto for the first time, aren’t you? But, still, there are ways you can make music.” Then I tell them to put the finger pick on their middle finger and pluck the strings in order from the one that is farthest way from them. I have tuned the koto so that playing the strings in that order produces the notes of the children’s song they all know. It is a song with 14 syllables that says, “You can hear the frogs singing.” The children really become absorbed in playing that. I want to begin by having the children experience that an instrument is a fun thing to play.
It is interesting to see what music will be made by children who start out that way, isn’t it?
In the Tokyo performance of our “Two Maestros” concert tour we performed with a group of 17 young male koto players, and they are all very skilled and very serious in their study of music. I said to them that I wonder what kind of music they will be playing when they become adults, and I assured them that it will be music that they will have to create by themselves. I have a feeling that this young generation will give birth to new kinds of koto music.
What I teach is that music is sound, and each person makes sounds to create the music, so they should be sure that they develop sound that is uniquely their own and not anyone else’s. As a method to do that, I have the students learn to use their weight to get a big sound out of the instrument so that they can experience the instrument itself making sounds. Small sounds are something that can be developed later. Rhythm is what gives form to a piece music, so it is also an important element that I want students to learn to keep a beat properly. These are the things that I think about when teaching. Regarding playing technique, I show that there is this kind of why to pluck the strings and then there is another way. Then I tell them choose the one they like, so that as quickly as possible, they can become people who don’t need to come to lessons anymore.
You have taught a lot of koto players until now. And among them are an inner circle of apprentices that have worked closely with you and gone touring overseas with your ensemble, aren’t there?
One knows one’s own limitations as a musician better than anyone, I believe, so I mostly want to communicate to young people who start playing the koto its potential as an instrument. I believe my role is to show them through my activities that there are a number of paths they can follow with the koto, such as improvisation or having composers write contemporary pieces for you. I can’t do everything, so I want to show them that they can choose the path that they want. Michiyo Yagi
is one who went into improvisational jazz. She was very strongly influenced when I did jazz with John Zorn. Yoko Nishi, Etsuko Takezawa, they all have great strengths as musicians and would surely have gone to the top ranks of koto players in the traditional koto world, so I have a bit of regret that I got them involved in anti-traditional activities at perhaps too early appoint in their careers. But, when Takezawa-san told me that she had played a concert with some of her former classmates for the first time in a dozen years or so and they said to her that improvisation and contemporary music are important parts of the koto world now, it made me feel that the koto world is changing.
However, in the eyes of most in the traditional koto world I am still one who holds dangerous ideas. It is well known that when someone becomes one of my apprentices they will make progress, but they will also get off track from that traditional koto world and it will be difficult for them to make a career with the koto when they return home eventually. If they are just itching for something new, I advise them to go overseas and send them off for a while. I have written letters to a number of universities overseas telling them that I will donate kotos and send over an instructor to teach classes. In that way, I have succeeded in getting positions overseas for about ten people. When they go I tell them to stick it out for three years, and when they can’t take the bruises and hardship anymore, they can come back. I send them off saying that when they come back they will surely find that those three years will not have been a wasted. They will be an important experience, so they should go where they have only themselves to depend on find a way of making a life for themselves with the koto. The strength of the young is a wonderful thing. For most of them I’m sure there has been a lot of blood and tears shed, but they have all found a place to settle and have become good performers, and of course they are teaching as well.
In Australia it has been amazing. One of the apprentices I sent abroad has had such an influence on the music scene in Sydney that she received an award for the great contribution she has made. I was really surprised. It is something that would never happen in Japan. From Australia they have gone to Europe on a concert tour with an ensemble of koto and Western instruments. The woman I found a position for in the Netherlands, has received lots of new pieces written for the koto. Young composers and students write pieces and take them to her to ask her to perform them. Having that many new works written for koto is something I would never expect to see in Japan.
I don’t think there is anyone in the world that would say they don’t like the sound of the koto. The only one I know to have said it was John Cage. The director of my recital once in New York, Beate Gordon, said she wanted to have John Cage come to hear it, but when she invited him he said if it was the koto, he didn’t want to go. She told him this koto player was different and thanks to that he came and sat with her in the front row. That encounter is what led to my being able to do Three Dances
, and when I performed it in New York he wrote a poem for me saying that from now on we should pioneer the future of the music of the West and East. The sound of stringed instruments expresses the subtleties of the heart and is the original means of moving it. I believe that is the role the koto can play.
Is there something you are thinking about that you would like to do next?
Something that I had inside me for a long time is an interest in some words from a Chinese style poem by the Japanese priest Ryokan. [Roughly translated] the poem says a quiet night / behind my small cottage / playing alone / a string-less koto
. The characters of the words “string-less koto” (botsugen no koto
) means a koto from which the strings have been removed, and I don’t know if the player him/herself removed the strings or not, but I had long been captivated by the words “a string-less koto.” I feel in them a great strength of will, and I wondered what kind of sound would come from that “string-less koto.”
Because removing all the strings would leave me with virtually nothing, I decided to remove all but the center string of a 17-string koto to create a one-string koto and did an improvisational performance on it in a space with glass walls on both sides. But, for me it didn’t become music.
In the past you once said that you think the origin of the koto was probably when someone made plucking sounds on a piece of vine or something caught on a broken piece of wood, didn’t you?
That’s right. That is what I was thinking of when I chose to play on one string. To be able to get music from a single string. I really tried a wide variety of things, but I still ask myself what is development, what is progress? Within me, progress may actually mean a kind of retrogression. I always feel the importance of the reverberation of sound, like that first simple sound when the koto was born.
But, I have already gone all the way to the horizon, and just when I thought I had done enough to call it quits, I met Nosaka-san. You might say it has begun to bring me back from the ends of the world (laughs), but who knows what it will lead to?