The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Michiyo Yagi
Michiyo Yagi
Koto player Michiyo Yagi was born in Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture and studied with Satomi Kurauchi, ,Tadao Sawai and Kazue Sawai. She began performing professionally in the latter half of the 1980’s. During her tenure as Visiting Professor of Music at Wesleyan University in the USA, she premiered numerous modern compositions for koto and was influenced by composers such as John Cage and John Zorn. Her most recent recordings include Seventeen, an album of original compositions entirely played on the 17-string bass koto. Says her husband and producer Mark E. Rappaport: “Keeping in mind that the koto may be extinct in a hundred years’ time, it’s important that Michiyo play her own music, and I believe she’s quite aware of that. After having done quite a lot of different things in the past, she’s now on the verge of combining diverse elements into a unique music of her very own.” Yagi is planning to release three to four CDs between July 2006 and next spring.
Michiyo Yagi Seventeen
(Zipangu ZIP-0019)
an overview
Artist Interview Artist Interview
A unique world of koto music connecting points and lines
   Koto Musician Michiyo Yagi 
The diminutive physique of koto (Japanese transverse harp) performer Michiyo Yagi belies the dynamic sounds that pour forth from her instrument. Her music touches the listener with strength and pliant sensuality. With the influx of Western music during the Meiji Period, koto performers began to search for new styles befitting the new times. In order to broaden the musical range of the traditional 13-string koto, innovative new instruments with 17 or 20 strings were developed. Today, Yagi is on the cutting edge of these innovative efforts. In addition to the traditional repertoire, she plays in contemporary, rock, pop, jazz and improvisational styles. At the same time, she has ventured into composition, creating a unique musical world of her own.
(Interviewer: Kazumi Narabe)

Listening to your performances has changed my image of the koto as a “traditional instrument.” Your music has dynamism and you seem to cross so easily from one genre into another, achieving different ethnic and instrument sounds. How did you begin to play the koto?
My mother was the local koto teacher in our town. I guess I first became involved with it because of that proximity, and I’m very grateful for that. However, when I was a child I thought my mother played an unusual kind of music. What we learned in music class at school was the seven-note scale of Western music. We don’t learn the 5-note scale that most traditional Japanese music is based on. In our music textbook there was one song, Haru no Umi (Spring Sea) by the Japanese composer Michio Miyagi, but our teacher just skipped over that page, saying that it wasn’t important. Still at an impressionable young age, this incident implanted a complex about Japanese music in my mind, and the koto became an instrument I wanted to avoid when I was little.
Still, I remember being made to practice for a couple of days to learn the basic piece Sakura just before one of my mother’s student recitals so I could perform with them. This was not a good thing, because it gave me the idea that this was a kind of music that could easily be played with a minimum of practice. At that age, I didn’t know, for instance, that there are in fact many subtle nuances and interesting sounds that can be created between the notes E and F. I thought that it was an easy kind of music to play once the tunings were worked out. That was another reason I didn’t like the koto at first.
Nevertheless, it seemed my mother wanted me to become a musician, and she had me studying piano two hours a day from about the age of five, sitting right beside me as I practiced. Compared to that, I wasn’t playing the koto much. I think my mother first started teaching me koto when I was about four, and even at that time I was trying different tunings so that I could play the melodies to the songs I heard on the TV, or records, or songs from cartoon shows, and famous classical music themes like Beethoven’s “Pastorale.” Figuring out how to play the music I heard on the koto was one of my favorite childhood pastimes.

So how did the instrument you “wanted to avoid” as a child eventually become your lifetime pursuit?
When I was in high school I happened to hear Teiko Kikuchi playing “First Movement of a Suite for Solo 17-string Koto” by Toshiya Sukekawa on an NHK FM radio contemporary music program. I wasn’t at a very high level in terms of koto technique at that time, but I thought that this was a piece I wanted to perform. It was something completely fresh and different from anything I had ever heard.
So I finally became serious about studying the koto, but at this point my mother decided that there was a limit to what she could impart in terms of technique and that I needed to study with someone else, because a mother-child teaching environment wouldn’t be strict enough. So it was decided that I would study under Satomi Kurauchi, who was one of Tadao Sawai’s apprentices. A year after I started studying with Mrs. Kurauchi, she was about to have a child and took that opportunity to arrange for me to take lessons once a month from Mr. Sawai in Tokyo. That was a real culture shock for me.

Tadao Sawai is known as one of the foremost innovators in the koto world. Not just an outstanding performer but also an outstanding composer. He did a lot of innovative work in search of truly contemporary koto music and opened up new territory in contemporary music. He also founded the Sawai Koto School with his wife and fellow performer Kazue to teach the next generation of musicians. So you were taking lessons from him at a time when he was at the height of his creative powers. And this opportunity came when you were at a very impressionable age in your late teens.
I was moved by the powerful sense of drive in Mr. Sawai’s playing, and it was the first time I realized that koto music could be so powerfully moving, so “driven.” What always seemed to me an old instrument suddenly became an instrument that drove straight into my heart. After a while, Mrs. Kazue Sawai invited me to live at their home and study full-time. That’s how I became a live-in apprentice. Once I entered the apprenticeship I became completely absorbed in my studies and, before I knew it, two years had passed.

Today there are few inner-circle apprentices who are with their teacher 24 hours a day. Most of them commute from their own homes to the master’s studio and assist the master and receive instruction during the day. What was life as an apprentice like?
To tell the truth, I had no idea what was involved when Mrs. Sawai asked me if I wanted to become an apprentice. I just thought it meant living with the master and his family and being able to listen to his teachings and hear him perform all the time and have meals together and such. But when I actually moved in, I found out that we apprentices had to make these meals (laughs). Since there were always lots of guests and students coming and going, we were making dinner for more than 10 people every evening.
There were also many other things we had to do for the master, like preparing the instruments for lessons and performances, running errands and such. It wouldn’t be until about midnight that I finally had time to do my own practicing, and by then I was so sleepy. I was at the bottom in terms of apprentice seniority, but my seniors were kind and helpful. There were nights when they would allow me to practice while they were sleeping in the same room.
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