Koto: A Traditional Music Instrument Reinventing Itself
Fingers swiftly running along the strings, body delicately swaying with notes, eyes alert supervising the scene like a conductor, koto is an instrument which embraces all senses. Imported from China during the 7th century, Koto has since become an emblematic Japanese musical instrument. Its long hollow structure made of pawlonia wood and traditionally mounted by 13 silk strings falls into the zither family. It was initially played at the Chinese Imperial court and then adopted by the musician monks in Buddhist temples. Its popularity developed outside of the religious circles and ultimately became one of the prominent symbols of Japan.
I was extremely excited when Masayo Ishigure sensei, a master koto player based in New York, offered to guide me through the initial basic steps of koto playing. Koto players gain a full knowledge of their instrument at every session. Before starting to play, the musician sets 13 plastic bridges “ji” under each string at various positions. These bridges along with an electronic tuner allow the musician to tune his instrument depending on which piece he intends to play. The basic tuning of the koto is called hira joshi.
While playing, the musician may need to slide bridges to create new tunings for various parts of the piece, particularly for contemporary scores. Ishigure sensei, explains: “ Nothing is preset in koto. The musician has to create the sound”. Ishigure sensei and I agreed that a piece such as the famous “Sakura” would be ideal to spark my musical senses.
The music sheet is unlike any western composition: 13 kanjis, from the number 1 to the number 13, are laid out from top to bottom, and right to left. Each number corresponds to a string on the koto and additional characters indicate unusual tempo and pauses in the melody.
The musician’s right arm is positioned as an L shape with fingers landing on the extreme right side of the stings. The strings are plucked with three ivory picks called “tsume” attached to the thumb, index and middle finger. The shape of the tsume depends on the koto school the musician learned from. Ishigure sensei places the tsume on my fingers and I already feel like a pro! Seated behind the instrument I take a deep breath and hope that the Japanese music muse guides me… I surprisingly manage to correctly hit the first few notes but the victory is short lived! As the melody becomes more complex, I understand that the art of koto is only seemingly simple. Many exceptions to the rules come into play. For example, the sonority of a note can be modified with the left hand by strongly holding the string down while it is plucked.
Ishigure sensei has learned traditional Japanese scores since childhood. In New York, she experiments with more contemporary pieces, merging jazz elements, improvisations and modern instruments’ ensemble to her techniques and concerts. She believes that the full expression of koto is better transmitted with modern elements added to the traditional art.
The future of koto will undoubtedly be shaped by the newer generations of musicians who find a balance between the ancient art and its contemporary adaptations. But the common thread guiding them all remains the same: giving the audience the widest and most exciting range of musical emotions.
—– Reported by Ruth Berdah-Canet
Masayo Ishigure at Sawai Koto Academy New York
Ishigure sensei offers private lessons by appointment only.