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By Dan Grunebaum

Michiyo Yagi

With albums like Seventeen, the koto player is charting a new path for Japanese music

“Post-hougaku means reclaiming what’s been lost in traditional hogaku—the ability to create something from within”

To the interested observer, it might appear that there is a boom underway in traditional Japanese music, or hougaku. Groups like the charismatic, shamisen-playing Yoshida Brothers are drawing unprecedented crowds to performances with the atmosphere of a rock concert, and handsome court music scion Hideki Togi is playing alongside the Boston Pops.

But this view, it seems, could be wrong.

“Many artists are adapting Japanese instruments to Western music, but Japanese music may not necessarily be benefiting in the process,” says Michiyo Yagi from across a coffee table at her home in suburban Setagaya.

Yagi thinks that if acts like the Yoshidas and Togi heighten interest in Japanese music, then that’s all well and good. However, her own mission, through albums like the forthcoming Seventeen, for the 17-string bass koto, is to breathe new life into the hougaku world which, like many traditional Japanese arts, has been stunted by a cloistered system of patronage.

“I want to create something unique and help to advance Japanese music, but making a living from hougaku is a struggle in itself. We live surrounded by Western sounds, so the temptation to incorporate a rock groove, for example, is quite natural. I do it myself.”
Despite years of being at the forefront of her instrument, Yagi, as forceful as she is diminutive, was late to discover her muse. She gives credit to her husband and producer, music journalist Mark Rappaport, who also sits at the table with us. “Since meeting Mark I’ve changed a lot. Previously, I’d hoped others would write commissions for me, but Mark helped me realize I already had my own art and that I was already creating my own music.”

“When we met, she already had everything she needed to write and play her own music, but I might have prodded her to into making those elements congeal,” adds Rappaport modestly. “Maybe I helped her a little in expressing herself, and in hougaku that’s not always welcome.”

As it turns out, the koto already carries with it an element of improvisation. So it wasn’t such a stretch for Yagi to push the instrument into uncharted territory, whether through her own striking compositions or by working with performers as diverse as avant-garde composer John Zorn and J-pop star Ayumi Hamasaki.

“Using things like effects boxes is novel, but even in conventional koto there were a lot of distortion-type techniques,” she explains. “The volume level may have changed, but the basic approach is the same. If not, I never would have thought to do something like use effects. The recordings may not exist, but I think people were playing like I did in the past.”

Techniques such as bends, rattlings and bowings of the harp-like koto’s long, tensed strings were customarily used to evoke sounds of nature like the wind moving through a forest. Whether amplified in concert or on recordings like Seventeen, where the effect is more intimate, Yagi is able to coax an amazing variety of tones out of what truly is a formidable piece of wood.

The moods on Seventeen, the first-ever album of original compositions entirely performed on bass koto, vary from the restful tones of the opener “Obsidian” to the vigorous drumstick thrumming of “Rouge” and on to the near-Indian sense of mysticism in “Sedna.” “Suetsumuhana” seems with its stretches and bends to best explore the full possibilities of the bass koto.

While the uninformed would assume the 17-string koto is as ancient as the 13-string version imported from China over a millennium ago, it is in fact a product of the 20th century. The great koto player and composer Miyagi Michiyo, modernizer of the koto repertoire, had it built in 1921 as his answer to low-pitched Western instruments like the string bass.

In a sense then, Yagi’s mission is the same: not to copy Western music on a Japanese instrument, but to provide an answer to it from inside a newly reinvigorated Japanese tradition. To that effect she’s coined a new term. “‘Post-hougaku’ means reclaiming what’s been lost in traditional hougaku,” she sums up, “the ability to create something from within.” Seventeen will be available Oct 8 on Zipangu Records. Michiyo Yagi plays Super-Deluxe on Sept 16 and Koen Dori Classics on Oct 8. See concert listings for details.

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