By Dan Grunebaum
With albums like Seventeen, the koto player is charting
a new path for Japanese music
means reclaiming whats been lost in traditional
hogakuthe 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 thats 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 Ive changed a lot. Previously,
Id 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 thats not always welcome.
As it turns out, the koto already carries with it an element
of improvisation. So it wasnt 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
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
Techniques such as bends, rattlings and bowings of the harp-like
kotos 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, Yagis 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 shes coined a new term. Post-hougaku
means reclaiming whats 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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