The koto (Japanese: 箏, Sino-Japanese reading "sō"; more commonly, though not quite correctly, the character 琴, Sino-Japanese reading "kin" is used) is a traditional stringed musical instrument resembling a zither. The koto was introduced to Japan from China in the early Nara period (710 – 784), and is largely derived from the Chinese guzheng. It was first used only for gakaku, or imperial court music. During the seventeenth century, Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614 – 1685), a blind musician from Kyoto who learned koto in defiance of the rule that it could not be taught to blind people or women, transformed the koto’s repertoire and made the music available to wider audiences. During the Edo period, the koto became a popular instrument and was often played in ensembles with the shamisen. Miyagi Michio (1894 – 1956) was the first to combine traditional koto music with Western music, and today the koto is often used in non-traditional compositions.
The koto has a long wooden body and 13 strings, each supported by a movable bridge which determines the pitch and the note. It is played with picks on three fingers of the right hand, while the left hand assists by pressing on strings or moving the bridges to change the pitch.
Koto are about 180 cm (6 feet) long and 25 cm (14 inches) wide and are made from two pieces of paulownia wood, cut lengthwise through the tree. The top piece is hollowed out and placed over a flat bottom piece. Underneath the body are two sound holes, one at each end. The shape of the koto is said to resemble a dragon, and the names of each part of the koto correspond to the parts of a dragon. Thirteen strings of the same size and tension that are strung lengthwise and attached at each end of the body. A movable bridge (ji), about 5 cm (1.5 inches) tall is placed under each string, lifting the string away from the koto so that it resonates when plucked. The koto is tuned according to the placement of the bridges, and the bridges can be moved during a performance to create a new tuning. Today silk strings have been replaced with nylon or teflon strings, and the rosewood and ivory bridges with hard plastic bridges that produce a louder, brighter sound.
The player kneels near the right end of the instrument, at the “head” of the dragon, and plucks the strings with the right hand using three finger picks (on thumb, forefinger, and middle finger). The left hand is used to raise the pitch of a note by pressing on a string, to make grace notes or to change the pitch by moving the bridges.
To tune the koto, the player selects a base note for the piece to be played and sets the bridge in place under the first string. For each composition there are instructions for setting the rest of the bridges in relation to the first bridge. In classical pieces the tuning is often a pentatonic scale. An infinite range of tunings is possible, since the bridges can be moved, and modern compositions use many innovations. The sound of the koto combines easily with many instruments.
Several Asian instruments, with varying numbers of strings, are related to the koto, including the ch’in in China, the komungo in Korea and the dan tranh in Vietnam. The koto appears to have had 13 strings when it was introduced to Japan from China in the early Nara period (710 – 784), and is largely derived from the Chinese guzheng. It was originally used for Japanese court music and was an important instrument of the exclusive Gagaku (“Elegant Music”) performed by the Imperial court ensemble. In the eleventh–century novel, Tale of the Genji, Prince Genji falls deeply in love with a woman he has never seen after hearing her exquisite performance on the koto.
During the Heian period (794-1185) the koto was apparently played as a solo instrument in the court, and later it was taken up by priests and aristocrats. Late in the sixteenth century, vocal music began to accompany meditative koto music in the temples. Kenjun (1547 – 1636), a Buddhist priest in northern Kyushu, began to compose music of a style which he called “tsukushi” for the koto. Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614 – 1685), a blind musician from Kyoto, who learned koto in defiance of the rule that it could not be taught to blind people or women, transformed the koto’s repertoire and made the music available to wider audiences. Considered to be one of the greatest composers of koto music, he invented a new "plain tuning" (hira jōshi) to accommodate the common peoples' songs more naturally, and wrote many new compositions. His best known composition, “Rokudan no Shirube” (“Study in Six Steps”) is still played more often than any other classical koto piece. After Yatsuhashi Kengyo, the koto was accessible not only to blind male professional musicians, but also became of interest to women of well-to-do families. For a time, koto playing was reserved only for blind people.
During the Edo period (1603 – 1867) the koto developed into a uniquely Japanese instrument. Ikuta Kengyo (1666-1716) (prominent koto players often took the name Kengyo) merged koto music with jijuta, a vocal tradition of the more popular and livelier shamisen (a lute-style instrument) in the Kyoto and Osaka area. The Ikuta school (Ikuta ryu) stresses koto and shamisen ensemble music. In Tokyo, Yamada Kengyo (1757 – 1817) adapted pieces composed for Edo-style shamisen to the koto, and established the Yamada school.
At the beginning of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) Western music was introduced to Japan. The blind performer and innovator Miyagi Michio (1894 – 1956) was the first Japanese composer to combine Western music with traditional koto music. He wrote over three hundred works for the koto, created new playing techniques, and invented the popular larger 17-string bass koto. His 1929 duo for koto and shakuhachi, Haru no Umi (Spring Sea) is played every New Year’s Eve in Japan.
With the advent of modern pop music, the koto has become less prominent, although many young women still learn the instrument as a traditional "refinement." However, it is still developing as an instrument; works are written for and performed on twenty-stringed and bass kotos, and a new generation of players such as Sawai Kazue, and Yagi Michiyo (who studied under Sawai) are finding places for the koto in today's jazz, pop and even experimental music. June Kuramoto, of the jazz fusion group Hiroshima, was one of the first koto performers to popularize the koto in a non-traditional style. David Bowie used the koto in the instrumental piece "Moss Garden" on his album Heroes. Other performers outside of Japan include koto master and award-winning recording artist Elizabeth Falconer, who also studied for a decade at the esteemed Sawai Koto School in Tokyo, as well as koto master Linda Kako Caplan, the sole Canadian representative of Fukuoka's Chikushi Koto School for over two decades. David Horvitz pioneered the instrument into the contemporary indie rock scene playing on Xiu Xiu's new album, The Air Force.
All links retrieved April 24, 2018.
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