This piece is simply two kotos improvising over the Ritsu scale that is found commonly in Gagaku.
I used the chords that are commonly played on the Shou (seen right), repeated and improvised with the koto.
The drums aren’t in time on purpose here. One feature of old Japanese music is the lack of ‘perfect in time’ playing. The more natural, the closer to the earth you are. Enjoy!
If you listen to the shamisen very closely, you will hear a slight buzz coming from the top (lowest sounding) string. Usually tuned D G D or D A D, the string resonates anytime the player plays a note within the overtone series.
So if your top string is D, then ascending A, D(octave), F#, A, C, D, E, F#.
Notes like F# have a major quality to them, and if our root string is tuned to D, then most likely the key will be something like a western G minor pentatonic with a 4th and flat 7 slipped in here and there. The root is the 5th.
D Eb (F) G A Bb (C) D
The following piece has more E natural than Eb in it.
See if you can hear the drone like sound in the shamisen.
I’ve written about the Koto and a little about the Shamisen, but one instrument I don’t know much about is the Biwa.
This photograph on the left shows a modern Gagaku (traditional shinto court music) musician playing a “Gaku-biwa” which is only used in court music. This is probably the most basic and oldest shape of the instrument.
The biwa came directly to Japan from China.
Check out this painting on the left China, probably Turfan, Tang dynasty, 8th century and the wood carving from Japan on the right.
The lineage of the instrument is traceable across asia to the middle east.
You can see the biwa shaped instrument in the bottom left corner of this painting from Persia.
The instrument was played by musicians who were known as Biwa-Hoshi. They were traveling musicians who earned income by reciting vocal literature to the accompaniment of biwa music. Often blind, they adopted the shaved heads and robes common to Buddhist monks. This occupation likely had its origin in China and India, where blind Buddhist lay-priest performers were once common. These musicians would spread the buddhist precepts while singing and performing:
1.As the Buddha refrained from killing until the end of his life, so I too will refrain from killing until the end of my life.
2. As the Buddha refrained from stealing until the end of his life, so I too will refrain from stealing until the end of my life.
3. As the Buddha refrained from sexual misconduct until the end of his life, so I too will refrain from sexual misconduct until the end of my life.
4. As the Buddha refrained from false speech until the end of his life, so I too will refrain from false speech until the end of my life.
5. As the Buddha refrained from alcohol until the end of his life, so I too will refrain from alcohol till the end.
In Japan, the biwa musicians started to tell the tale of Heike around 1220. It details battles between two powerful clans, the Genji and the Taira around the 12th century. The Taira were eventually annihilated by the Genji, who systematically killed every male descendant of the Taira. The Taira spirits then began disrupting the peace. The Great Earthquake around 1185 C.E. contributed to this sentiment. Since their rituals included placating spirits and preventing plagues, Heike story telling through song became a vehicle for containing lingering, resentful Heike spirits. Heikyoku and biwa musicians became immensely popular for the next several hundred years.
One thing that I noticed in reading about the Biwa’s history, they seemed to belong to something like a union called the Tōdōza. A Japanese guild for blind men, established in the 14th century by the biwa performer Akashi Kakuichi. Members performed a variety of roles, as itinerant musicians, masseurs, and acupuncturists. It seems the government supported the guild and made sure they were performing and working.
The Todoza was banned in the Meiji period and musicians were forced to work for their own livings. Since then, the Meiji period brought a promininet interest in western instruments. The biwa almost died out, but thanks to people who understand the importance of maintaining traditional culture, the instrument is still performed today.
She is performing a Satsuma biwa. There are a variety of different biwa available. The main instruments now are Satsuma (on the right) and Chikuzen(on the left).
There are a number of foreign musicians playing chikuzen biwa nowadays. Wonderful to hear!
New years has come and gone and now all the local convenience stores are pumping KOTO music out of their speakers. I hear a lot of what sounds like Danmono playing, but the most common and slightly irritating song is Sakura Sakura.
Sakura means Cherry Blossom, so unless I missed something I’m pretty sure that song is appropriate in the spring, not the dead of winter.
Another piece that confused me was “Haru no umi” which means Spring Sea or the sea in spring and can be heard EVERYWHERE!!!!
I asked around and found out that 春 haru which is Spring in English is connected with 青春 or fresh / pure / new. Thus, when Miyagi Michio wrote this piece, it immediately became synonymous with New Years.
When I came to Japan years ago, I thought I would explore Japanese chords and harmonic movement, but as soon as I sat down with my professor at Osaka Geidai and discussed what I wanted to learn, my professor shot that idea down. She told me that there is no such thing as chords or chord progressions in traditional Japanese music.
A lot of Japanese string instruments do in fact play double stops or have what sound like drones.
The koto has tons of strings, 13 in fact. Yet they are never used in a G B D triad style.
In the tuning called Hira joshi with the root of D, the strings 1-13 are tuned as follows:
D – G – A – Bb – D – Eb – G – A – Bb – D – Eb – G – A
with ascending pitch, except:
String 1 is in unison with string 5 in classical pieces.
String 1 is usually an octave below string 5 in modern pieces.
That being said, common double stops in traditional music are usually two strings played in one stroke.
So, D+G, G+A, A+Bb, Bb+D, D+Eb, Eb+G, G+A ad infinitum…
Often times an octave jump occurs after the double stop.
ie. G2+A2 to G3 (major 2nd)
A2+Bb2 to A3 (minor 2nd – good tension)
D2+G2 to D3 or Eb3 (5th or 4th depending on D2 or D1)
Bb2+D2 to Bb3 (major 3rd)
Eb3+G to Eb4 (major 3rd)
Here is a video of Yatsuhashi Kengyo’s Midare or 12 step danmono piece. There are many double stops in this Hirajoushi piece.
In the tuning of kokin joshi with D as the root, the strings 1-13 are tuned as follows:
D – G – A – C – D – Eb – G – A – C – D – Eb – G – A ascending
similar sounds in this scale except
A2+C2 to A3 (minor 3rd)
Watch this near perfect performance from a student or teacher from Senzokugakuen music school of Chidori no Kyoku tuned in Kokin Joshi.
You will notice that a lot of times the strings ring out after being played in order. Often strings are played in order and left to ring. This gives a sense of harmony or chord.
As for other instruments, I am not too familiar with the Biwa or the Shamisen but from what I have played of the Shamisen, I do know that a lot of what I learned was very parallel to the koto style of playing and harmonic motion. The only big difference was there is usually a slight drone that buzzes on the Shamisen on the D string. Sometimes the instrument is tuned D-G-D or D-A-D and those strings are often played in twos sometimes all together.
Notice there is no real minor or major chords. At least in the sense of a western triad sense.
和 = stands for Wa or Yamato which refers to Japan. The meaning of the Chinese character is “harmony; peace; sum; total”
Wednesdays from now on will feature Japanese music on my site.
In the world of Koto music, a woman named Kazue Sawai is one of the most famous players who studied under Miyagi Michio. One of the last “Kengyo” blind koto/shamisen performers.
Here’s a clip from her Wiki page.
Kazue Sawai (沢井 一恵, Sawai Kazue?, born 1941 in Kyoto) is a Japanese koto player noted for her performance of contemporary classical music and free improvisation.
She began studying, at the age of eight, with Michio Miyagi. She later graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.
She plays both the 13-string and 17-string kotos. As a soloist, as well as with her koto ensemble, she has performed and worked with John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Yuji Takahashi, Ayuo, Roberto Carnevale, Sofia Gubaidulina, David Behrman, Carl Stone, and many other composers. She has performed in Japan, North America, and Europe.
She was married to the late Tadao Sawai, who was also a koto player and composer. The couple had a son Hikaru Sawai (b. 1964), who is also a koto player and composer.
She operates a school in Japan, where she teaches both Japanese and foreign students. Her students include Michio Yagi, Elizabeth Falconer, Shoko Hikage, and Mei Han.
Here’s a video of her Ensemble rocking her late husband’s piece “BURSTING INTO FLAMES.”
Incredible amount of modern techniques being used on 13 and 17 string kotos here.
You can see Mrs. Sawai rocking the 17 string koto in the back of her group. Also, American performer Elizabeth Falconer is playing in the group. Pretty incredible!
I’ll look for some of her teacher’s recording’s next week. Michio Miyagi was also a very outstanding performer who died very young.
I love the sound of Gagaku and how sparse and simple it is. The Ritsu scale is the most common scale found in gagaku pieces and here I decided to copy the chords for the instrument: sho (pictured on the right) and use them for comping on the keyboard, which creates this wispy, thin sound.
In the piece below, I used the koto as a lead instrument, which of course is breaking the rules, but whatever! Typically the lead instrument is played by this guy on the left. But if you know me, you know that’s not me and I don’t own that instrument yet. Enjoy the video featuring my floating girlfriend’s head below!
It is played by plectrum or picks attached to your fingertips. They are traditionally made from ivory.
The schools are as listed above:
Ikuta school and the Yamada school of koto playing
Here is a picture of the Yamada School of Koto in Tokyo.
There are also different sizes and number of stringed instruments out there.
１７ string bass koto
21 string koto!
２５ string super koto!
the WTF replica of the 80-string Koto Miyagi Michio developed
The instrument is still actively performed today, but the numbers of musicians are slowly declining and not many people are using the instrument in a fun manner like I have.
I hope we can explore the usage of this instrument in it’s original Japanese tuning and form while shaping western music around it.