Kazue Sawai, a well-known koto player and widow of Tadao Sawai, who is considered the greatest modern koto player, performs “Midare” (“Chaos”) on the traditional Japanese instrument. Used with permission of Films for the Humanities and Sciences, a division of Films Media Group, Princeton, NJ. All rights reserved.
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The koto is a zither—an instrument with strings stretched along a hollow wooden body about six feet long. The koto traces its origins to an ancient Chinese instrument that came to Japan around the sixth century. The Japanese koto has 13 strings and was very popular in Japan by the Edo period (1603-1868).
On a koto, the strings are tied over stationery bridges at each end of the koto body. A movable bridge called a ji is placed somewhere along the length of each string. The ji lifts the strings off the body so they will resonate when they are plucked. Because the bridges can be moved, there can be a wide range of tuning. The player plucks the strings with picks called plectrums applied to the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger of the right hand. The left hand alters the sound in various ways, sometimes pressing down on a string firmly on the left side of the bridge to change the pitch of a string or shaking the strings to produce a kind of vibrato.
Originally koto music was not written down—in fact, for a time, koto playing was an occupation reserved for blind people, so the music was passed down through memory and apprenticeship. However, the strings were named. The first 10 strings are simply the Japanese words for the numbers 1 (for the thickest, lowest-sounding string) through 10, and the last three strings are named to, I, and kin.
Japanese notation is different for each instrument, and koto scores use the Japanese characters for the names of the strings. They are written in a table read from the top to the bottom of each column, starting at the right column and going to the left column.
Along with traditional music, koto players today perform contemporary koto compositions. Sawai Kazue, the koto player featured on this segment, is a well-known koto player in Japan. In addition to playing the 13-string koto, she also plays the bass koto, a 17-string instrument with a deeper sound that was designed in the 1920s. Kazue believes that the koto should be played not only because of its traditional importance but because it is a great instrument. “It is so versatile, so adaptable—there is still so much to discover about it.”
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