This recording of music of the koto, a 13-string instrument about six feet in length played with picks (plectra) on the thumb, index finger and middle finger, demonstrates the phenomenal skill and unerring beauty with which Japanese masters perform on this national instrument. The delicate high-pitch of the instrument has a highly spiritual quality and the clear and full tones when plucked by these masters are something to behold.
Recorded by Katsumasa Takasago and released on LP for the remarkable Nonesuch Explorer series of "world music" recordings in 1965, this disc was remastered and released in 1998 with a beautiful booklet reprinting Takasago's original notes. Notably, most of the performers on this album are women, including Master Shogin Hagiwara, who lost her vision at six years of age and earned her degree of "koto master" when seventeen.
Master Hagiwara takes solo turns on "Rokudan-no-Shirabe," or "Music of Six Steps," a 17th-century piece that has six sections and is a spectacular showcase and on "Shin-Takasago" an 1800s song based on the Takasago drama in the Noh theatrical tradition. This latter is especially beautiful.
She and her student Master Ginsho Mineuchi perform a stunning duet on "Godan-Kinuta," a song for weaving cloth and then a trio performance with Master Kikusui Kofu on the shakuhachi (bamboo flute, of which music there will be discs highlighted here some day) on "Haru-no-Kyoku," or "Music of Spring." The use of the shakuhachi conveys a mournful, contemplative and highly emotional tone to the piece, as well.
The other two works are "Echigojishi," an 18th-century folk song of a lion dance from an ancient festival in the community of Echigo, performed solo by Master Hatta and the trio piece "Yugao" or "Evening Glory" which includes koto master Yamaguchi with shamisen (three-stringed lute-like instrument) master Kitagawa and Master Kikusui on the shakuhachi. This song takes its story from the famed The Tale of Genji from the 11th century and a girl named Yugao with whom Genji fell in love, but she died due to a curse from a haunted spirit. This is a particularly interesting piece and a nice close to a fantastic album of traditional Japanese koto music.
Japan: Koto Music (Nonesuch Explorer Series, 1965/2008)
1. Echigojishi 2:02
2. Godan-kinuta 11:50
3. Rokudan-no-shirabe 6:03
4. Haru-no-kyoku 8:57
5. Shin-takas ago 2:07
6. Yugao 12:49