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I have now a few albums of Japanese Koto music. Nevertheless this is by far the best. The five pieces of music on the album come from the mid17th and mid19th century, roughly equating to the Edo period of Japanese history.
For those uncertain exactly what a Koto is (admittedly, Ive never seen one in the flesh!), it equates to a long zither with 13 strings and something of a convex body. It creates a clear, clipped sound that though does not necessarily sound like one, reminds one of very bare classical guitar music. It has the same clarity.
It seems the pieces of music on this album are very much standards of the period, and available on many best of or introduction to CDs of Koto music. But this is usually the way with traditional music originating from Japan and China for the most part and what is wrong with that? Being a unique experience to most Westerners (after all how much traditional Japanese/Chinese music do you hear over the course of the average year?) I dont see this as a problem. Surely it has a certain benefit as it places the listener in a situation where they are listening to (and hopefully enjoying) almost contextual music. In other words, we have to start somewhere and because a standard is a standard does not mean that it is music that is denigrated in any way. Just think of jazz and blues, music which exists to a great extent on the idea of standards, and these standards are often explored such that two versions seem entirely different pieces from one another. I believe this is called artistry.
Thus, in this case what I believe is so wonderful about the Art of Koto vol.1 is that unlike some albums there is no smudge of sound. Yoshimura manages to attain a clarity that is not always present on other recording. Also, I dont feel musically patronised. Thought traditional there is no sense that the pieces have been watered down in the same way that sometimes you hear pieces by Satie or Beethovens Moonlight Sonata given pointless, excessively lush, additional instrumentation (as if to make it accessible). For the most part Yoshimuras music is solo. Thus the importance of the clarity of her playing of the Koto is made clear. The music rises and falls on Yoshimuras ability to keep the listener enthralled despite the simplicity of the music. She attains these two with staggering ease. Not much actually happens per se, but the crisp, clipped clearness as she plucks each individual string has a certain hypnotic and elegance ease. Admittedly much must come from the writing of the original pieces, but Yoshimuras simple elegance imbues the music with a grace that is hard to pin down but often missing in different recordings.
The fives pieces are Rokudan, Midare, Zangetsu, Godan-ginuta and Chidori. Yoshimura is joined by Satomi Fukami on Zangetsu and Godan-ginuta, playing Shamisen (think of a three stringed, long-necked guitar or banjo) and Koto respectively. This allows a little interplay between the two instruments but there is no competition between the two performers, nor is there any loss in clarity of the music, rather the additional playing of Fukami adds extra depths and a slightly more dense sound, filling in the gaps of silence left in Yoshimuras solo pieces. Not that these tracks are inherently superior to the others, rather they complement them. Imagine the CD as containing a slow build up to a more solid sound, like a form of restrained crescendo, followed by the graceful, slender and slow slide back into the music where we entered. Thus there is circularity.
Though there are other changes and additions on the final two of the final three pieces: Zangetsu and Chidora. Above the trilling notes Yoshimura sings a slow narrative, careful enunciating each word in a manner that like the music has an entrancing quality. The delicacy of each enunciation and because there is no understanding of the actual meaning of each word the effect becomes entirely an emotional one, a reaction to the pitch and tone of her vocals, which like Fukamis playing, complement the tone of the music so that you cannot imagine either apart.
Overall, the delicacy of Yoshimuras playing, the simple elegance of the music make this a delight. From the first moment I placed it in my CD tray it appealed to me. Unlike some traditional Japanese/Chinese music which I have to be very much in the mood for, Yoshimura seems to have done the impossible and created a CD of accessible yet quite beautiful music that I dont think of as part of a genre or movement, in the same manner that I dont about say Philip Glass: I simply listen to it enthralled. Similarly, Yoshimura forges musical alchemy out of such traditional simplicity that one cannot but admire her artistry. The Art of the Koto, despite the name that unfortunately conjures up images bland genericism is certainly an album that I would encourage you all to attempt to listen to, if only to decide its not your thing. Once upon a time I refused to interact with many forms of music. A crime for which I am now attempting to atone and if that means finding jewels such as this then it is atonement worth the price.
Speaking of price, you can find it on Amazon for £12.99; though I suggest emusic.
My only reservation? Well, I downloaded the album from emusic, so I lost out a but as the CD comes with a 24 pages booklet explaining the background of the music, placing it in context with other musical movements of the period as well as societal, political and geographical context. It also contains an overview of the evolution of the Koto.
Disc #1 Tracklisting