Koto of Arms

Last night I participated in a concert entitled Dialogues Between Sound and Technology, at the Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya, Japan, where I was honored to have a new work, Tacomiendo, for koto and live computer-controlled electronics, premiered with myself performing along with Michiyo Yagi on 11-string koto.

Unlike some traditional Japanese instruments such as the biwa and shamisen, the koto has experienced some dramatic changes in the past century. With the innovations of composer and instrument designer Michiyo Miyagi (April 7, 1894 – June 25, 1956), the koto stopped being a unchanging museum piece. Miyagi’s modifications included redesigning key elements, such as the addition of strings in the bass register, adding resonance as well as extended range. In the later decades of the 20th century, composer/performers like Kazue Sawai, who was Michiyo Yagi’s teacher, pioneered numerous extended techniques, including string preparation, striking—even bashing—with drumsticks and other materials, and playing on the entire body of the instrument. Yagi has taken this approach even further, occasionally adding extreme amplification and electronics—putting her on equal footing with sometime collaborators like John Zorn and Peter Brötzmann.

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Still from video shot by Anne Stavanger

Often costumed and tattooed in ways that might evoke a dominatrix as much as a musician, it is clear when Yagi plays the koto who is the slave and who is the master. But although she is capable of an almost violent approach that might shock traditionalists—as well as anyone who knows the monetary value of the instruments she Hendrixes—she can also play with tremendous subtlety, fluidity, and sensitivity. People who search out her clips on YouTube might be deceived, as it seems that only her most extreme performances have risen to the top there. But those people lucky enough to hear her play pieces like Across the Bridge by Yuji Takahashi or her own Bridges for two kotos, both of which were performed last night in Nagoya, know how wide her expressive range really is.

Yagi is also an excellent improviser, and my piece was designed to take advantage of that fact. Tacomiendo is really a structured improvisation for two players using a score that combines graphic notation and text instructions along a timeline. The koto’s musical gestures serve as input to a complex computer software system (built in the programming language Max/MSP) which manipulates them in real time. The software network of virtual processors isolates fragments of sound, sometimes as small as a few microseconds, sometimes a long as half a minute. These fragments are subjected to a variety of treatments and resynthesis. While the score provides the basic guidelines for the performance, there is an element of unpredictability in the results due to certain random features of the processing software. Hence both performers are asked to listen carefully and adjust their performances according to what the computer provides.

I did notice a couple of video cameras rolling last night during the concert, so who knows, maybe something will be showing up on YouTube in the days to come. Meanwhile, I direct you to a good English language feature on Michiyo Yagi that appeared a while ago in Metropolis.

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