Koto Sound Team Kyara comes to the Midwest

If you don't know what a "Koto" (箏) is by name, you would most likely recognise the sound since koto music is commonly associated with traditional Japan. The koto is the national instrument of Japan-- it is made from kiri wood (桐) and has either 13 or 17 strings. It's been played in Japan since the Nara Period (奈良時代 "7th century") and is the equivalent to what westerners might call a "harp."

I had the pleasure of attending a concert this weekend that featured the world-famous "Koto Sound Team Kyara" from Nagoya (名古屋市). Their concert featured a very beautiful collection of pieces ranging from traditional Japanese to western-influenced contemporary classical, some of which were played as solo performance and others that were played as a group including accompaniment by the shakuhachi (尺八) and shamisen (三味線).

The performance was truly exquisite, providing the audience with nourishment for the ears, eyes, mind and soul. Many different aspects of the concert impressed me in a deep and profound way. Firstly, koto musicians, when performing as a group, have the potential to produce the rich, full sound of a full orchestra. This is because the tones produced by the koto cover a broad pitch spectrum from low bass-clef to high-register treble, and also because the arrangements are perfect for the intricate, unified collaboration of the musicians while still providing plenty of opportunity to showcase the skills and talents of each individual artist. Secondly, the construction of the koto, paired with the experience and mastery of the musician allow for a performance that is dramatic and captivating but also steeped in quiet subtlety and meaningful poetry. Thirdly, the art of playing the koto is not only about talent and experience, but is also a presentation of physical gracefulness and delicacy that is communicated through the artists' careful hand movements and quiet, sophisticated demeanor. All of these qualities of beauty were a magical gift to the evening's concert-goers that were enhanced by the gorgeous attire of the musicians, all of whom were dressed in stunning kimono and hakama. The overall impact on the audience was enlightening, enriching and truly moving, giving each of us the rare chance to connect to something higher and more meaningful than ourselves and the music to which we were listening.

In Japanese music there is the concept of Jo Ha Kyu, which might translate into slow or quiet, increasing complexity and quick-tempo. Western musicians would recognise these as piano, andante and allegro. What makes Jo Ha Kyu something that is so treasured in Japanese music is the fact that these three are combined into one piece, yielding a finished arrangement that continuously changes throughout, never spending much time locked into a single tempo. Since the temporal changes in the music are subtle and in some ways hidden, Jo Ha Kyu is a symbol of human spirit and emotion-- fluid and ethereal. Indeed it is the case that listeners may be only subconsciously aware of the changing and evolving nature of the music-- much like the essence of human beings and our relationship with the universe. The ability to successfully communicate such a concept through music speaks volumes about the expertise of the musicians playing in this perfomance. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience and participate in this magnificent musical journey.

The Koto Sound Team Kyara concert took place at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Some of the world's most skilled musicians performed there, including koto player Nakamura Kaoru (headline photo - foreground) and renowned shakuhachi player Yonezawa Hiroshi (second photo).

Should ever the opportunity present itself to you to discover and enjoy this wonderful music and art form, please accept it. I hope that it proves to be as meaningful and illuminating for you as it was for me.

Please follow this link to download the flyer for this event (please note- the flyer is in PDF format and will require Adobe Reader for viewing).

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