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Experimenting with Tradition

Koto Musician Michiyo Yagi

12_local_voice_01.jpg Michiyo Yagi was born in 1962 in the city of Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture. In 1980, at age 18, she was apprenticed to Tadao (now deceased) and Kazue Sawai, koto virtuosos who were leaders of the traditional Japanese music scene. In 1986 Yagi completed a performance program in Japanese music sponsored by NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.), and in 1989 she participated in the Bang on a Can Festival of experimental music in New York. Since then, she has broadened her horizons, for example, performing with the world's leading jazz musicians. To date, she has held concerts in 32 countries. In January 1999, her first solo album, Shizuku--containing 12 songs, all composed by Yagi herself--was released simultaneously in 42 countries. And in April she released Zoom as a member of a trio named Kokoo (formed in 1995 with a shakuhachi and another koto player). When she is not traveling around the world, she is working to further music education, mainly among children, by giving koto lessons at her home in Tokoname.

About the Koto
The koto is a stringed instrument belonging to the zither family. The koto came from China in the eighth century. The body, which is hollow and made of paulownia wood, is 150-190 centimeters long, 25 centimeters wide, and 3-4 centimeters deep. The instrument is played by plucking the long strings stretched across the surface. There are kotos with many different numbers of strings (13, 15, 17, 20, 30, 80, and so on), which are used for different pieces.

Michiyo Yagi frequently travels around the world alone, carrying her koto along. One would naturally assume from this that the musician is a sturdy woman with a broad back. After all, the koto is nearly 2 meters long. But a glance at the cover of her solo album reveals a slim body in a black slip dress, an oddly alluring sight, even from a woman's eyes. What--a sexy classical musician?!

Yagi was performing live with Kokoo, one of her musical endeavors, when this interviewer visited her. The trio of two kotos and a shakuhachi had a rich, multilayered quality one would not have expected from a group of people playing traditional Japanese instruments. Yagi does not simply pluck the strings of the instrument laid out in front of her; she sometimes plays with a contrabass bow, strikes the strings with drumsticks, or scrapes them with a plastic cassette case. Richly expressive musical tones result. And just when you get used to that, she bangs on the sound board with her hands and stomps on the floor. What style of koto playing is this? As unorthodox as it appears, though, Yagi's approach is meticulous and assured. Her instrument is ecstatic; the music is alive.

Fingers that seem to glide over the strings.
Her sound and demeanor, naturally, often startle listeners. "I may have tarnished the image of the koto," Yagi confides with a mischievous grin. On close inspection she is extremely slim, and one is left to wonder where the source of her powerful stage presence could be hidden. With her short haircut and white shirt, though, she exudes wholesomeness more than sex appeal.

Most Japanese people associate the koto with traditional images: a kimono-clad woman sitting upright plucking the strings; the festive atmosphere of New Year; a Japanese garden with cherry-blossom petals floating in the breeze.

"Outside of Japan, too," Yagi notes, "people regard the koto as being Asian or ethnic, the kind of thing you would see in museums. When people actually come to see my performance, though, they always seem surprised."

Although Yagi's mother gave koto lessons at home, "I'd usually throw down my bag and run outside to play as soon as I came home from school," she laughs. "To tell you the truth, I hardly touched the koto while I was growing up. Whenever I saw my mom giving lessons, I would sneak away!"

However, perhaps because the koto was always nearby, she began to develop an interest in the instrument and began studying it seriously when she was 18. That is when she met her teacher and commenced the life of a live-in apprentice. For the next several years, she says, "my only goal was to learn classical songs and to play using traditional techniques."

But her life reached a turning point in 1989, when she participated in the experimental Bang on a Can Festival in New York as a member of her teacher's koto ensemble. "It was there," she said, "that I learned what it means to create music."

She had always been taught to believe that playing music involved certain rules, based on which there are correct interpretations and mistakes. But her experience at Bang on a Can was different: "It was half-improvised, with no musical score, and there was no right and wrong. It was fabulous because it was so free. That's when I realized for the first time the kind of music I wanted to play."

The tradition-bound community of koto musicians did not embrace her innovations, though, labeling Yagi an eccentric. At the same time, the jazz world pigeonholed her as a classical musician. The inability to find her own place was agony for her.

"But ten years after my debut, when I put out my first solo album, I found myself no longer groping for an identity. Of course, playing the koto is still an ongoing process of trial and error, but I'm comfortable with what I do now.

"If I start worrying about the koto's tradition and future, I'm liable to hit a dead end. I see myself now as a musician whose instrument just happens to be the koto. I like playing it, and that's enough."

Although her repertoire includes avant garde pieces, the only tunes she teaches her students are classical ones.
"I stick with the classics as a rule," she said. "But sometimes I let the kids bang on the strings so they can experience the joy of making sound. If I insist too strictly on form, music might become a chore for them."

Although Yagi's performing career is now centered on Tokyo, she currently takes students only in Tokoname.

"Having been born and raised in the city, I want the younger people there to learn about the spirit of the koto as a classical art. I feel an obligation to hand down this important musical tradition to future generations. Of course, I play classical tunes myself, and I still need to study."

Does she find any time to do other things, like cook? Does she worry about cutting or burning her hands? "Sure I cook," she replied matter-of-factly. "As an apprentice, I had to prepare seven separate side dishes for eleven people in an hour's time!"

After the interview, a postcard arrived from Austria, where Yagi was on tour. "The way I see it," she wrote, "tradition is burdensome at times but also very important. As long as I'm physically able, I want to keep pushing the limits of my potential."

(Photos by Hans Sautter, Text by Yuka Ogura)