Review: Koto Concert at National Nikkei Museum & Hieritage Centre July 26

The Japanese Canadian National Museum
Koto Concert – Chikako Kanehisa, a benefit concert for the National Nikkei Museum & Heritage Centre
Sunday, July 26, 2009, 3pm

Review by Devon Cooke
– for www.gunghaggisfatchoy.com

Certain parts of Japanese culture export very well.  Sushi and anime are so popular in the West that they have a life of their own that is separate from their Japanese origins.  This is wonderful, but it may leave a somewhat distorted image of Japanese culture as a whole.  Japan is much more than raw fish and giant robots!

Judging by the audience at the Koto Concert put on by the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, the koto, Japan’s national musical instrument, still has a long way to go before it penetrates Vancouver’s cultural consciousness — nearly all of the crowd was of Japanese origin, with the odd Japanese-by-marriage family member and a few curious seniors mixed in.  If only everyone was so curious!

The concert, which featured professional koto player Chikako Kanehisa and shakuhachi master Mitsuhashi Kifu, was presented as part of the 80th anniversary of Japanese-Canadian relations that also brought the Emperor of Japan to Vancouver earlier this month.  Those fortunate (or curious) enough to attend got to see a part of Japanese culture that is barely visible in the West.

Certainly, I had never heard of the koto before the concert, but the sound is familiar.  Anyone with a passing interest in Asian cultures has probably heard a koto — or one of its relatives — without knowing what it was.  It’s not an easy instrument to describe; it resembles a huge, six-foot long zither with thirteen movable bridges.  The strings are plucked (or strummed, or thumped, or rubbed) with the right hand on one side of the bridge while the left hand is used to create pitch shifts or vibrato on the other side of the bridge.

Listening to it was a complex experience — it’s the kind of music that would be impossible to put in writing because there are so many intangible aspects that aren’t captured by quarter notes on a staff.  It had a very organic feel, like listening to birdsong.  Ironically, the song entitled “Like a bird” (鳥のように) was one of the least like this, it carried a more regular rhythm and more clearly defined pitches than some of the others.

Perhaps because of this, it was one of the more accessible, exciting songs to my Western ear, but I couldn’t help but feel that the beauty of the instrument was captured best in some of the other songs — the ones with slightly bent pitches and somewhat irregular rhythms.  The (Japanese?) idea that beauty is inherent in small, slight imperfections is one that has always resonated with me, and the Koto struck me as an instrument where the skill in playing came from creating just the right pattern of imperfections.

The shakuhachi flute is an instrument that I am more familiar with, but it too impressed me with the range of sounds it could produce.  Like the koto, many of the notes were bent in a way that seems more reminiscent of a saxophone or a trumpet than a flute.  A number of times, Mitsuhashi impressed me by playing a continuous note that rose or fell almost a full scale — an impressive feat for an instrument with only a small, “fixed” set of notes.

I think I enjoyed the duets most of all.  The instruments (and musicans) complimented each other well.  On its own, the lonely, longing timbre of the shakuhachi threatened to overwhelm me with its sadness, but the sharp, epic, almost militaristic presence of the koto helped bring the sound back to earth and remind me that, whatever I was feeling inside, there was still a whole world out there to explore.

For most of the audience, the Koto Concert would have been a breath of familiar air (or, perhaps to the second-generation Canadians, a possible answer to the question “Where did I come from?”)  For me, my personal interest was piqued because it was foreign.  This is not a side of Japanese culture I had previously discovered, and I was happy to have to opportunity to explore it.  Koto concerts in Vancouver do not come along every day (or even every year), so I was happy to discover a new side of Japanese music.

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