Koto Music Concert – ‘Shiki – 4 Seasons'

The Garage International
David Wright

 Summer, autumn, winter and spring are beautifully expressed with traditional excellence through musical splendour. This beautiful evening is presented by Etsuko Kawaguchi and Akemi Kawada, a Japanese duo that have performed all over the world and grace Adelaide for the first time. Clad in traditional kimono and playing with virtuosity and flexibility, these graceful ladies expose us to the contemporary and traditional Japanese songs dating from the 17th century to the present day. The four seasons are awoken through the melodic sound of the koto, a seventeen string Japanese lute transporting pure elegance and serenity with sound. The koto is a wooden harp-like instrument where the musicians can adjust sound pitches by movable bridges as well as plucking the strings, which was also used percussively during their representation of winter by hitting the strings. My only disappointment was that it had to end.


Koto Music Concert by Jo Vabolis

Japan 's national instrument, the koto, is a 13-string harp made from the wood of Paulownia tomentosa, sometimes known as the Empress Tree. In Japanese literature the instrument is often associated with romance, with highly skilled players attributed with the power to cause people to fall in love with them sight unseen. Etsuko Kawaguchi, founder and director of Sui No Kai, has played with the NHK Traditional Japanese Music Academy both in Japan and internationally, and her composed and masterful performance instantly captivated the audience at the North Adelaide Community Centre. She opened the program with a solo composition from the 17th century, the first of four pieces chosen to evoke the spirit of the four seasons.

Most koto are nearly six feet long, and the combination of delicate and forceful movements required to play them mean that the whole upper body is used. The right hand plucks, flicks or scrapes the strings to produce sound while the left hand moves bridges, adjusting tuning and manipulating individual notes. At times, it appears as if two separate instruments are being played at once.

In the second section, Kawaguchi was joined by Akemi Kawada, known in Japan for her interpretations of contemporary pieces and credited with introducing the koto to a wider audience. Singing complimented this meditative and serene 19th-century composition. The third selection, a solo by Kawada, was more complex and intense. Less formal, less mannered, but no less challenging, these final sections allowed a bolder exploration of the instrument's capabilities, featuring percussive, mesmerising hand movements. Akemi Kawada's 2009 composition ‘byakuren no gotoku' (‘like a white lotus flower') provided an emotive end to the program, prompting well-earned applause, and an encore. A beautiful and accomplished performance, that deserved a much bigger audience.