November 2021 Monthly meeting: THE JAPANESE KOTO – TOUCHING THE SOUL WITH MUSIC, by Claudia Roque Erland

Video of the November KOTO meeting

Way back in 1983, while living in Misawa, Japan with my first husband (with the US Navy), I saw an offer on base – “Free Koto Lessons!”. The Japanese Koto, the traditional 13 stringed zither like instrument, was only familiar to me from a few local concerts. My musical training was in the piano and glockenspiel, but I hadn’t played either in ages. So of course I immediately signed up for the free Koto lessons!


The very kind and patient Koto Sensei (teacher), Ubukata Gagen, spoke no English, and my Japanese was not extensive, but along with 3 others from the base, we dove in headfirst. I only had one year left there, but I learned as much as I could. Upon our return to the US (Washington, DC), I thought, well, that was fun, but I won’t do that again. However, after six months I found I truly missed playing. So I called the Japanese Embassy, they referred me to a local Koto Sensei, and the rest is history.


The Koto is about 6 feet long, the strings are now tetron (originally silk), with movable bridges. It is played with pics called ‘otsume’ (honourable claws), on the first three fingers of the right hand. The strings can also be plucked using the other fingers, and there are a number of different techniques that can be used to enhance the sounds. The strings are traditionally tuned to a Pentatonic, 5 tone scale, named Hira Joshi. To make it even more challenging, the music is written in Japanese!


The Koto can be adapted to almost any genre of music – very traditional Japa-nese, accompanied by traditional singing; part of a large group of varied instruments playing contemporary compositions; even a collaboration with an Irish Harpist! I didn’t realise it when I began, but the Koto world is remarkably vibrant. Along the way, I’ve played at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, The East Asia Society in NYC, in London, UK, Sydney, AUS, Prague, CZ, Boston, MA, and many other venues. My most exciting audience was the former Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Japanese Ambassador’s Residence in Washington!


I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about Koto: the history and a few technical details. I will play excerpts from classical music up to the latest contemporary compositions. I’ve found that the simplicity of the Koto, with its clear sounds, is very good for the soul – at least for my soul! I’m excited to share my passion with everyone in IWCL – I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do!