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Picture of Koto playing - traditional Japanese instrumentThe koto is one of the most popular Japanese traditional musical instruments. To many, the character of koto music is evocative of traditional Japan with the attributes of the western harp, dulcimer and lute. (Photographs from the Japan Festival Melbourne 2002. Click on image to enlarge).

Many Japanese legends refer to the origins of the koto. A popular one says that the koto was formed in the shape of crouching dragon, a charmed and mythical creature of ancient Japan and China.

The koto was brought to Japan around the end of the 7th century by Chinese and Korean musicians who came to play in the Japanese court orchestra, gagaku. By the 15th century, solo repertoires for koto, sookyoku began to emerge. In the early Edo period (around the 17th century), sookyoku was a popular source of entertainment for the wealthy merchant classes.

Japanese Koto performance at Japan Festival Melbourne 2002The thirteen strings of the koto are stretched along a soundboard of nearly two metres made of hollowed-out paulownia timber. The strings were traditionally made of silk, nowadays synthetic. It is tuned for different songs by movable bridges of ivory or plastic.

The koto is played with ivory plectrum on the thumb and the first two fingers of the right hand, the left hand applying pressure to vary the pitch. The music ranges from the simplicity of the traditional to the melodic as well as challenging contemporary pieces.

The Sawai International Koto School

The Sawai International Koto School was opened in 1989 under Ms. Odamura Satsuki, as a branch of the Sawai Koto School in Tokyo. Ms. Odamura has pioneered the introduction of teaching and performing of koto to Australian students, musicians and audiences. The Sawai International Koto School has now two branches in Sydney and Melbourne.
The Sawai Koto School, Sawai Sookyoku-in, in Tokyo was founded in 1965 by the late composer and kotoist Sawai Tadao and his wife Sawai Kazue, and is now directed by their son Sawai Hikaru. Both modern and traditional Ikuta-style koto and Jiuta-style sangen are taught in the School.

The Sawais have been instrumental in bringing recognition to the koto as something more than simply a traditional instrument. They perform and teach koto with the concept that it is versatile and many-faceted. The school is noted for its openness to new types of music, innovative playing techniques, and a variety of sounds. This philosophy is reflected in the dynamic performances and diverse compositions of Sawai Tadao and Sawai Hikaru.

Article re-published with permission from Saeko Kitai, The Sawai International Koto School, Melbourne.

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