Making the old dragon sing

N.B.: This is the first of a four-part writing series about my koto mentorship program as a professional development initiative I started in September 2022. This initiative is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts.

“Why don’t you take up Japanese koto as a minor instrument?” an advisor nonchalantly told me as he proceeded to jot it down on my registration form anyway.

Despite not knowing what the instrument is, I nodded my head in agreement. I was registering for my first semester as a composition freshman student in the University of the Philippines. What do I know anyway? Little did I know that his recommendation would make a mark on my musical life.

I showed up in my first koto lesson. It was at the College of Music museum where instruments from all over the world are displayed in a gallery exhibit. I was greeted by Wakaba Nishijima, the koto teacher who would give me lessons for the next years of my undergrad studies. Along with everyone else, she taught me koto playing in the Yamada style with whatever English she knows.

It’s intriguing to rethink my position again as someone who studies a Japanese instrument. This is my way of telling how my relationship with the koto all began. I don’t have Japanese ancestry, nor do I have any vested interest in owning an old foreign tradition. Instead, it was the academic institution that made this offering. With emerging ethnomusicological pursuits in institutions after World War II, non-Western musics were suddenly interesting to scholars. My university was no exception—with the initiatives of composer-ethnomusicologist Jose Maceda, the examination of Philippine traditional musics gained acceptance as legitimate scholarly work in the 1950s. Of course, Maceda learned all that at Columbia University and Northwestern University. Ethnomusicology, just like anything else in the Philippines, is another colonial legacy to us as a former American colony. Might as well argue that access to world cultures is a colonial legacy in itself.

As much as non-Western cultures became the stars of anything anthropology, they also became cultural capital for geopolitical gains post-World War II. As an example, the Indonesian government began promoting the gamelan to forge cultural ties with other countries (the prominence of gamelan orchestras, practitioners, and scholars in many American universities attests to such use of power). From what I know, the Japanese koto arrived at my university by way of the Sawai Koto School—they sent a collection of koto instruments and a koto teacher to jumpstart a koto program in my university back in the day. It is worth noting that the Sawai school plays in the Ikuta style; as a master in the Yamada style, Nishijima-sensei only took over after the previous koto teacher left. This is where my koto encounters have started.

Tracing my koto journey requires recognizing key differences between the Yamada and Ikuta styles. The repertoire is different: Yamada tends to focus more on accompanying songs, while Ikuta favours new techniques to accompany the shamisen. Yamada players use rounded tsume (finger picks), while Ikuta players use square ones. This key difference produce vastly different approaches in playing the instrument. The Ikuta style eventually produced a lineage of more modern playing, with the music of the likes of Michio Miyagi (he invented the 17-string “bass” koto and composed koto music that followed Western musical sensibilities). Koto masters Tadao and Kazue Sawai (husband-wife team) have collaborated with contemporary composers like John Cage. The Sawai’s affiliations with modern music carried over in establishing the Sawai Sokyokuin in the late 1970s.

Nishijima-sensei left her teaching position after my four years of study. Studying later under Raissa Odi-Pineda (who acquired her teacher license with Nishijima-sensei) and later collaborating with Hiroko Nagai (from Ateneo de Manila University’s Japanese Studies program), I became more aware of Tadao Sawai’s music and developed a preference for its modern sensibilities. With the availability of the bass koto in its practice, this appeals to me as a contemporary composer. The switch from the Yamada style to the Ikuta style was inevitable for me.

The isolated koto community around me (namely, fellow koto students) also steered toward this direction. I find it important to take note of our isolation. We were never connected to the greater worldwide community of koto practitioners at that time. I could never even imagine such a community. Nishijima-sensei never included us in anything. Even procuring koto accessories was a chore in itself—getting new sets of tsume was a concerted effort, relegated to the Ethnomusicology department. I say this now because we compare that situation to around 15 years later (a.k.a. today) when commerce in Japan finally accommodates online shopping and the necessary infrastructure along with it. (More on that later). Not even mentioning the surplus of products from Japan that are sold in the Philippines—and yes, my colleagues back home eventually got their own koto instruments in this manner. It was only through Hiroko-sensei’s network that my colleagues finally reaped the benefits of having opportunities for such community connections.

I did not get the chance to partake in that, nor was I able to get my own instrument. I was told that a koto would cost like a brand new car. Unlike rich people, I’m only one of multitudes of Filipinos who get by. And I was already an active koto performer during that time, with stints that even included a recorded TV broadcast at PTV 4.

Starting in 2012, my nine-year koto silence was an imposed one. Two things happened: one, my adopted baby sister (a toddler back then) damaged my koto picks. Most importantly though, I started my Canadian journey in late 2013 to complete my masters degree in composition at McGill University. With drastic life changes, the koto took a backseat.

It was only in 2020 when I gained permanent residency in Canada. After years of lacking security and stability in life, I can finally rebuild my life again. That’s when I remembered that some fragments in my life might be worth piecing together again. The koto is one of them. I began shopping around in August 2021 until I found a kuriko (luxury concert-grade koto made from one piece of wood, not assembled together) sold at Yahoo Auctions Japan. Knowing that opportunity only knocks once, I placed my bid. I won it without any fuss, and soon enough, the instrument was delivered to my doorstep in September 2021 at my own expense. As mentioned earlier, this wouldn’t be possible if not for recent developments in Japan’s way of handling international business. (Paypal? Third-party agents for international customers? Google Translate? Japanese business websites? They weren’t there 15 years ago).

This instrument came with a custom-made wooden case. Both the case and the instrument bore the maru ni tachibana family crest. If you know Japanese kamon, you might know that the maru ni tachibana used to be owned by a samurai clan. It’s not a big deal nowadays though, since all Japanese common folk are free to use whatever kamon is appropriate to their familial lineages. (Look at Mitsubishi! Their brand logo is literally the mitsubishi kamon!). However, one can’t miss the exquisite features of this koto which includes lavish maki-e ornamentations on the koto’s mouth, a nice orange kuchimae and ogire set installed in the instrument, and an embroidered blue cloth bag. The only thing lacking is the zigzag groove etchings at the back of the sounding board (which my present sensei says is a sham for such an instrument!). Despite sounding a little dry at first, this instrument is still in really good condition. I ordered koto scores from the Sawai School in Tokyo to help me restart my journey.

I showed this new acquisition to Hiroko-sensei, who told me some fascinating information in return. Based on the writing in the case, this instrument and the ornate case were constructed in December 1969 (44th year of the Shōwa period) for a lady named Sachiko Ando. Hiroko-sensei said that no one sells off a lavish heirloom like this one. “It’s only either the owner died, or she gave up music,” she told me. This is a 53-year-old dragon on the brink of death—second-hand instruments on the market kinda had their fate sealed. If no one buys them, the instruments sadly die.

“That’s what I think about all these second-hand instruments being sold off. If your instrument was not used well, kawawa naman talaga (it really would be a pity),” she said.

“It’s like, its spirit lives on. If no one uses it, the spirit dies,” I said. “Yes. Also the passion of the craftsman. Your instrument has a lot of ornaments. Those indicate that the koto maker really put effort to make it. So I think yours still has potential,” she concludes.

I don’t know if you noticed me calling this one a dragon. It is known to koto players that the instrument is likened to a dragon. The ivory ornaments on one end? That’s where the head (and mouth) of the dragon is. Putting all the ji (removable bridges) in place, you see the spiral form of the dragon’s body with a tail end where the two extra tetron strings are coiled in place. You can say that the stands are the legs. With the maru ni tachibana branded in its body, I would say that this is quite a formidable samurai dragon!

Making this old dragon sing again is made possible with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. I was awarded a professional development grant in May 2022 to pursue koto studies for one year under New York-based master Masayo Ishigure. This project will also involve a one-month stay in New York for me to study with her in person. Figuring out my options for this opportunity, I decided that Masayo Ishigure is the best choice for a koto teacher due to certain reasons: (1) she studied directly under the Sawai couple as a research student back in the day; (2) she has a strong performance record, including performances at Carnegie Hall and collaborations for the film scoring of Memoirs of a Geisha; and (3) being based in New York, she is the closest one to Toronto who belongs to the Sawai Koto School. (Hiroko-sensei also knows her personally). I reached out to her and she enthusiastically expressed willingness to serve as a mentor for this endeavour.

This is my story so far. I plan to write the next three updates in this series in a quarterly period, with reflections on my ongoing koto studies. I can’t wait to tell all the wonderful stuff I’ve learned so far. The dragon is singing once again—that also includes the “dragon” inside my fragmented self.