London’s Japanese are great concert-goers, but there’s a historical reason why they packed out this three-day festival of Japan’s traditional music. For even in Japan, “classical music” usually denotes the western kind: Japan’s ancient tradition all but came to a halt when the Imperial court turned its gaze westwards in 1871, and instructed its musicians to school themselves in western styles.
The instruments of the gagaku ensemble, whose repertoire had not changed in a thousand years, were now seen as retrograde; schoolchildren were made to learn the piano and violin, and only recently has it once more become government policy that they should master their own country’s instruments. With Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez falling in love with the sho mouth organ and the koto zither, it was largely Occidentals who kept this Oriental flame alive. The Japanese came to Kings Place to encounter their past.
Michiyo Yagi is one of the most innovative koto players in the world, and her concert was a brilliant demonstration of this instrument’s past, present and possible future. It’s basically very simple, just 13 strings stretched over a six-foot curved wooden plank, but as plucked by this player (or with the strings pressed down to raise the pitch) it conjured up an exquisite sound-world. The first piece she played was an 18th-century setting of a 10th-century poem, and its bare octaves – with delicate arpeggiations occasionally breaking the surface – suggested the chaste beauty of a Zen garden. Her next piece, by a 20th-century composer, exploited the full sonority of this instrument, capable of sounding both fruitier than the harp and also more ethereal.
But her main mission here was to push out the koto’s boundaries, first with two compositions of her own. River Man was her transcription of a song by Nick Drake, and Small Night was her elegy for Japan’s first supermodel, and for these pieces she used a bass koto – with amplification and sampling – to produce massive walls of sound. Finally she brought on jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, with whom she went into a wild jam session. This was magnificent in its way, but give me the original, unadorned solo koto any day.