This is one of the three major genres of the Edo Period. So means Koto and Kyoku means music. The instrument, the Koto, originates in the Koto (So or Gakuso) of Gagaku. The Koto, in the Gagaku is a member of the ensemble, but according to historical sources, in older times there were some solo instrumental pieces for the instrument.
In the later 16th century (Momoyama Period) a Buddhist priest in northern Kyushu, named Kenjun (1547-1636) composed for the first time songs accompanied by the Koto. This new music was called Tsukushi-goto, taking the name of the province where the priest lived. Then, a blind musician, Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614 -1685) of Kyoto learned Tsukushigoto and created a new style of Koto music. He imitated the musical form of Tsukushi-goto pieces which consisted of six short songs and named his style Kumi-uta (suite of songs).
The biggest difference between Tsukushi-goto and Yatsuhashi was in the tuning and mode employed. Tsukushi-goto used the tuning based on the ryo-mode of Gagaku, while Yatsuhashi created tunings called Hirajoshi and Kumoi-joshi based on the in-mode which have become the representative tunings and modes of the Koto since that time. Yatsuhashi and his successors composed some solo instrumental pieces, but most of the compositions for Koto are songs accompanied by the instrument.
Almost at the same time as the appearance of Tsukushi-goto, Shamisen music occurred in Japan, and Ikuta Kengyo (1656-1715) devised the style of performing Ji-uta, a Shamisen music, together with the Koto. From that time instrumental interludes of songs accompanied by both instruments began to appear and many pieces began to consist of shorter parts of singing and longer instrumental parts-one to three in a song. This instrumental part, not merely an interlude any longer, was called Te-goto (hand-affair), and the style of these songs was Te-goto-mono (Te-goto style).
While the Te-goto style developed in Kyoto and Osaka, in Edo another new style of Koto music was established by Yamada Kengyo (1757-1817) who introduced the contemporary Shamisen music to the Koto music.
Later at the end of the Edo Period, Yoshizawa Kengyo in Nagoya created still another style-song accompanied by only the Koto which hinted at the oldest style of Koto music, Kumiuta. The main point of difference between his style and the older Kumiuta style was in that he used poems (waka) from the famous anthologies of ancient waka, Kokin Waka Shu, Kin Yo Shu, etc. At the same time he created a new tuning quite different from the older tunings. It was based upon both the In-mode and the Yo-mode. The tuning called Kokin-joshi is taken from the name of the anthology of poetry, Kokin Waka Shu.
Since Western music was introduced at the beginning of the Meiji Era, many attempts to change the older style were made with relatively little success. The first composer to combine Western music and Koto music was Miyagi Michio (1895-1956). He tried to introduce the diatonic scale, triple rhythm and orchestral style, which Japanese traditional music had never used before. Since then Miyagi has been favored by many Japanese musicians, many Koto players have imitated his style, while others, critical of his style attempted to create other styles.
Recently, especially since the Second World War, composers trained in Western music in Japan began to join the movement of creating new styles based on the traditional styles.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE KOTO is almost identical to that of the Gakuso of Gagaku. It consists of one thick front board, 186 cm in length and 48 cm in width. Pawlonia wood used for the body is sufficiently soft for a silk stringed instrument and is of the proper size to facilitate the construction of the Koto. The back of the front board is hollowed out to which the thin back board of the same wood is affixed. Two sounding holes are bored out of the back board.
Thirteen silk strings, each of the same thickness, are strung between two thin, low bridges fastened near the ends of the instrument. Each string, however, is tuned by a movable bridge shaped as an inverted Y.
The player plucks the strings with three ivory picks fitted to the thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand by bands. The shape of the pick differs between the two major schools of Koto music. In the Ikuta school a thin, square-shaped pick is used, while that of the Yamada school is thicker and rounded. The difference in the pick gives a delicate variation in timbre.
The Koto is the stringed instrument of Japan which produces the purest musical tone. However" because of the Japanese taste of the musical effect of noise, there are some special techniques for this purpose. For instance, scraping the strings would be one such technique which stands out in sharp contrast to the basic technique of plucking the strings.
When the Koto began to be accompanied by the Shamisen, the previously mentioned Tegoto style (instrumental) came in to fashion. The polyphonic ensemble of Koto and Shamisen or of two Kotos became popular. The first Koto part is called Hon-te and the secondary part is called Kae-de. Kae-de is often a more sophisticated melodic line. When a third part joins the two Kotos it is in the style of a drone or ostinato. The Shamisen part is also added to the Koto ensemble to produce a more polyphonic effect.
Since the end of the Edo Period, the Shakuhachi, a vertical bamboo flute is the third instrument to be added to the Koto and Shamisen. This is called Sankyoku, literally meaning, three compositions, but in this case signifying three instruments.
In older times, another stringed instrument, the Kokyu was used in the ensemble in place of the Shakuhachi. The Kokyu as previously explained is the only lute played with a bow. It is shaped like the Shamisen but much smaller and played with a bow like that of a violin. The musical form of Koto compositions varies according to the historical styles previously mentioned. Most of the pieces are songs. The oldest style, Kumi-uta, is a song style consisting of six short songs. The texts concern a certain subject, but do not have what might be called a plot. The most arresting feature of the form is its archaic manner. Each song has the same number of measures (32), and. the first measure of each four measures is a stereotyped Koto pattern. Every song ends with another pattern. In the pieces composed later, however, these stereotyped patterns gradually disappeared.
Kumi-uta was sung and played by one musician. This manner of performance, that singer and player are to be one and the same, ha_ been preserved today as the traditional manner of performing Koto music.
At the same time as the appearance of Kumiuta, some instrumental pieces were composed in a style called Dan-mono or Shirabe-mono. Dan means section and Shirabe means instrumental piece. The oldest piece of this kind is Rokudan-no-shirabe (Instrumental piece of Six Sections). This piece is a kind of free style variation and each section has the same number of measures (26).
Tegoto-mono, which occupies a big part of the Koto repertoire, are songs with long instrumental sections (tegoto). The number of instrumental parts vary from one to three. Usually. a song is composed in three sections; beginning song (Mae-uta), tegoto, and the final song (Ato-uta). The largest piece is constructed with the following form of seven sections: song (Mae uta)-- Tegoto--song (Naka-uta)- Tegoto-song (Nakauta)--Tegoto-song(Ato-uta). An example of this style, Nebiki-no-matsu, has an instrumental introduction in addition to the parts mentioned and the composition requires 35 minutes to perform. The form of a song without Tegoto varies according to the plot and subject. Basically, however, these forms are based upon the idea of three sections - Jo-Ha-Kyu which have been previously mentioned.
Most of the Koto songs are elegant, lyric poetry as the Koto was enjoyed mainly by women at home. Even love affairs and emotions are expressed in a refined way, while with the Shamisen they are more dramatic and realistic. A number of the Yamada School's pieces for Koto and Shamisen are written in a more dramatic style, but still they are performed less dramatically than Shamisen music.
By Dr. Shigeo Kishibe