Kazue Sawai, koto master and co-founder of the Sawai school.
Koto Master Kazue Sawai makes her first Bay Area appearance with six other distinguished artists at New Langton Arts Jan. 27. The guest artists include Carl Stone, an award-winning composer and originator of electro-acoustic computer music, and five koto masters from the Bay Area and Japan.
At New Langton Arts Theater, an interdisciplinary experimental arts space, the seven masters will have a chance to create something unique. Indeed, this event represents the first time that koto masters from different schools Sawai, Ikuta, Todo and Chikushi come together and improvise, something that never happens in Japan, due to kotos traditional rules and social decorum.
The walls of different schools in Japan dont happen here, points out guest artist Shirley Muramoto, a fourth generation Japanese American who has performed for dignitaries such as former Secretary of State George Schultz and Mikhail Gorbachev, and now directs the Murasaki Ensemble, a world jazz group.
Musician/composer Paul Dresher, the music curator for New Langton Arts for the past 16 years, together with Stone and Hikage, was instrumental in bringing Sawai over for her first Bay Area appearance.
Kazues music is unique because she combines the virtuosity and aesthetics of traditional Japanese music with a knowledge of and experience with the most progressive and experimental ideas emerging from contemporary Japan, America and Europe, explains Dresher.
She is so good at what she is trying to do, he continues. She may be the only one capable of successfully combining both the traditional and the new without compromising either.
For a first time listener to koto, and in this case, very avant-garde koto, young koto master Shoko Hikage offers a tip on how to best approach Japanese music, which is traditionally based on pure breath energy. The instrument is a vehicle to express the players energy or spirit. You can connect with the player by listening. The listener can get energy from the player. If there is a good connection, then the music becomes even more powerful. Kazue Sawais energy when she plays is so amazing.
The koto, similar to the Chinese gu-zheng, is a 13-stringed, plucked zither instrument which was introduced to Japan from China through the Korean peninsula around 7th century A.D. The instrument has since been used in the gagaku court settings for over a thousand years, and became a popular instrument among the merchant class of the Edo Period (1600-1868).
Sawai and her late husband, Tadao, are the founders of an original koto philosophy in Japan. In 1979, the two opened a modern koto school where each players individuality and personal dynamism is prized and sought after, and where traditional techniques and imitation of the master teacher take on a secondary role.
Kazue herself began studying the koto at age eight under the legendary Michio Miyagi, who designed the first bass koto and was the first to incorporate Western music elements into Japanese music. Because of her tireless efforts to internationalize the koto through teaching countless students her challenging stream of consciousness approach to the koto instrument, Kazue Sawai is perhaps the most accessible koto player to Western ears. Through her dynamic interpretations, she has a knack for making ancient koto music contemporary, as well as Western avant-garde music Japanese, whether that be The Three Dances by John Cage or Midare (Chaos) by Yatsuhashi (composed 1661-1673). Its not surprising to find Kazue performing the koto in unconventional venues from pristine concert halls to a dive bar, wearing a white kimono or a black leather outfit, complete with tall, tall boots.
Having appeared at classical, jazz and improvisational festivals around the world since 1989, Kazue Sawai has performed in the Bang On A Can Festival in New York, the Moers Jazz Festival in Germany, Tone Und Gegen Tone in Vienna, and Paris City Hall. More recently, she collaborated with Indonesian dancer Sardono Kusumo, Korean shaman Kim Seokchul and Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, for whom she performed In the Shadow of the Tree as a soloist with the NHK Symphony under Charles Dutoit at Carnegie Hall in 1999.
The philosophy behind Kazues performances and the Sawai school is based on human uniqueness.Though there are lovers of koto music in Japan who find Kazues style difficult to appreciate, the Sawai school has evolved to the top level in Japan. For the performance at Langton, Kazue will continue to stretch traditional definitions.
This number with five of us Saturday, we have to use sticks to hit the strings. It might be shocking to traditional koto listeners. [Kazue] brings out a percussive quality, not just the melodic, says Muramoto.
Perhaps more than any other Asian music, Japanese is historically more experienced at exploring the formless freedom of audio spaces, such as the Han-Kyoko music of traditional shakahachi repertoire of the 17th century. So there is already a cultural parallel to the deconstructive and minimalist improvisations found in Western, contemporary, avant-garde music and American jazz. The East West dialogue through koto music, though similar in many respects, affects audiences differently.
Koto music can still feel very Asian, admits Hikage. For Asian people, or Asian Americans, maybe its still in their DNA, so they can still feel it from within. For Western people, they feel a different way. The koto sound quality is more messy and mysterious to Western ears, not clear like the piano. But that is what makes koto so simple and so beautiful.
The rare Bay Area appearance by renowned Japanese koto player Kazue Sawai will be held this Saturday January 27th at 8pm at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom Street in San Francisco. Kazue Sawai will perform a dynamic koto concerto and improvisation with special guests Carl Stone on computer, and Shoko Hikage, Michiyo Koga, Tamie Kooyenga, Shirley Muramoto, and Noriko Tsuboi on the koto. For tickets or information, call 415/626-5416 or visit www.newlangtonarts.org. Kazue Sawai will appear with Hikaru Sawai January 31st at Orvis Auditorium at the University of Hawaii. For tickets and information, call Dr. Bernie Hirai at 808/955-6212.