The Koto in New York City (and beyond)

Interview with Yumi Kurosawa

31 JULY 2017,
Yumi Kurosawa
Yumi Kurosawa

Yumi Kurosawa is one of the world’s most renowned koto players and is currently based in New York City. She has performed world-wide and will be having a show soon at the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center.

Can you please tell us about the koto and why it is a special instrument?

The koto was introduced to Japan from China over 1,300 years ago and then recreated so that it would reflect a more Japanese style. Something interesting about it is that the koto was, during its long history, used for the daily training of monks and medical doctors. Monks and doctors studied the koto for the purpose of meditation and to build up mental strength. It takes immense practice and real self-discipline to maintain the best sound and this requires intense effort and a meaningful expenditure of time. The study of the koto was, in fact, thought to help in regard to mastering many disciplines. The koto found its place in high society - as part of the educational curriculum that aristocrats were expected to learn. Ultimately, the koto became a cultural staple in the general society. Today, the koto is synonymous with Japan and Japanese history and culture. As an instrument, it has a universally appealing sound and people respond well to its versatility, its voice; it encompasses everything from religious expression to the entertainment of court officials in Japanese history. In addition to being technological innovators and embracing world-wide cultural trends, the Japanese people love to maintain their history and tradition. The koto is an inseparable part of Japan, its sound and identity. That the koto has been influenced by other cultures and often evolved in response has helped to keep the tradition alive as well.

How did you feel about beginning your training at 3 years old? Do you remember much about this?

Honestly, I don't remember when I started, but old photos actually show me playing when I was 3 years old. I even have a photo of myself at age 1 where I was grabbing koto strings with my mouth wide open. I started to study the koto because my parents were professional koto players and teachers. They also operate a Japanese traditional musical instrument shop which is an ancestral business which my brother runs now.

How physically difficult is it to master this instrument?

I'd say the koto is not easy to play, especially if you want to play at a professional level. Also I chose a slightly unique musical path which I have had to discover and create for myself, due to relocating outside of Japan and trying to expand the repertoire of the koto. I am faced with challenges both musically and physically but I'm happy to do this. Basically, it's a tough instrument to play, and, truthfully, I've had to deal with physical pain due to playing the koto. But, I have been able to overcome any pain in the past by receiving massage treatments and now I'm trying to prevent painful consequences through various exercises such as stretching and light running.

Listening to your amazing album "Beginnings of a Journey" - which features your own compositions - it seems that the koto is especially good at conveying feelings of longing, wistfulness, the ephemeral, regret and serenity. Your album reminded me a great deal of the work of Satie and Debussy. Would you agree that the koto is perfect for certain emotions but not for others, or am I judging based on too little experience?

First, thank you for your compliment. We don't aim to show emotion when we play traditional music pieces, that is the style or tradition, but I believe that the koto can convey a spectrum of emotions because of the texture of its sound, the many different colors of sound that can be created.

Can you tell me a bit about how you compose? Who influenced you?

I think I need a story when I compose and then I start creating from my imagination. Western classical music was played often at home when I was little and my sister used to play the piano in the next room. I used to listen to many kinds of music such as Debussy, Piazzolla, Steve Reich, Bjork, Bob Marley, film music and so on.

You recently worked with Les Twins, a very popular dance act from France. How did this come about? How successful was this?

This project came about due to an organizer's idea and I agreed with it and thought I might be able to see/realize something new. I enjoyed my collaboration with them. The venue was at a World Heritage site - the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto - and this event was meant as a sacred concert with a limited audience. The event started with a monk's chant and I felt as if a special energy was happening. I heard that some people in the audience cried during the performance. It was also very well received online.

So you came to the capital of the contemporary world shortly after 9/11/2001, with an ancient Japanese instrument favored by Buddhist monks - what were your intentions and did you struggle much when you got here?

My father told me when I left Japan that I was crazy - why should I have to move to NYC!? I understood what he said because there was a certain path as a koto player I was expected to follow. When I arrived at JFK my koto was lost for a while at the airport (I recovered it later) but I started feeling that maybe I had made a mistake about my life. It was not easy to start from zero in New York City. But even though I was confused, and the struggles were tough, I'm happy I came to New York. First of all I wanted to expand beyond koto’s established tradition and to do this by being open to the influences of other cultures and music. So then I started composing music after I moved to New York and I've been playing so many different kinds of things and experiencing different types of music and other arts which is wonderful.

One of the pieces you are well known for performing is Genji by Daron Hagen - which is based on a thousand-year-old, epic Japanese novel of a somewhat risqué nature. Is the koto a good instrument to capture the essence of Genji? What did you like the most about this piece?

Yes the koto is perfect for Genji especially because learning the koto was one of the most typical educational endeavors involved in Japanese society during the era when Genji was written. It was the first time Daron Hagen composed for the koto and he did a wonderful job. I remember the moment I met him in person and I showed him various koto techniques and possibilities and so on. We discussed all of this several times. When he sent me the score I was like, "Wow!... Wow!" It was not easy at all to play but it excited me a lot and I appreciated the challenges so I wanted to respond with an amazing performance. Sometimes a traditional Japanese type of sound pops up but also I could hear and a more contemporary technique and everything was combined within the Western classical tradition nicely. He also put some unique, fun elements in it.

So, basically, where have you been and where are you going?

I've been playing and creating many kinds of music including works for the Houston Ballet, I’ve done a theater piece, collaborated with DJs, done video, fashion shows and so on. In the past 10 years I have adopted a ‘no boundaries’ approach to my activities and starting last year I think I reached a turning point. For example, I'm trying to create new settings for concerts. A few of my new projects that I'm working on include a collaboration with the Indian tabla player Anubrata Chatterjee, who is the son of world renowned tabla master Anindo Chatterjee. I’m also planning work with the hip hop dancer Virgil Gadson. I arranged and performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (all four movements) for solo koto last year in Japan and this project was a new challenge too. One of my upcoming concert opportunities is a concert at the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center on Oct 18th of this year. The Terrace Theater was originally given to the USA by the Japanese government long ago and was just renovated and re-opened. I'm really proud and honored to be there and I am looking forward to perform at this event.

Some of Yumi’s music:
Beginning of a Journey
Looking Up At the Sky