“Lantana” is a flower that, as it blooms changes colors. It can range from purple to orange to white and so on, often changing a rainbow of times before the blossoms wilt. In the spirit of this flower “Koto Lantana” is a koto ensemble that plays music with no boundaries, drawing from all kinds of music including but not limited to jazz, classical, and traditional Japanese.
Koto Lantana is three performers: Shoko Hikage, Kanoko Nishi, and Noriko Tsuboi. They play the koto, a Japanese zither with thirteen strings and movable bridges. A bass koto is also played that has seventeen strings. True to their name, Koto Lantana played a kaleidoscopic range of musical sounds, textures and styles at their concert.
The concert was hosted by Meridian Gallery near San Francisco’s Union Square. It was an intimate setting in an upper room of the gallery and was well attended by an appreciative audience.
The concert began with Shoko Hikage and Noriko Tsuboi playing a traditional Japanese tune called “Godan-kinuta” that was written by composer Mitsuzaki Kengyo in 1821. The word “kinuta” means the act of hitting cloth with a wooden hammer to add luster. In classical Japan the sounds of kinuta could be heard echoing into the night and are associated with the feeling of Autumn.
The next performer of the evening was Kanoko Nishi who played an improvisation on the seventeen string bass koto. Kanoko is a dynamic performer who is very imaginative in her playing and is known to play the koto in creative ways using every avant-garde extended playing technique imaginable. She was true to form in this concert. Her piece opened with playing the lower bass strings of the koto with a cello bow.
Deep dark tones took shape and eerie dissonances enveloped the listener. The improvisation morphed into a bow-and-pluck paradigm where the short section of strings between the tuning pegs and the bridge was bowed creating high screeching sounds while the bass strings were vigorously plucked with the left. This moved to an angular pointillistic plucking of the strings alternately in high and low registers interspersed with occasional string scrapes.
One thing that is for sure about Kanoko Nishi’s playing is that it is never predictable or boring. It is not the same cliches over and over but is rich with unusual tone colors and unexpected moments. One such moment happened to great effect in this improvisation.
In the middle of the pointillistic plucking section the large movable bridges of the koto suddenly and without warning exploded off the koto creating a loud jarring crack!, as they smacked against the koto and fell on the floor.
This would’ve been a tragedy for some performers but Ms. Nishi stayed calm and utilized the moment as a creative element. She effortlessly transitioned to busy chattery sounds on the higher pitched strings and plucks on the lower strings (that still had bridges) with an occasional scrape on the underside of the koto for good measure. The piece went on to its conclusion. An absolute stunning performance by Kanoko Nishi!
A piece by San Francisco composer Hyo-shin Na followed. Simply titled “Koto Music” the composition featured all performers playing the music in three sections. “Koto Music” is unique in that it was composed from limited materials and the materials are not developed. As a result, there was no build up to a climactic moment – instead the music took on a landscape of textures like one would encounter when spending time out in the natural world.
Another Hyo-shin Na piece was featured on the program. Titled “Night Procession of the Hundred Demons” it featured Shoko Hikage on the seventeen string bass koto. The composition was inspired by an eighteenth century scroll of the same name. By the Japanese painter Toriyama Sekien. The wildness of the highly imaginative painting reminded the composer of lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The scroll, Shakespeare’s words, and Shoko Hikage’s playing became the impetus for the creation of the piece.
The composer was in the audience for this performance and complimented the performers, describing their rendering of her compositions as “Excellent”.
Jokei Sansho, a composition by Tadao Sawai,was performed by Noriko Tsuboi on the solo koto. Tadao Sawai, (1973-1997) is recognized as the greatest composer/performer for the koto in the late twentieth century. His expressive, stunning compositions continue to inspire musicians and audiences around the world. This was definitely in evidence as Noriko Tsuboi brought the composition “Jokei Sansho” to life. Her playing was exemplary underscoring the contrasting moods which moved between ‘Uneri’ (undulation), ‘Yasuragi’ (serenity), and ‘Dokoku’ (grief, lament).
The evening concluded with “Lament for three kotos” by Korean composer Young Ja Lee. One of the most prominent Korean women composers of our time, Young Ja Lee celebrated her 80th birthday this year by writing Lament and attending its premiere at the Wooden Fish Ensemble concert at the Old First Church on Van Ness St. in San Francisco as part of their concert series.
Koto Lantana performed the piece again at Meridian Gallery. It was interesting to see how much difference a room makes on how a piece is heard. The Old First Church concert with its high cathedral ceilings and expansive sanctuary gave more emphasis to spatial placement lending to interesting echo effects between the kotos, whereas Meridian Gallery’s small upper room and close proximity to the audience placed the piece in an intimate setting where a bold roundness of tone took prominence.
Lament is a sorrowful, spiritual requiem. Composed of three movements, the omnipresence of indeterminate rhythms and irregular phrases deploy the beautiful yet agitated portrait of the life of modern man. This piece holds the message of cosmic aesthetics where universal harmony is observed by means of musical creation.
Thus the concert ended leaving lush tone blossoms falling in the memories of all who attended.
If you missed the concert or were there and would like to see more terrific music, there are other opportunities: Women in Jazz on February 27 at Yoshi’s Jazz Club will feature Shoko Hikage on the Koto. In addition, a koto 50th anniversary celebration is planned for March 20. Details available on the Hikage website.
To keep your finger on the pulse of Asian music click the subscribe button below.