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The koto (箏) is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument, similar to the Chinese zheng, the Mongolian yatga, the Korean gayageum and the Vietnamese đàn tranh. The koto is the national instrument of Japan. Koto are about 180 centimetres (71 in) length, and made from kiri wood (Paulownia tomentosa). They have 13 strings that are strung over 13 movable bridges along the width of the instrument. Players can adjust the string pitches by moving these bridges before playing, and use three finger picks (on thumb, index finger, and middle finger) to pluck the strings.
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The ancestor of the koto was the Chinese zheng and was first introduced to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th century. The first known version had five strings, which eventually increased to seven strings. (It had twelve strings when it was introduced to Japan in the early Nara Period (710–784) and increased to thirteen strings). This particular instrument is known throughout Asia but in different forms: the Japanese koto, which is a distant relative to the Chinese zheng, the Korean gayageum, and the Vietnamese dan tranh. This variety of instrument came in two basic forms, a zither that had bridges and zithers without bridges. The type that was most known in China was the qin, similar in design to many other instruments in Asia.
When the koto was first imported to Japan, the native word koto was a generic term for any and all Japanese stringed instruments. Over time the definition of koto could not describe the wide variety of these stringed instruments and so the meanings changed. The azumagoto or yamatogoto was called the wagon, the kin no koto was called the kin, and the sau no koto (sau being an older pronunciation of 箏) was called the sō or koto.
The modern koto originates from the gakusō used in Japanese court music. It was a popular instrument among the wealthy; the instrument koto was considered a romantic one. Some literary and historical records indicate that solo pieces for koto existed centuries before sōkyoku, the music of the solo koto genre, was established. According to Japanese literature, the koto was used as imagery and other extra music significance. In one part of "The Tales of Genji (Genji monogatari)", Genji falls deeply in love with a mysterious woman, who he has never seen before, after he hears her playing the koto from a distance.
The history of the koto in Japan dates back to the 16th Century. At this time a Buddhist priest by the name of Kenjun (1547–1636), who lived in northern Kyūshū, began to compose for the koto, calling the style "tsukushi goto".
Perhaps the most important influence on the development of koto was Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614–1685). He was a gifted blind musician from Kyoto who changed the limited selection of six songs to a brand new style of koto music which he called kumi uta. Yatsuhashi changed the Tsukushi goto tunings, which were based on gagaku ways of tuning; and with this change, a new style of koto was born. Yatsuhashi Kengyo is now known as the "Father of Modern Koto".
The Japanese developments in the bridgeless zithers include the one-stringed koto (ichigenkin) and two-stringed koto (nigenkin or yakumo goto) around the 1920s, Goro Morita created a new version of the two-stringed goto. On this goto, one would push down buttons above the metal strings like the western autoharp. It was named the taisho goto after the Taisho Era.
At the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868–1912), western music was introduced to Japan. Michio Miyagi (1894–1956), a blind composer, innovator, and performer, is considered to have been the first Japanese composer to combine western music and traditional koto music. Miyagi is largely regarded as being responsible for keeping the koto alive when traditional Japanese arts were being forgotten and replaced by Westernization. He wrote over 300 new works for the instrument before his death in a train accident at the age of 62. He also invented the popular 17 string bass koto, created new playing techniques, advanced traditional forms, and most importantly increased the koto's popularity. He performed abroad and by 1928 his piece for koto and shakuhachi, Haru no Umi (Spring Sea) had been transcribed for numerous instruments. Haru no Umi is even played to welcome each New Year in Japan.
Since Miyagi's time, many composers such as Tadao Sawai (1937–1997) have written and performed works that continue to advance the instrument. Sawai's widow Kazue Sawai, who as a child was Miyagi's favored disciple, has been the largest driving force behind the internationalization and modernization of the koto. Her arrangement of composer John Cage's prepared piano duet "Three Dances" for four prepared bass koto was a landmark in the modern era of koto music.
A koto is typically made of Paulownia wood. The treatment of the wood before making the koto varies tremendously: one koto maker seasons the wood for perhaps a year on the roof of the house. Some wood may have very little treatment. Kotos may or may not be adorned, some adornments include inlays of ivory and ebony, tortoise shell, metal figures, etc.
The bridges (Ji) used to be made of ivory, but nowadays are typically made of plastic, and occasionally made of wood. For some very low notes, there are small bridges made, as well as specialty bridges with three different heights, depending on the need of the tuning. When a small bridge is unavailable for some very low notes, some players may, as an emergency measure, use a bridge upside down. Of course, such an arrangement is unstable, and the bridge would have a tendency to fall down. Bridges have been known to break during playing, and with some older instruments which have the surface where the bridges rest being worn due to much use, the bridges may fall during playing, especially when pressing strings. There are, of course, various sorts of patch materials sold to fill the holes which cause the legs of a bridge to rest on an unstable area.
The strings are made from a variety of materials. Various types of plastic strings are popular. Silk strings are still made. Silk strings are usually yellow in color, but they cost more and are not as durable, but claimed to be more musical. The strings are tied with a half hitch to a roll of paper or cardboard, about the size of a cigarette butt, strung through the holes at the head of the koto, threaded through the holes at the back, tightened, and tied with a special knot. Strings can be tightened by a special machine, but often are tightened by hand, and then tied. One can tighten by pulling the string from behind, or sitting at the side of the koto, although the latter is much harder and requires much arm strength. Some instruments may have tuning pins (like a piano) installed, to make tuning easier.
For every part of the koto there is a traditional name which connects with the opinion that the body of a koto resembles that of a dragon. The name for the top is therefore "Dragonshelliano" (Ryuko/竜甲)(the Asian dragon is believed to have a shell like a turtle), the lower part is called the "Dragonstomach" (Ryuhara/竜腹), one end of the koto, noticeable because of the removable colorful fabricshell, is known as the "Dragonhead". The "Dragonhead" consists of the "Dragonhorns" (Ryukaku/竜角), "Dragontongue" (Ryushita/竜舌) and so on. The lower part of the koto implies the "Dragontail" and the Heavens Seat (Tenmiyo/天御代) or Cloudhorns (Kumokaku/雲角), a description of the wooden pillow for the strings.
Koto today 
The influence of Western pop music has made the koto less prominent in Japan, although it is still developing as an instrument. The 17-string bass koto, called jūshichi-gen in Japanese, has become more prominent over the years since its development by Michio Miyagi. There are also 20-string, 21-string, and 25-string kotos. Works are being written for 20- and 25-stringed kotos and 17-string bass kotos, and a new generation of players such as Japanese master Kazue Sawai, her students including Michiyo Yagi, and American performers Reiko Obata and Miya Masaoka, are finding places for the koto in today's jazz, experimental music and even pop. The members of the band Rin' are popular jūshichi-gen players in the modern (pop/rock) music scene.
Well-known solo performers outside of Japan include koto master and award-winning recording artist Elizabeth Falconer, who also studied for a decade at the esteemed Sawai Koto School in Tokyo, as well as koto master Linda Kako Caplan, Canadian daishihan (grandmaster) and a member of Fukuoka's Chikushi Koto School for over two decades. Another Sawai disciple, Masayo Ishigure, holds down a school in New York City. Yukiko Matsuyama leads her KotoYuki band in Los Angeles. Her compositions blend the timbres of World Music with her native Japanese culture. She performed on the Grammy winning album Miho: Journey to the Mountain by the Paul Winter Consort garnering additional exposure to Western audiences for the instrument. In November 2011 worldwide audiences were exposed to the Koto when she performed with Shakira at the Latin Grammy Award show.
In March 2010 the koto received widespread international attention when a video linked by the Grammy Award-winning hard rock band Tool on its website became a viral hit. The video showed Tokyo-based ensemble Soemon playing member Brett Larner's arrangement of the Tool song "Lateralus" for six koto and two bass koto. Larner had previously played koto with John Fahey, Jim O'Rourke and members of indie rock groups including Camper Van Beethoven, Deerhoof, Jackie O Motherfucker and Mr. Bungle.
In older pop and rock music, David Bowie used a koto in the instrumental piece "Moss Garden" on his album "Heroes". The multi-instrumentalist, founder and former The Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones played koto in the song Take It Or Leave It, on the album Aftermath, 1966. Paul Gilbert, a popular guitar virtuosoist, recorded his wife, Emi playing the koto on his song "Koto Girl" from the album Alligator Farm (album). Rock band Kagrra, are well known for using traditional Japanese musical instruments in many of their songs, an example being "Utakata" (うたかた), a song in which the koto has a prominent place. Winston Tong, singer with Tuxedomoon, uses it on his 15-minute song, "The Hunger" from his debut solo album Theoretically Chinese. The rock band Queen used a (toy) koto in "The Prophet's Song" on their 1975 album A Night at the Opera. Ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett used koto very effective on instrumental song "The Red Flower of Tachai Blooms Everywhere" from album Spectral Mornings. The koto played by band member Hazel Payne is featured in A Taste of Honey's 1981 English cover of the Japanese song Sukiyaki. A synthesized koto is also played by her in their cover of the song I'll Try Something New. Dr. Dre's 1999 album Chronic 2001 prominently features a synthesized koto on two of its tracks - "Still D.R.E." and "The Message". David Horvitz played the instrument in a contemporary indie rock scene setting on Xiu Xiu's album, The Air Force.
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck composed "Koto Song" that, while not featuring the koto itself, is played to allow the piano to emulate its sound. June Kuramoto of the jazz fusion group Hiroshima was one of the first koto performers to popularize the koto in a non-traditional fusion style. Reiko Obata, founder of East West Jazz band, is the first to perform and record an album of jazz standards featuring koto. Obata also produced the first-ever English language koto instructional DVD "You Can Play Koto". Brett Larner was also active in jazz, recording a duo CD with saxophone legend and composer Anthony Braxton.
- The Koto: A Traditional Instrument in Contemporary Japan, by Henry Johnson (Hotei, 2004)
- The Kumiuta and Danmono Traditions of Japanese Koto Music, by Willem Adriaansz (University of California Press, 1973)
- Silenziosa Luna - 沈黙の月 / ALM Records ALCD-76 (2008)
See also 
- Johnson, H. (2004). [Roblox.com]. Amsterdam: Hotei.
- Malm, W. P. (2000) Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Kodansha International.
- Sachs, C. (1940). The History of Musical Instruments. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. Inc. Publishers.
- Richard Louis Edmonds, et al. "Japan". Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. July 30, 2008.
- "Koto". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
- Deal, William E. (2006). Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan. New York: Infobase Publishing. pp. 266–267. ISBN 0-8160-5622-6.
- Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 2 (international ed.). Minnesota: Americana Corp. 1966. p. 400.
- Speed, Burgess (2008). Japan: Your Passport to a New World of Music. Alfred Publishing. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-7390-4303-5.
- "Hugo's window on the world of Chinese zheng". Chime (Leiden: European Foundation for Chinese Music Research). 16-17: 242. 2005. "Throughout the centuries, the zheng became the parent instrument of the Asian zither family as it spread from China to a number of adjacent countries giving birth to the Japanese koto, the Korean kayagum and the Vietnamese dan tranh."
- "Sukiyaki by A Taste of Honey on Soul Train". Youtube. Retrieved 2012-4-March.
- "I'll Try Something New by A Taste of Honey on Soul Train". Youtube. Retrieved 2012-17-June.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Koto|
- Koto, early 17th century, Japan at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Koto no Koto - Koto no koto: the website with general information
- Ama no Megumi (Grace of heaven) composed by Fuyuki Enokido played at Salzburg(2012)