Foreign-born professional strives to reconnect Japanese with koto music

Curtis Patterson tries to encourage younger people to experience instrument's charms

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Life in Japan just seems tailor-made for certain foreign residents, who slip into the fabric of this society as smoothly as a hand slides into a glove. American Curtis Patterson, a professional koto player and music teacher, is a case in point.

Not only is the gifted musician breaking down stereotypes about traditional music in this country, Patterson, 51, is also encouraging younger generations to experience the charms of koto.

Patterson’s introduction to this most Japanese of musical instruments occurred in a very unlikely setting. The Chicago native, who comes from a “very musical family,” took piano lessons from third grade and later played the saxophone in high school. However, he chose to pursue a degree in business at Cornell College in Iowa. “Many of my piano teacher’s students were very talented and went on to become professionals. I guess I felt a little bit inferior in comparison. I didn’t expect to make music my career,” he confides.

One of Cornell’s teachers had introduced the koto to the school in the 1970s, being interested in multicultural music education and inspired by Hiroshima, an American jazz band that included a koto player and is still active today. “Several of my friends were in the school’s koto group and they encouraged me to join. Who would expect to go to a small liberal arts college in the Iowa cornfields and start to play the koto?” Patterson smiles at the memory. “But looking back, it was all meant to be and it all fits into a beautiful pattern.”

He likens his path in life to traditional Japanese music. “The music flows but it also meanders, and that is rather like the course of my life. I didn’t say I was going to do this or that; I just let things happen.”

In 1982 the school’s koto ensemble came to Japan, performing with Japanese college students at several joint concerts. Having thoroughly enjoyed both the people and the country during that initial visit, Patterson came back as an exchange student at Waseda University and then returned in 1986 to work in Tochigi Prefecture as an English teacher on the JET program.

Patterson says he feels “very blessed” to have encountered the various koto teachers who have mentored him over the years. “In the world of traditional arts, when you begin studying with a teacher, you’re often ‘locked in’ to a certain style. But I’ve always been fortunate to meet up with the right people, who understood what I needed.”

While living in Tochigi, he studied a classical style of koto music from the 17th and 18th centuries. In line with other serious koto students, he also received instruction in the shamisen and a style of singing known as jiuta. However, it was after a subsequent move to Kyoto that Patterson met the man who was to become his greatest mentor.

“I’d intended to continue with classical koto and my teacher in Tochigi had given me a list of teachers to contact. However, a friend in Kyoto dismissed them as being all rather old-fashioned, and he recommended a woman who was doing much newer things with koto music. She happened to be a disciple of Tadao Sawai, who has probably had the greatest influence on modern koto music over the last 50 years. I met him when he visited Kyoto.”

Patterson speaks his late teacher’s name with the reverence reserved for a true master. Sawai is renowned not only for his numerous compositions for the standard 13-string koto but also for the 17-string bass koto and shamisen. He died in 1997 but his musical legacy lives on and his music is widely performed.

After his teacher in Kyoto secured a coveted spot for him as one of Sawai’s students, Patterson relocated to Tokyo in the early 1990s and began a pattern of working for six months to a year at a time to save money, followed by stints of switching to a cultural visa and studying the koto full-time until the next job came along.

“Gradually, I became more and more involved with the other students of Sawai-sensei (teacher) and his wife. They had uchi-deshi — live-in students who care for traditional teachers of the arts. It was never suggested that I become one myself. By then, I was a little older than the average uchi-deshi. But we all became very good friends.”

The bonds formed during that period have endured. For the last 15 years Patterson has been performing with his friends as part of the Soemon koto ensemble. “We still gather to perform once a year or so. Everyone is a professional teacher and musician.”

He points out that it is no easy thing to make a living from the koto in present-day Japan. “The focus is very much on Western music and a lot of Japanese people don’t think they can participate in the more traditional forms of music. They may appreciate it as part of their culture, but they don’t see it as being relevant or accessible to them. It’s usually reserved for the New Year period, when you hear it played nonstop in all the convenience stores!”

In an effort to promote the appeal of koto music internationally, Sawai’s widow, Kazue, is performing abroad. Patterson and his contemporaries who studied under Sawai are hopeful that this will have positive repercussions back in Japan. “When Japanese things become popular overseas, it often helps to raise their profile at home, too.”

On the advice of his mentor Sawai, Patterson auditioned for and won a place in an NHK music training program, becoming the first foreign graduate in 1995. “It was started to bring together musicians from all the different traditional genres in order to study ensemble performance, music theory and history.” The course, which ran for 55 seasons before it was discontinued, was considered a rite of passage of sorts to the world of traditional Japanese music and served as a common bond across genres.

Ten years ago, Patterson met Bruce Huebner, another American musician who shared his passion for Japanese music as a shakuhachi player, and the two soon formed a duo. “It was probably only a matter of time. There aren’t too many Westerners playing traditional music in Tokyo. I’d started to write my own music and Bruce came to one of my concerts and said he thought adding the shakuhachi would sound good.”

Around that time, he was invited back to NHK as a guest artist for a radio show and asked Huebner to join him. The partnership has since gone from strength to strength, allowing them to reach wider audiences and break new ground with their musical collaborations.

“We call ourselves ‘Curt & Bruce,’ ” he says with a grin. “We couldn’t think of anything else that sounded better, or that didn’t sound contrived.” The pair now performs an eclectic mix of music at their concerts, ranging from classical koto to jazz-inspired modern pieces to their original compositions. They have also released two CDs, “Going Home” (2006) and “Tracings” (2009).

Huebner had previously lived in Fukushima Prefecture and the duo had been making regular visits to the Tohoku region to perform. “After the (March 2011) earthquake, we realized we had to keep going up there. Now, instead of performing in concert halls, we perform in evacuation centers or temporary housing. Many performers have gone up to Tohoku once, but we keep going back, and I think showing our ongoing support is important.”

A firm believer in the healing power of music, Patterson says that hearing and seeing performances of their traditional music can help people to connect with their natural surroundings. “What happened in Fukushima was a man-made disaster, and it pulled people away from the land. But hearing our music can draw them back with a sense of nature and history. The koto is made from a type of wood called paulownia, the shakuhachi is made from bamboo — natural things that are connected to the land.”

In addition to a busy schedule of performances and lessons for his private students, he has been teaching koto to students at Yokohama International School (YIS) for the past four years. The program started a decade ago, with all fourth-graders receiving instruction in the koto. Students may then continue studying as an elective, with some of the high school seniors learning the instrument for nine years.

Patterson, who has been working full-time at the school since 2011, says the koto program has given rise to exciting results recently. “Some of our older students are now winning awards at national levels. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly the children pick up the instrument and understand its power of communication.”

He notes that the power of the koto transcends cultures. “It happens to be Japanese but that isn’t why the kids become so engaged — it’s because it’s such a great instrument.”

Despite all his achievements, Patterson takes care to remain humble and shies away from being labeled a “master” of the koto. “I’m just striving to be respected in this world of Japanese music. And with this face, it isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s hard for people to see or listen beyond that.”

If people would only give koto music a chance, he believes they would like it. “There is a lot of new music for traditional instruments that I know people enjoy, but they’re not exposed to it.”

While Patterson has achieved his dream of becoming a professional koto player in Japan, he has aspirations to share his music with coming generations of young people in this country. “I’m very interested in creating a program like the one at YIS that can be transferred to Japanese public schools. Right now there is nothing quite like it. It would be a great way to awaken interest in traditional instruments,” he says eagerly.

Coming from Patterson, the idea of a foreign musician reacquainting the youngsters of Japan with one of their traditional instruments does not seem incongruous.

“I play the piano, which is also a stringed instrument, but it’s in a box. The strings of the koto are made to be touched. It’s very easy to manipulate the sound of a note after it is played and there is so much that can be said with the very fine nuances — like a living thing. That is partly why I think that the koto can communicate directly with the heart.”

For more information, visit Curtis Patterson’s website www.curtkoto.com.