The autumn performance season reaches its peak during the final months of the year, and an array of hogaku performances, including rare koto pieces, gagaku and dance, will be presented this November.
Namino Torii is a colleague of the master Yamada-style koto player Shoin Yamase, about whom I wrote in my last column. Torii is also one of the most accomplished Yamada-style players of her generation. Her 15th recital will feature some unusual and rare pieces.
I described briefly the differences in Yamada and Ikuta koto styles in my last column — and in so doing, inadvertently made a mistake in describing performance postures: Yamada players sit squarely facing the koto, while the Ikuta players sit at an angle, not, as I wrote, the other way around. While this may seem like a minor point, appearance and style are extremely important aspects of all the Japanese stage arts, and as such are the first things the teacher corrects with beginning students.
Two of the three pieces Torii will perform are kumiuta, which originally formed the basis of the solo repertoire of the Ikuta school and were later incorporated into the Yamada school. The kumiuta is a suite of highly formalistic melodic patterns and instrumental interludes, alternating with sung verses. Rigid formalism can mean music becomes strangled by its own structure, but form can also liberate, especially when it allows the voice to soar above the music.
Like shakuhachi solo honkyoku or noh singing, kumiuta require an immense amount of concentration and effort to perfect the subtleties of tone color in both the instrument and voice. For this reason, only the most accomplished of performers attempt them, and Torii is highly respected for her ability to render kumiuta beautifully.
One of the kumiuta in her recital, “Toryu Shiki Genji,” was almost lost, but she reconstructed it from an old recording over 30 years ago. The original was in Ikuta style, and she altered it to fit her own Yamada-style singing and playing techniques. She also had a shakuhachi part added to accompany and emphasize the koto’s instrumental sections.
Torii first presented “Toryu Shiki Genji” in her 1984 recital, which I had the good fortune to attend. Knowing that this piece, almost lost forever, had been revived through her efforts made the experience quite special indeed.
In addition to this piece, Tori will perform another kumiuta, “Hashi Hime,” based on the “Tale of Genji,” and the grand Yamada ensemble piece, “Yuya,” from the “Tale of Heike.”
Torii Namino Sokyoku Enso Kai, 6:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at Kioi Small Hall, between JR Yotsuya Station and Akasaka Mitsuke subway station. Admission 4,000 yen. For tickets or more information call Namino Torii, (03) 3390-4208.
The traditional koto has, of course, 13 strings. This has not changed since its importation into Japan from China over 1,200 years ago.
In the early 20th century, however, the great hogaku composer and player Michio Miyagi invented and popularized the 17-string bass koto, which is a staple of koto music today. In one of the more bizarre developments of the instrument, he also invented a piano-like 80-string koto, but it proved too bulky and unmanageable for general use. More recently, Shuretsu Miyashita developed and still performs on a 30-string koto, and Keiko Nozaka invented the 20- and 25-string koto, both of which have a wide following.
In the rush to create koto with an increasing number of strings and ever more complicated structures, though, it is easy to overlook the fact that Japan has an old tradition of a one-string koto, called the ichigenkin.
The ichigenkin is perhaps one of Japan’s most intriguing instruments. A simple, thin plank with one string stretched over it between two pegs, it doesn’t have the range or flexibility of its many-stringed cousins, yet the instrument is capable of profound expressiveness. Like a haiku, its depth is in its simplicity.
The solo repertoire of the ichigenkin are called honkyoku (like the solo shakuhachi repertoire) and they consist of song with instrumental accompaniment. The ichigenkin is played with the index finger of the right hand, which plucks the string with a small finger plectrum while the left hand presses the string at the appropriate nodal points to create the pitch and tone. It is not a flashy style of playing, yet the smooth undulations of the single silk string have an elegant timbre.
Putative references to the ichigenkin go back as early as the ninth century, but more reliable ones show the instrument came into Japan from China during the 17th century. It experienced a period of popularity during the 19th century but became almost forgotten after the Meiji Restoration.
This instrument would probably have remained in oblivion except for the efforts of Issui Minegishi, who has worked over the last decade to revive interest in the ichigenkin. The daughter of one of the last masters, Issui took over the instrument and became the iemoto (headmaster) of the Seikyodo school in 1988 at the age of 21. She will be the guest artist in shakuhachi player Retsuzan Tanabe’s Japanese music series in Ginza.
Japanese Traditional Music in Ginza, Featuring Issui Minegishi, 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at Ginza Kanematsu Hall on the fifth floor of the Ginza Kanematsu Building, Ginza 6-6-9, (03) 3573-5285. Admission 3,000 yen in advance, 3,500 yen at the door. For more information call Water Network, (047) 340-3224.
The Tokyo Gakuso, consisting of members of the Imperial Household Agency Music Department, will present a program of gagaku (court music) Nov. 17.
“Manjuraku” is one of gagaku’s longer kangen (instrumental) pieces, consisting of five distinct sections. Said to have been transmitted to Japan in 736, this piece is referred to in a number of ancient treatises, which relate it to Buddhism.
“Manjuraku Ichigu,” 6:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at National Theater Small Hall. Admission 3,600 yen, students 2,880 yen. For information and tickets call the National Theater Ticket Office, (03) 3230-3000 or view their Web site at www.ntj.jac.go.jp
Kei’in Yoshimura is a master of the jiuta style of dance. Stylistically, jiuta dancing is somewhere between the clearly programmatic, almost pantomimed movements of buyo and the refined, abstract gestures of noh. Yoshimura is a fine dancer, and works hard to create and maintain appreciative audiences. Her presentations are always done with great care and consummate skill.
Yoshimura Kei’in Mai no Kai, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at Tessenkai Noh Theater, (03) 3401-2285, a three-minute walk from Omote-Sando subway station, exit A4. Admission 5,000 yen. For reservations or more information call Kamigata Mai Tomo no Kai, (03) 5477-8978.
Christopher Yohmei Blasdel can be reached through his Web site, www2.gol.com/users/yohmei