Imagine, after years of immersion and study in Western music, discovering the rarefied beauty of Japanese music. Simple aspects of music, previously taken for granted, suddenly take on significant roles. Silence extends between notes and enlivens the idea of pause. An errant breath blows through bamboo, exploding with an emotion-filled charge. Vibrating silk strings lightly graze wood to create a delicious twang. And a single vowel is sustained in song, undulating high and low like the mountainous horizon. The perishing tones seems to last forever, even after they dissolve into silence.

Such is its poetic depth that many sensitive musicians and composers from around the world have become enamored and deeply influenced by hogaku and its instruments. The social aspects of Japanese traditional music are not necessarily so beautiful, however. Hogaku teachers can be conservative, exclusive and resistant to change. Experimentation is not encouraged and exploration or study under anyone other than your own teacher or school is definitely not allowed. There is little effort to bring the music alive with explanation or to create a connection between the audience, performers and composer. Concerts of contemporary hogaku rarely find a dedicated audience outside of Tokyo.

Joseph Amato, a composer who received his Ph.D. in composition from New York University, first arrived in Japan in 1995 after a six-month world tour, during which he listened and experienced various types of world music. Enamored with hogaku, he later returned to Japan to teach music in an international school in Fukuoka and begin koto studies with a local teacher. Having been immersed in Western classical and Italian contemporary music, the koto opened up new worlds for him. His enthusiasm and hard work paid off when he received a prestigious Bunkacho Artists' grant to study with the koto school's iemoto (grand master) in Tokyo.