Ko Ishikawa plays the sho, a bamboo free-reed mouth harp that first came to Japan from China in the Nara Period (710-794). Despite what you might expect, however, the way he plays the instrument isn’t conventionally traditional.

The sho is used in gagaku, a style of court music that has not changed much since the Heian Period (794-1185) and is heavily influenced by Korean and Chinese music. Until the end of World War II, almost no one outside of the Japanese Imperial family had listened to gagaku. To this day, the Imperial Household Agency Orchestra remains traditional, hierarchical and primarily focused on private performances for religious rites and ceremonies in the current Imperial court.

Additionally, in order to be considered a fully fledged gagaku performer, aspiring musicians are required to learn all the instruments that are used to make it and memorize specific pieces. Ishikawa, whose abilities span many musical styles from traditional orchestral court music to contemporary classical music to improvisation, is part of a small group of musicians who have gone through extensive gagaku training yet choose to go beyond the confines of tradition in an effort to revitalize the genre.

This approach is likely due to the fact that Ishikawa’s tastes aren’t purely traditional. He grew up as the son of a businessman in Tokyo and like many Japanese, traditional arts of any kind had little influence on his childhood.

“I was into British punk and noise music as a student,” Ishikawa says, adding that through his explorations of music, he later “discovered gagaku through a recording.”

After that initial encouter, he eventually became interested in the sho. Too old to audition for the Imperial Household Agency gagaku school, he began to study with well-known sho player Mayumi Miyata at a private music school.

Miyata was among the first musicians to use sho outside of the closed world of Imperial court music. Though it is possible to perform certain gagaku compositions as solos, there is no known traditional solo repertory for sho or other gagaku instruments. To push beyond these boundaries, performers like Miyata, Ishikawa and Hitomi Nakamura, who specializes in another gagaku instrument called the hichiriki, have composers create new works that challenge tradition and allow for collaboration.

The three musicians are also part of Reigakusha, an ensemble founded in 1985 that performs both traditional and contemporary pieces. As one of the few non-Imperial ensembles, the group is far more accessible to the public, frequently performing here and abroad, holding workshops and running concerts for children.

At their biannual recital last month, the ensemble performed two traditional pieces and “Nijushi Sekki,” a commissioned composition by composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. The mix of musical genres showcased the group’s flexibility to perform a wide range of pieces within the gagaku and contemporary classical world.

Ishikawa’s interests, however, go beyond the world of gagaku ensembles and contemporary classical music, and extend into free improvising, also known as no-genre improvising. The musical form came out of experimental jazz in the 1960s and ’70s , and now provides an avenue for non-Western instruments to be incorporated into music-making because it doesn’t rely on any preconceived, genre-specific instrument combinations.

The sho is used in gagaku to create a drone-like sound made by playing several notes at once, an aspect that Ishikawa uses to his advantage for free improvising.

Ishikawa says his study of traditional music complements all of his performances and there is no differentiation between his more traditional practice, his contemporary classical performance, and his improvisation.

“I play with the same focus, no matter the music,” says Ishikawa. “The sho resonates with individual instruments differently. I choose the notes that I play based on how the sho interacts with the other instruments in the piece.”

This willingness to listen and adjust his playing allows Ishikawa to play with almost anyone, whether they’re Japanese instrument players like him or free-jazz stalwarts like Evan Parker, a British saxophone player, or Joel Ryan, an American musician who creates music on a computer through live digital signal processing to improvise within an experimental music context.

Furthermore, Ishikawa strenuously disagrees with the notion that he plays improvised music in order to experience freedom that doesn’t exist in the strict traditional court music world.

“There is freedom for me within the strict confines of the already set music of gagaku,” says Ishikawa. “Likewise, there is a freedom in the absurdity of not possibly knowing what could come next when doing free improvisation.

“In gagaku, we play as an ensemble so often that we do not need a conductor and we understand each other. In improvisation, I try to respond to each note that my fellow improviser is playing, not their feelings. These are just two radically different approaches.”

For Ishikawa, traditional music is just one facet of his career. Through his devotion to tradition and his openness to collaborate and explore, Ishikawa shows how traditional Japanese music can take part in new musical expression in the 21st century.

For more information on Ko Ishikawa, visit radiant-osc.com.

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