When Leo Konno was first introduced to the koto, he was struggling to communicate with his fourth-grade classmates at Yokohama International School.
Konno is Japanese and American, but he spoke only Japanese at home and struggled with English. Then, one day in music class, the young boy met American koto teacher Curtis Patterson.
“I could barely express myself in English and my shy personality made it even harder for me to communicate through words,” says the now 23-year-old Konno. “However, my encounter with the instrument made me realize that there are other ways to communicate and connect with people. You can still have conversations through music and convey messages to your audiences, and that made me feel like I had found the missing piece of a puzzle.”
Patterson taught his students both about the traditional role the koto played in Japanese music history and introduced them to Western music via the instrument, which left a sizable impression on Konno.
“I naturally developed a different and broader perspective on the instrument itself,” he says, adding that, thanks to Patterson’s tutelage, “I was often told that my performance was very dynamic, and I’ve always considered that as my strength and signature quality.”
While some may be intimidated by the koto, a traditional string instrument that dates back as far as the eighth century, Konno says it’s easier to play than it looks.
“Because we use picks to play it, the speed or the angle in which the pick slaps the string, in addition to the amount of strength in our arms, are crucial factors that ultimately alter the tones,” he says. “Even beginners are able to make sounds on their first try … but it takes experience to create a nice, high-quality sound.”
While Konno has dabbled in other instruments — classical and bass guitar, keyboard, drums — he associates his early triumphs with the koto as part of a longer journey to explore and define his own identity.
“I constantly questioned my identity growing up,” he explains. “I would mostly hang out with my Japanese friends and, even though I am half American, I always considered myself more Japanese.
“Koto represents virtues unique to the Japanese culture, as its rustic sound has the power to draw energy inward, instead of projecting it outward. I felt that really suited me and who I am.”
In junior high school, Konno started lessons with modern koto pioneer Kazue Sawai, which he says provided the foundations for a life and career as a professional musician.
“Kazue-sensei is involved in a lot of activities that people would consider as avant-garde and not necessarily related to the traditional Japanese music world,” he says, referring to his teacher with the proper honorific title. “Her unconventional approach allows her to explore the koto from different angles, going as deep as the thoughts behind who invented the instrument, how it defines Japanese music and (how it fits into) the study of the meaning of art.”
The more time he spent learning koto the more he realized how sophisticated and complex it is to truly master the different dynamics that construct the instrument.
“The way it’s designed allows you to change the pitch easily using the ji (the movable bridges that hold up the strings), which means the vibrations caused during pitch adjustment can also be used as a form of expression in addition to the vibratos,” he says. “The freedom that comes from this simplicity is what really draws me to the koto.”
This simplicity doesn’t always work in Konno’s favor, however. The pitch tends to move around during performances, and because the surface of the instrument isn’t smoothed out, sometimes the ji will land on a rough texture or a grain of wood, causing it to unintentionally decrease the quality of the sound.
“During performances, I have to focus my mind in two different areas: the music I am playing and the instrument itself, so that I can move my hands accordingly,” he explains. “It’s very demanding, but that’s what makes it intriguing.”
While studying traditional koto at Tokyo University of the Arts, Konno incorporated a more unconventional style into his performances by taking inspiration from the music he listens to in his spare time.
“I listen to everything,” he says. “Recently, I’ve been into Tigran Hamasyan, an Armenian jazz pianist, who mixes traditional Middle Eastern music with completely different genres such as rock and metal to create his own style. His approach to traditional music is very similar to mine, as I’m hoping to continue to blend different genres of music to cultivate new forms of expressions.”
Konno’s newest album, “In a Landscape,” which he has released under his artist’s name, LEO, follows this genre-mixing approach by meshing traditional Japanese structures with Western classical and contemporary music. The title is a reference to experimental composer John Cage’s masterpiece of the same name, a cover of which Konno uses to close the album.
“The famous ‘4’33″‘ is a perfect example of how Cage viewed the absence of sound and coincidental sound as music, which raised the question of what music actually is,” Konno says. “He valued authenticity, a concept that is closely linked to the way I perceive Japanese music — their noises and imperfections are natural, and natural is beautiful.”
“In a Landscape” also includes covers of works composed by composers as varied as J.S. Bach, John Dowland, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Steve Reich. Konno says working on the album has been an opportunity for him to redefine the koto, using the genre mashups to place it in new contexts.
“For koto music fans, I’d consider it a success if the audiences start to have the illusion that they are listening to a koto program and not a koto cover of classical music,” Konno says. “For classical music fans, I hope that they will see it as a different side to classical music, a different form of expression.
Leo Konno’s album “In a Landscape” is available now. For more information, visit leokonno.com.
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