People | 20 QUESTIONS

Koto player Azumi Yamano revels in space and atmosphere

by Ayako Nakano

Staff Writer

Name: Azumi Yamano
Nationality: Japanese
Occupation: Professional koto player
Likes: Eating, sleeping, daydreaming, visiting new places
Dislikes: Excuses, a lack of sleep


1. What does the kanji of your first name mean and does it reflect your personality? Azumi (安珠美) is taken from Azumino (安曇野) in Nagano Prefecture, a place my late mother was fond of. I recently visited the region for the first time and loved the clear, crisp, warm sky. I’d like to be a person with such qualities.

2. You are originally from Yamaguchi Prefecture. What’s great about Yamaguchi? Its nature, with lots of greenery, ocean and mountains. Everything tastes delicious and a number of historical figures are from Yamaguchi. And it boasts the most number of prime ministers.

3. Whom in Japan do you most admire? My mother, who passed away in March. She was my mentor and senpai, and my first koto teacher; she built my musical foundation. She was also good at sewing and made lots of dresses for me. I respect the way she handled everything with love, honesty and care.

4. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? Taoyaka,” which means beautiful and lithe in posture, and “rin to shita,” which describes someone with dignified strength.

5. What’s the greatest appeal of the koto? Its infinite musical freedom given to the player to explore. I also love the lingering resonance after striking the strings.

6. What’s the most difficult thing about playing the koto? There are no difficulties because, for me, all challenges turn into fun. I love tackling tough challenges.

7. You are a member of Aun J Classic Orchestra, a group of musicians playing Japanese instruments, and koto quartet Radentai. Do you prefer solo or collaborative work? I enjoy playing solo the most. The koto is a plucked string instrument in which the sound and music really reflect the player. The resonance from plucking the strings creates space and atmosphere. In a solo performance, all of that becomes your creation.

8. What troubles are specific to a koto player? The weight and number of items that we have to carry around. There are so many apparatuses!

9. What was your most embarrassing moment? I once left my entire costume set on the train.

10. If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be? Heian Era author Sei Shonagon (966-1025). She has an interesting way of expression and looking at small details. I also like her choice of words and her aesthetics. She was definitely a smart, strong, feminine woman. I’d like to chat with her over tea.

11. If someone wrote a biography about you, what do you think the title would be? “Thirteen,” which is the number of strings on a koto. My life started from my koto-playing mother and everything that followed has been music-related — from organ and piano lessons to being in a string instrument club in high school. That has formed who I am today.

12. What song best describes your work ethic? “Arigato” by Yosui Inoue and Tamio Okuda. I feel like the laid-back yet well-organized music matches my optimistic character with an otaku (nerd) streak. I don’t really know the lyrics, though. It’s the sound and their singing voices.

13. What’s the strangest request you’ve ever been asked in your work? I was asked to re-create the rail-crossing sound on the Odakyu Line with the koto.

14. How do you relax when you aren’t working? Do nothing, eat sweets, occasionally cook and make accessories.

15. What do you think about while standing on the train? I often hear the song I’m practicing in my mind so I think about how I can play it.

16. Is it best to be wearing a kimono when playing the koto? I wouldn’t say it’s the best. To be honest, some contemporary pieces are difficult to play in a kimono. But wearing a kimono does make my mind and body composed. Nowadays, we wear different costumes depending on the venue, the songs and so on.

17. What would be the first step for someone wanting to learn the koto? Maybe just start by actually touching the instrument. Compared to other instruments, I think the koto in particular provides many fun discoveries when touched.

18. What do you keep in mind when playing the koto? To remain calm, be myself and enjoy playing — however difficult the given conditions may be.

19. Which foreign country has left the biggest impression on you? Russia, where I had my first overseas solo recital and concerto with an orchestra. I really enjoyed performing for an audience who didn’t know me or the koto. I got very emotional hearing the shouts of “Bravo” and witnessing the moment a folk music instrument was appreciated as a musical form.

20. Any words of advice for young people? Challenge anything and everything that interests you in the slightest way and keep wishing. Something you thought was irrelevant can connect with you 10 or 20 years down the line, and that pleasant surprise happens because of your past.

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