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Instrumentalists: Eto & the Koto

4 minute read

With a bow to Conductor Leopold Stokowski, a bow to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a bow to the audience in Manhattan’s Philharmonic Hall, stocky Kimio Eto adjusted his formal robes and settled before a 6-ft.-long stringed instrument that looked like the fuselage of an unfinished model airplane. He bowed again, and a kettledrum thundered to begin the premiere of Modernist Composer Henry Cowell’s Concerto for Koto and Orchestra, the first concerto ever composed by a Westerner for the 1,100-year-old Japanese instrument.

Plucking the silk strings claw-hammer fashion with his right hand, Eto drew an incisive, harplike sound from the koto. As if feeling a pulse, his left hand roamed the length of the instrument, deftly depressing the vibrating strings in order to vary tones and lend the tinge of melancholy that is the unique trait of the koto. The opening melody, sketched against a background of moaning strings and sudden percussive bursts, followed the austere style of the ancient gagaku court music of Japan, then shifted in the second movement to a distinctly Western hymnal theme. In the final movement, strains of East and West were interlaced in a rapid rhythmic pattern between the koto, flute and harp. Though sometimes lost in the thicket of strings, the high-strung koto proved a solo instrument of intriguing versatility. At the end, Stokowski locked arms with Eto and led him on and off the stage for three curtain calls.

Ivory Bridges. Eto, 39, is blind, the result of a fall down a 30-ft. concrete embankment when he was a child in Nagasaki. After the accident, his father, an oil-company executive, decreed that young Eto would devote his life to the koto, adhering to the centuries-old tradition of Japan’s great koto virtuosos, most of whom were blind. Eto began studying the koto at eight, a year later went to Tokyo for private lessons with the late Miyagi Michio, a sightless composer-performer famed for creating a new form of koto music based on Western influences. In 1953, determined to carry on the work of his teacher and popularize the koto as a solo instrument in the Western world, he took up residence in the U.S. He now lives in New York City, divides his time between composing and touring college campuses.

The koto is Japan’s most popular traditional instrument. Brought to Japan from China in the 9th century, it is fashioned out of blond paulownia wood. It has 13 strings stretched over sliding ivory bridges that must constantly be shifted while playing in order to retune and change keys.

Daily Serenade. Composer Cowell, 67, one of the most prolific (more than 1,000 works, including 19 symphonies) of all modern composers, is a lifelong student and frequent composer of Asian music, has long ranked as the leading exponent of integrating Western and Eastern music, a cause that has attracted the interest of a host of modern composers such as Alan Hovhannes, Benjamin Britten, Lou Harrison, Colin McPhee, Pierre Boulez. Says Cowell: “No single inherited style, no single acquired technique, will enable a composer to live in the 20th century. We must integrate.”

Cowell has a special affection for koto music. As a boy he lived in San Francisco’s Japantown, was serenaded daily with Japanese music emanating from a koto school across the street from his home. When Eto approached him in 1960 with the idea of creating a koto concerto, the composer was immediately receptive. After spending three weeks boning up on the instrument at a koto school in Tokyo, Cowell completed the work in 1962. To study the piece, Eto had to transcribe it from piano to tape recorder to Braille. “Much work,” he sighs. Eto hopes that other composers will be inspired to write other concertos for the koto, which he feels harbors possibilities still unexplored. “If only Beethoven and Bach had known about the koto,” he says. “But we must start somewhere. We have to catch up.”

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