Contemporary Music for Japanese Instruments: Sawai Koto Ensemble

Hear the exhilarating music of the late Japanese composer Tadao Sawai and his son Hikaru Sawai, performed by this twenty-piece ensemble of traditional Japanese instruments. Kazue Sawai’s ensemble features traditional koto, bass koto, shamisen (lute), and shakuhachi (flute). They have collaborated with such composers as John Zorn, John Cage, and Sofia Gubaidulina, and appeared at Lincoln Center and the Bang on a Can Festival in New York. This performance took place in the Freer Gallerys Meyer Auditorium on May 4, 2001, and was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Japan. Recorded on March 4, 2001.


0:00–10:10  Tadao Sawai: Tori no Yoni (Flying Like a Bird)
10:20–22:50  Michio Miyagi: Mizu no Hentai (Metamorphoses of Water)
23:00–35:15  Hikaru Sawai: Dosei (Two Voices of Earth)
35:25–49:55  Tadao Sawai: Jyogen no Kyoku (Song of the Crescent Moon)
50:10–1:00:40  Hikaru Sawai: Ito Ranbu (Sonic Dance on the Three Strings)
1:00:50–1:18:00  Tadao Sawai: Futatsu no Gun no Tame ni (For the Two Clusters)

Koto: thirteen-string zither
Bass koto: seventeen-string bass zither
Shamisen: three-string lute
Shakuhachi: bamboo flute

Tori no Yoni (Flying Like a Bird), 1985
Composer: Tadao Sawai
Ensemble: Masayo Ishigure, Makiko Goto, Shoko Matsumoto, Ryuko Mizutani, Yasuhisa Murayama, Noriko Tsuboi, Shukuko Fujita, Rie Imai, Chiyo Kamiya, Satomi Kimura, V. D. Laan, Brett Larner, Joanna Pecore, Tamiko Savittiere, Charles Tang

Mizu no Hentai (Metamorphoses of Water), 1909
Composer: Michio Miyagi
Kazue Sawai and Masayo Ishigure, koto and voice

Dosei (Two Voices of Earth), 1992
Composer: Hikaru Sawai
Musicians: Hikaru Sawai, bass koto; Marco Lienhard, shakuhachi

Jyogen no Kyoku (Song of the Crescent Moon), 1979
Composer: Tadao Sawai
Musicians: Kazue Sawai, koto; Marco Lienhard, shakuhachi

Ito Ranbu (Sonic Dance on the Three Strings), 1992
Composer: Hikaru Sawai
Musician: Hikaru Sawai, shamisen

Futatsu no Gun no Tame ni (For the Two Clusters), 1976
Composer: Tadao Sawai
Soloists: Kazue Sawai, koto; Hikaru Sawai, bass koto
First koto: Masayo Ishigure, Sara Bean, Chiyo Kamiya, Brett Larner, Lai Wan Wong
Second koto: Makiko Goto, Rie Imai, V. D. Laan Tamiko Savittiere, Charles Tang
Third koto: Yasuhisa Murayama, Satomi Kimura, Joanna Pecore, Chris Vancil
First bass koto: Shoko Matsumoto, Noriko Tsuboi
Second bass koto: Ryuko Mizutani, Shukuko Fujita

Sawai Koto Ensemble
Masayo Ishigure, Makiko Goto, Shoko Matsumoto, Ryuko Mizutani, Yasuhisa Murayama, Noriko Tsuboi, Sara Bean, Shukuko Fujita, Rie Imai, Chiyo Kamiya, Satomi Kimura, V. D. Laan, Brett Larner, Joanna Pecore, Tamiko Savittiere, Charles Tang, Chris Vancil, Lai Wan Wong

A presentation of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Embassy of Japan.


Concert notes provided by the Sawai Koto Ensemble

Tori no Yoni (Flying Like a Bird), 1985
For koto ensemble
By Tadao Sawai (1937–1997)
The composer wrote of this work: "How would it feel, to fly free in the sky, as a bird flies? Humans have invented airplanes, but we are not free to feel the clouds as we pass through them."

Mizu no Hentai (Metamorphoses of Water), 1909
For koto and voice
By Michio Miyagi (1894–1956)
This piece marked the debut of an exceptionally talented fourteen-year-old composer, Michio Miyagi, who became the most prominent koto player of his day in Japan. Written in 1909 (with a variation for the second koto added in 1919), it is considered one of the outstanding modern works for the koto. Miyagi uses seven waka poems, 31-syllable Japanese odes, for the lyrics.

Dosei (Two Voices of Earth), 1992
For bass koto and shakuhachi
By Hikaru Sawai (b. 1964)
The composer wrote of this work: "When the koto sings, its voice penetrates and echoes through the earth. When the shakuhachi sings, its voice celebrates the life that the earth conceives. The two voices meet, resonate, and find each others' being in the resonance."

Jyogen no Kyoku (Song of the Crescent Moon), 1979
For koto and shakuhachi
By Tadao Sawai
This piece was premiered by the Sawai Koto Academy at its first public recital in 1979. The composer wrote: "In conceiving this piece, I imagined the mysticism of the moon and the prayers ancient people directed toward the moon as an object of worship. The entire composition maintains the mood of traditional Japanese music. The first section begins with a free exchange between koto and shakuhachi, then evolves into ensemble. Each section of the following ensemble gradually leads to a climax in the ostinato of the final section. A recapitulation of the opening section, this time in ensemble form, ends the piece."

Ito Ranbu (Sonic Dance on Three Strings), 1992
For shamisen
By Hikaru Sawai (commissioned by Hidetaro Honjo)
The composer wrote: "In writing this piece, I tried to reexamine the rich acoustic property of this simple instrument and the delicate sonic sensibility underlying its particular performance techniques, in order to use these traditional characteristics in a new way."

Futatsu no Gun no Tame ni (For the Two Clusters), 1976
For koto and bass koto ensemble
By Tadao Sawai
This piece was commissioned for the joint recitals—in Osaka and Fukuoka in 1976—of Kazue and Tadao Sawai. It evolves as kotos and bass kotos, each played in a cluster (or gun), interact around the koto and bass koto solos.

Featured Composer


Tadao Sawai (1937–1997), the son of a shakuhachi (vertical bamboo flute) player, followed the 350-year koto tradition of being both a composer and performer. He began his study of the koto at age ten and performed on national radio the following year. He also began composing in his youth and graduated from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 1959. That same year, Japan's national broadcasting system named Sawai the "Annual Best Hope for the Future of Contemporary Music."

Indeed, until his passing in 1997, Sawai was the leading exponent of contemporary koto music, leaving a legacy of more than one hundred compositions and as many recordings. His works range from experimental avant-garde compositions to works that are accessible to amateur koto players. Sawai also established and participated in new music associations with fellow musicians, performed worldwide, produced national and international koto festivals, and taught at the academy he cofounded with his wife, Kazue Sawai, in 1979. The academy trains aspiring musicians according to the Sawais' philosophy of koto. In particular, the school encourages the idea that classical and contemporary—and eastern and western—forms of music are inseparable, and that the source of all Japanese music is the life force of a solitary sound.


The Sawai Koto Ensemble was founded in New York City in 1992 as a branch of the Sawai Koto Academy in Japan. While its repertoire ranges from classical to contemporary koto music, the ensemble is particularly dedicated to playing the music of Tadao Sawai. It performs regularly in the United States, including in New York.

Kazue Sawai studied under Michio Miyagi, known in Japan as the "Father of Modern Koto Music," from the time she was eight years old until Miyagi's death in 1956. Miyagi gave Sawai a solid grounding in traditional performance as well as encouragement to push her instruments' boundaries. After graduating from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Sawai became the leading interpreter of and inspiration for numerous works for the seventeen-string bass koto, which she brought from a position of support to center stage. In 1979 she was awarded by the Japanese Ministry of Culture for her innovations on the instrument.

That same year, Sawai cofounded the Tokyo-based Sawai Koto Academy with her husband, the late Tadao Sawai. The academy incorporates everything from Bach to jazz in an effort to change the image of koto from purely traditional and Japanese to universally expressive. Sawai then established the Sawai Koto Academy International by placing her top apprentices in universities throughout the world, including in Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, The Netherlands, and the United States.

Sawai's performances feature experiments and collaborations with a wide range of artists, including John Cage, Sofia Gubaidulina, Yuji Takahashi, John Zorn, Kim Sokchul, Sardon Kusmo, and Testu Saitoh. John Cage wrote this poem for her on the occasion of their collaboration at the Bang on a Can festival in 1992:

Hikaru Sawai (koto and composer) began his musical studies at the Toho Academy of Fine Arts School. He studied traditional Japanese music with his father, Tadao Sawai; shakuhachi under Katsuya Yokoyama; and flute under Masao Yoshida. He later formed the rock band Mephisto Pheles, composing for and playing electric guitar. In 1990 he performed koto across Japan in commemoration of the Sawai Koto Academy's tenth anniversary and accompanied his father and shakuhachi player Hozan Yamamoto on a North American tour, appearing at the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. In 1992 he won the Ministry of Cultural Affairs Performing Arts Grand Prix Award for his original work on solo koto.

Masayo Ishigure began playing the koto and jiuta shamisen at age five. After initial studies with Tadao and Kazue Sawai, she became a special research student at the Sawai Koto Academy. Later she joined a small group of virtuoso disciples of the Sawais and completed the NHK-sponsored 33rd Ikusei-kai program. In 1988 she received a degree in Japanese traditional music at Takasaki Junior Arts College with a concentration on koto and shamisen, instruments she went on to teach at Wesleyan University from 1992–2006.

Ishigure has performed at venues throughout the United States and the world—including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and Merkin Hall in New York—and has been a guest performer with New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Peter Boal and the San Diego and New Haven symphony orchestras. She has appeared in music festivals in Japan, Thailand, Holland, France, Germany, and Brazil and performed in Russia, Belarus, Jamaica, and Mexico. In 2005 she recorded the soundtrack for the feature film Memoirs of a Geisha along with violinist Yitzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ishigure also can be heard on the recordings The World of Tadao Sawai (1988); Tori no Yo ni (Flying Like a Bird, 1985); her solo CD, Grace (2001); and East Wind Ensemble(2003), which features Hayao Miyazaki's music for anime films.

Marco Lienhard is founding director of the New York-based ensemble Taikoza. He studied shakuhachi under Katsuya Yokoyama in Japan from 1981–87 and mastered taiko with the group Ondekoza, with which he was a principal player for seventeen years. Lienhard has performed and taught in Europe, China, Japan, Canada, and the United States, including at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Boston Symphony Hall, Suntory Hall, and the Osaka Festival Hall. In addition, he has made numerous recordings for JVC and other labels, including two critically acclaimed solo shakuhachi recordings. Lienhard has appeared widely on television, including Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and the PBS special A World of Performances.

The Koto

The koto, similar to the Chinese guzheng, is a thirteen-string plucked zither introduced to Japan by China and Korea in the seventh century—about the same time Buddhism arrived in the country. The instrument became a standard part of the classical court gagaku ensemble for more than a thousand years. During the Edo period (1615–1868), the koto was popular among the merchant class. A seventeen-string bass version of the instrument was developed in the early twentieth century by koto master and composer Michio Miyagi and has since become an integral part of modern koto ensembles.

About six feet long and one foot wide, the koto is traditionally placed on the floor in front of the player, who kneels. It is constructed principally from two planks of paulownia wood (kiri), with the upper, thicker board hollowed out to form a resonating air chamber. The koto is plucked with three ivory plectrums (tsume), which are attached by rings to the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the right hand. The strings, all of the same gauge and tension, are traditionally made of silk. All of the strings are supported at the player's end by a single fixed bridge; the other end of each string is supported and tuned by means of moveable bridges (ji) made of wood, ivory, or plastic.

Additional Resources

Audio Recordings
Eye to Eye. 1987. Art Front Produce (AFP-001).

Johgen no Kyoku: Requiem to Tadao Sawai/Kazue Sawai's String World. 1998.
My Record (COL-004).

Koto Music: Tadao Sawai Plays Michio Miyagi. 1996. Playasound (#65180).

Midare: Kazue Sawai Plays Koto Classics. 1995. Kyoto Records (KYCH-2005).*

Music from Japan, Vol 1. 1992. Classic Masters (CMCD-1027).

Sanka: Tadao Sawai Plays Tadao Sawai. 1996. Kyoto Records (KYCH-2010).*

Three Day Moon: Live at Hall Egg Farm. Kazue Sawai with Michel Doneda and Tetsu Saitoh, Sparkling Beatnik Records (sbr0020).

Three Strangers in Paris. 1995. Kyoto Records (KYCH-3001).*

The Wind is Calling Me Outside: Kazue Sawai Plays Yuji Takahashi. 1990. ALM Records (ALCD-37).

Grace: Masayo Ishigure. 2001.

*Available from Kyoto Records: phone: 075.335.3666; fax: 075.335.3663; e-mail:

Video Recording
Koto: The Music of Tadao. 2002. Princeton, NJ; Films for the Humanities and Sciences.


Books & Articles
Koto Lives: Continuity and Conflict in a Japanese Koto School. 1995. Elizabeth Diane Falconer. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Dissertation Services.

"A New Decade for Hogaku." 1990. Elizabeth Falconer. Japan Quarterly. September–October. Published by Asahi Shinbun.

"Sawai Kazue, Avant Garde Kotoist." 1993. Elizabeth Falconer. Japan Quarterly. January–March. Published by Asahi Shinbun.

Tori no Yoni. 2000. Tadao Sawai. Ed. by Tomoe Obata. ISBN4-8355-0358-9. Tel. 03.3814.1177.


Podcast materials coordinated by Michael Wilpers, concert manager. Audio engineering by Andy Finch and Suraya Mohamed. Concert notes by the Sawai Koto Ensemble, with contributions from Joanna Pecore, who also compiled the additional resources. Related artwork from the Freer and Sackler collections compiled by Moonsil Lee.

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