Making Musical Waves: The Legacy of Yatsuhashi

This concert was presented in 2015 in conjunction with the exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, which was on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery from October 24, 2015, through January 31, 2016.

Seijo Tominari, koto, shamisen, and voice
Seiritsu Tomio, koto and voice
Yodo Kurahashi, shakuhachi
Ayako Kurahashi, koto and voice
Miyuki Yoshikami, koto and voice

Cantate Chamber Singers, Gisele Becker, director


Title Time
Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Ogi no kyoku (Fan) (17th century)
Seijo Tominari and Seiritsu Tomio, koto and voice
Rokudan no shirabe (Six Sections)
Kumoi rokudan (Six Sections in the Kumoi Tuning)
Ayako Kurahashi, koto
Miyuki Yoshikami, koto
Rokudan no shirabe (Six Sections)
Yodo Kurahashi, shakuhachi
Fukakusa Kengyo
Sarashi (Bleaching of Cloth) (early 18th century)
Seijo Tominari and Seiritsu Tomio, shamisen and voice
Yoshizawa Kengyo II
Chidori no kyoku (Plover) (19th century)
Gary Davison
Chidori (2014)
Ayako Kurahashi, main koto and voice
Miyuki Yoshikami, second koto and voice
Yodo Kurahashi, shakuhachi
Cantate Chamber Singers, Gisele Becker, director
Ikuyama Kengyo
Hagi no tsuyu (Dew on Hagi) (19th century)
Seijo Tominari and Seiritsu Tomio, shamisen and voice
Ayako Kurahashi, koto and voice
Yodo Kurahashi, shakuhachi



Making Musical Waves: The Legacy of Yatsuhashi

Notes and translations by Miyuki Yoshikami

This concert celebrates music that originated in the seventeenth century and is performed on koto (zither), shamisen (lute), and shakuhachi (bamboo flute). The blind composer-instrumentalist Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614‒1685) is credited with freeing the koto from the restrictions of its courtly enclave and therefore changing music of the Edo period (1600‒1868). As a young man in the mid-1600s, Yatsuhashi heard the sounds of the tsukushi koto that priests and noblemen prized due to its association with ettenraku, the imperial court’s revered gagaku music. He managed to convince a former priest-musician who had been banished from court to teach him how to play the instrument. Yatsuhashi thus began the trend of kumi-uta (song collection) compositions that had immediate popular appeal. Ogi no kyoku (Composition on Fans) is a typical kumi-uta with six songs. Each verse depicts a different incident from the tenth-century novel The Tale of Genji.

Composers in the eighteenth century developed Yatsuhashi’s kumi-uta pieces into unified long songs on a single topic. Since the sangen (shamisen) was thought to best express the activities and feelings of members of the common class during the Edo period, new compositions were written first for the sangen and later arranged for koto. Sarashi and Hagi no tsuyu are excellent examples of the sangen-to-koto process.

In the nineteenth century, koto musicians longed for the “good old days” of Yatsuhashi’s era, that is, koto music without the shamisen. Heeding the call, Yoshizawa Kengyo II composed Chidori no kyoku for solo koto, even though he was ostracized in some music circles for his endeavor. This piece is now considered the epitome of koto music, with its three-part format of song, tegoto-mono (instrumental interlude), and song. Gary Davison’s more contemporary version of Chidori for women’s voices adds an exquisite Western dimension to this piece by building upon the traditional Japanese aesthetic that values the beauty of pathos and longing. It can also be heard as an aural depiction of Sōtatsu’s Waves at Matsushima, with seawater dancing against tiny islands dotted with pine trees, while in the distance, the waves dissipate on the shore.

Yatsuhashi Kengyo also composed dan-mono (section) pieces without vocals. Among them is Rokudan, a popular favorite played on almost every instrument, including the shakuhachi. In the centuries since its composition, however, oral traditions within shakuhachi lineages have passed along altered versions of the piece, nevertheless within the spirit of the original composition.  Rokudan continues to inspire composers today, including Teizo Matsumura (Poem) and the American composers Lori Laitman (Rokudan Flute) and Winifred Hyson (Rokudan Clarinet).


Ougi no kyoku (Fan)
Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614‒1685)

Using the court repertoire of tsukushi koto as a model, Yatsuhashi Kengyo begins this music with gagaku koto techniques heard at the start of each line or phrase. The singing can be likened to a sophisticated melodic recitation of poetry with kotoaccompaniment.

I. In the “Hana no En” chapter of The Tale of Genji, Oborozukiyo, one of Genji’s lovers, is identified by her fan, which bears an image of a hazy moon. The reference to layered colored cloth is significant because most fans during the Heian era were made of bamboo.

Fan of pink [made of] layered cloth [with a] picture of a misty moon reflecting in the water: [How it touches] my heart―how endearing and lovely is the scene!

II. In chapter four, “Yugao,” of The Tale of Genji, Prince Genji’s liaison with Yugao begins when he sees yugao (evening glory) growing over a rickety fence in an unassuming neighborhood. In this lyric, the fence becomes a tiny residence covered with yugao flowers.

At twilight, vague and hazy are blossoms over a small house’s eaves. Draping and overflowing are the splendid yugao flowers.

III. Prince Genji visits the four places listed in the poem and declares that the moon’s beauty there is the same as it is at Hirosawa no Ike, the famous pond in Kyoto.

At Musashi fields, and Sarashina, Suma, and Akashi, the image of the reflection of the shining moon [there] is like the reflection here at Hirosawa Lake.

IV.  In Michonoku (Tohoku area northeast of present-day Tokyo) is a barrier house called Nakoso no seki, which means, “Don’t come here.” The barrier house represents the impossibility of expressing love because of differences in dialect.

Only in dreams night after night I think about her―only Michinoku’s Nakoso barrier house. Who made this barrier where a common language is not spoken?

Between poems IV and V is a sixty-four-beat interlude called Gin no shirabe (Silver Interlude), which is usually omitted to save time. This concert is a rare privilege to hear it.

V. Matsuchiyama translates as “Waiting Mountain.” Iza ya is an exclamation similar to “hey” or “yeah!”

Love, love, I yearn for my love. As in “Waiting Mountain” my love awaits. Let us go and see her! Let us go, Iza ya! and be together.

VI. The phrase soyo, soyo, sara, sara onomatopoetically describes the sound of wind rustling leaves, falling rain, hail, or jewelry on bamboo leaves. She hopes the sounds are her lover’s approaching footsteps.

Sleepless [am I] on this frosty night alone in my bed. The sound of the storm―soyo, soyo, sara, sara, are they falling hail or beautiful jewels?

―Translation by Miyuki Yoshikami
Rokudan no shirabe (Six Sections)
Kumoi rokudan (Six Sections in the Kumoi Tuning)
Yatsuhashi Kengyo

Few koto compositions are written without singing parts. Rokudan is a study of a melody in six (roku) sections (dan). Another purely instrumental work is Kumoi rokudan, which presents the Rokudan theme with a variety of melodic decorations in six parts. The main theme is introduced in the first dan of both pieces, and each section is a variation of the previous one. Both pieces also gradually accelerate in tempo in the jo-ha-kyu (slow-moderate-fast) manner.

Generally, when the shakuhachi plays Rokudan with the koto and sangen, it follows the main score with its characteristic decoration. When played only by shakuhachi, however, the performer usually reverts to a truncated version attributed to an anonymous shakuhachi player who brought the piece to his homeland from far away, using only his faulty memory to record it.

Sarashi (Bleaching Cloth)
Fukakusa Kengyo (early 18th century)

Composed during the Genroku era (1688‒1703), this piece concerns the everyday activities of the common folk. It was originally written for the shamisen before being transposed for the koto. Many compositions describe sarashi, the process of bleaching cloth in a river, but this version is the most famous one. It is played here as it was originally composed, that is, without the koto.

Festive autumn activities take place on the swift waters of the Uji River south of Kyoto. In Sarashi, the yards of white cloth appear like undulating wave caps or like frost under the Gosho Kinchin (Magpie Bridge) on the palace grounds or the bridge over the Milky Way of the Tanabata story. The sites around Uji, such as Asahi Mountain, Kojigasaki, Fushimi, Takeda, Yodo, and Toba, are compared with the scene around Mount Fuji. When work is done, everyone returns homeward to Maki Island, satisfied.

From Maki Island bleachers of cloth toil in the Uji River. Are they waves or white snow? Iza! Let’s go and see the bleaching of cloth!

A magpie [bridge] lets us cross the bleached white linen [spread out] like white frost.
Asahi Mountain is adorned with mists in a scene finer than Suruga’s Mount Fuji in likeness.

Waves upon Kojigasaki―moon light shimmering on them. If you look beyond, way beyond you’ll see Fushimi, Takeda, Yodo, Toba, places of equal fame. The cresting waves, the cresting waves on rapids here and there, running waters dammed with bamboo mats!

Instrumental interlude (tegoto) depicts the work of the cloth bleachers shaking the fabrics in the river.

As always at this place with cloth in hand, people of Maki Island walk together and return homeward peacefully.

―Translation by Miyuki Yoshikami

Chidori no kyoku (Plovers)
Yoshizawa Kengyo II (1800–1872)
Gary Davison (b. 1961)

Chidori no kyoku is an example of koto music without the shamisen, performed in the fashion of Yatshuhashi’s kumi-uta Ogi no Kyoku. By the nineteenth century, and in the hands of Yoshizawa Kengyo II, koto techniques had advanced to such a degree that they could mimic bird cries and evoke the sound of waves.

About his version of Chidori, Davison writes, “Because of the rather improvisational character of the original music, as well as the delicate nature of the koto, the choral parts serve as a backdrop of sorts, gently doubling or imitating in response to particular lines. They sing the same text of the waka that the koto players sing, sometimes as quiet echoes or at other times in simple fragments to achieve their effects, and always in support of the solo players.”

The Japanese text is intertwined with the English translation. Janet Ishimoto commissioned Davison to compose Chidori in memory of her parents, Paul and May Ishimoto. Its premiere performance was held in March 2014.

Poem 1: “Salt Mountain,” “Beach Peninsula,” reside the chidori (plover).
“May the Imperial Reign last forever,” they cry. [Long live mankind]
From Kokinshu (10th century)

Instrumental interlude with kaede (decorative) koto and shakuhachi
1. Sea section: flowing and receding waves
2. Bird section: plovers crying, flying, and playing over the waves

Poem 2: [To and from] Awaji Island fly the chidori
Their plaintive cries [have caused] how many sleepless nights for the guard at Suma pass?
From Kinyoshu (12th century)

―Translation by Miyuki Yoshikami
Hagi no tsuyu (Dew on Hagi)
Ikuyama Kengyo (1814‒1890)
Lyrics by Kawase Kakoen

This piece for shamisenkoto, and shakuhachi is the last known example of the sankyoku genre composed before Western influences poured into Japan in the Meiji era. It evokes the seasonal melancholy of autumn with obana (pampas), hagi (bush clover), kuzu (kudzu), matsumushi (pine/waiting bug), kinuta (pounding on cloth on a fulling block), the fall moon, and the sights and sounds of geese flying southward. Here, longing is associated with a despondent woman. The tears on her sleeve are like dew on hagi (bush clover). She was seduced by the inviting waves of the pampas grass (i.e., her lover), but his visits and letters have stopped. Hearing nothing from him (like breeze through kudzu that makes no sound), she is alone, waiting, hoping, and left to hear her monotonous heartbeat (synchronized to the beat of the fulling block). Hope rises at the end when she asks the geese how to send him a letter.

I cannot recall when the beckoning obana first touched my heart.
But thereafter, my sleeve is drenched with dew like on the hagi.

This person I yearn for but resent, left me like the silent breeze through kudzu leaves, sending me not one word.

With no messages from him, I, like the pine [waiting] bug, lie alone and cry forlornly with my heart and the evening fulling block in synchronized beats.
More and more inner thoughts—
“Pile them on!” glimmers the moon, intensifying my gloom.

Instrumental interlude (tegoto) recalls the delightful cries of singing insects in autumn.

Iza! Then, to the geese in the sky I will ask,
“To the one I yearn for―a love letter―is there any way to get it to him?
Do you know how?”

― Translation by Miyuki Yoshikami

Tawaraya Sōtatsu (active circa 1600–40) was one of the most dynamic and inventive painters in the long history of Japanese visual expression. A maker of finely decorated papers and folding fans, he worked in relative anonymity. The Tawaraya, his shop-studio in Kyoto, was well regarded, and his clients included aristocrats and merchants. Yet beginning shortly after his death (circa 1640) and through much of the Edo period (1615–1868), he vanished into obscurity, eclipsed by the reputations of calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637) and painter Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716). Not until the early twentieth century—thanks in part to the efforts of Charles Lang Freer—did the art world recognize Sōtatsu’s consequential role. This exhibition began with one of Sōtatsu’s greatest achievements, Waves at Matsushima, then revealed the elements and techniques he used to produce his finest works. It concluded by examining the ways in which he inspired artists in the modern era.

This performance was held in conjunction with the exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, on view at the Sackler Gallery in 2015–16. It was co-organized by the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Japan Foundation. The exhibition was supported by All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd. Special thanks to Tokyo University of the Arts. Additional generous support was provided by the Anne van Biema Endowment Fund.


Tominari Seijo
Tominari Seijo, koto and sangen (shamisen), began her musical studies at the age of three with Mizuno Hanako. She advanced quickly and was accepted to the Nagoya Kokufu Ongaku-kai (Nagoya’s Japanese Music Society), and by the age of twelve she was appointed assistant instructor. It 1963 she became a disciple of the renowned Living National Treasure Tomiyama Seikin I (1913‒2008) and received her professional name. Tominari preserves and teaches the rare Nogawa-ryu sangen music. She also supervises and teaches at the Yomiuri Cultural Center, Keio Culture, and Tokyu B.E. Schools and is a member of the Nihon Sankyoku Association and the Ikuta-ryu Association. She is the permanent director of Setagaya Sankyoku Kyokai and is president of her seishokai. She performs often in Japan and in music festivals in England, Germany, Austria, China, Australia, and Russia. This performance marked her debut appearance in the United States.

Tomio Seiritsu
Tomio Seiritsu, koto and sangen, began studying music at the age of three with her mother, Tominari Seijo. At age fifteen she became a disciple of the great Tomiyama Sekin and received her professional name from him in 1996. She is a graduate of Gakushuin in Japanese literature and was a member of the thirty-third graduating class of the NHK’s Society for Japanese Music. In 2006 and 2007 Tomio was a researcher for the Kyodo Kenkyu-in of the Kyoto City Geijitsu Daigaku (University’s Center for Japanese Music). Today she lectures at the Yomiura Bunka Center, Keio Culture, and Tokyu B.E. Schools. She is a member of the Sankyoku Kyokai and the Ikuta ryu Kyokai and directs the Setagaya Sankyoku Kyokai. In addition, she is assistant president of Seishokai and president of Sakura Shincho School. Tomio performed nationally and internationally, and in 1988 she appeared on a goodwill mission in “Setagaya Vienna” and in Bunbury, Australia. Since 2006 she has been invited to perform annually at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory music festival. This was her first performance in the United States.

Ayako Kurashahi
Ayako Kurashahi, koto, was born in Osaka and studied music under her mother, Maeda Reiko. Later, she studied the Kyushu style of ji-uta (art music) sangen with the great master Sasagawa Shizue of Kyoto. Kurahashi is a member of the Kyoto Sankyoku Association and teaches koto and sangen in Kyoto. She often accompanies her husband, Yodo Kurahashi, in performances in Japan, Europe, and the United States. Her American performances include New York, Oklahoma, and Texas, with appearances in the Washington, DC, area at Strathmore Music Center, Towson University, the University of Maryland College Park, and the Embassy of Japan.

Kurahashi Yodo II
Kurahashi Yodo II, shakuhachi, has performed internationally for more than fifty years. His father and first teacher, Kurahashi Yodo I, was also a famous shakuhachi player. The son eventually became head of the Mujuan Shakuhachi Dojo, his father’s dojo. Internationally recognized as an ambassador of shakuhachi and Japanese hogaku, he regularly performs at major concert venues and teaches at sites the world over, from Israel, Malaysia, and China to Canada, Bermuda, Australia, and throughout Europe. He is deeply schooled in ancient Zen Buddhist honkyoku solo music. Yodo’s repertoire ranges from the classical ensemble music of the Edo period to some of the most exciting music written for shakuhachi this century. He first performed at the Freer Gallery in 2014.

Miyuki Yoshikami
Miyuki Yoshikami, koto, began her music studies at the age of eight with the late Nakashima Chihoko as well as with Eto Kimio and Kagawa Seishi. She received the Dai-judo degree from the Todo Ongaku kai of Osaka through Kikuhara Hatsuko, a Living National Treasure. Yoshikami taught at the University of Maryland and the Music Department of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania in their honors and study abroad programs. She teaches koto in Bethesda, Maryland, and is a performing member of the Friday Morning Music Club. Yoshikami specializes in the classical koto repertoire and works closely with Western composers. Her koto performances include solos with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center and at the Strathmore Mansion Series, the Smithsonian, the Embassy of Japan, National Cathedral’s “Prayer for Japan,” and universities, governmental institutions, and radio and television programs in the United States and Europe.

Canatate Chamber Singers
Founded in 1984 by Phyllis Isaacson and under the artistic direction of Gisèle Becker since 1994, the Cantate Chamber Singers attracts many of the Washington, DC, area’s finest choral musicians, selected annually by audition. The group performs a broad range of great Western choral literature spanning the past five centuries and is recognized for championing neglected masterpieces and premiering newly commissioned works. The group’s biennial Young Composers’ Contest seeks to encourage emerging composing talent from around the nation. Its virtuoso performances, often featuring acclaimed guest artists, are offered in smaller venues to create the greatest possible intimacy between performers and audience.

An hour-long broadcast on Classical WETA’s Front Row Washington was devoted to Cantate performances, and the group won the 2011 Ovation award for creative programming. Cantate launched A Britten Holiday (Raven), its third nationally released CD, in 2013. Earlier CDs of two major Cantate commissions include Andrew Earle Simpson’s visionary wedding oratorio A Crown of Stars (Albany Records) and Maurice Saylor’s brilliantly playful setting of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (Naxos).


This concert was presented as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series and in conjunction with the exhibition Sōtatsu: Making Waves, co-organized by the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Japan Foundation. The exhibition was supported by All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd., with special thanks to Tokyo University of the Arts.

Podcast coordination by Michael Wilpers, F|S manager of performing arts. Thanks to Andy Finch and SuMo Productions for audio recording and editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, and especially the artists for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer Gallery.

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