Miyabi Koto Shamisen Ensemble

Hear new and traditional music for Japanese instruments performed by this ensemble of fourteen kotos with shamisen and shakuhachi. Based in New York, the Miyabi Ensemble extends the range of music for Japanese instruments through an array of innovative styles. Guest artists John Kaizan Neptune on shakuhachi, guitarist Michael Gilsinan, and percussionist Manny Arciniega join ensemble director Masayo Ishigure for this concert. Masayo Ishigure can be heard on the Golden Globe-winning soundtrack to the feature film Memoirs of a Geisha.


Miyabi Koto Shamisen Ensemble
Masayo Ishigure, Director

Michio Miyagi
Haru no umi (The Sea in Spring, 1929)

Masayo Ishigure, koto
John Kaizan Neptune, shakuhachi

Katsuhiko Yoshizaki
Gun (1989)

Ken Hutchinson and Tomoko Kerr, shamisen I
Masayo Ishigure, shamisen II

Tsuru no sugomori (The Nesting Life of Cranes, 18th century)

John Kaizan Neptune, shakuhachi

Tadao Sawai
Yomigaeru Itsutsu no Uta (Five Songs of Youth Revisited, 1979)

Masayo Ishigure, koto

John Kaizan Neptune
West of Somewhere (1979)
Blue Bamboo (1994)

Masayo Ishigure, koto
John Kaizan Neptune, shakuhachi
Michael Gilsinan, guitar
Manny Arciniega, percussion

Elizabeth Falconer
Midnight Rain (1989)

Masayo Ishigure, koto
Michael Gilsinan, guitar

John Kaizan Neptune
Canyon View (1990, first movement)
Moon Spirits (1994)

Masayo Ishigure, koto solo
Chris Vancil, Tsuyako Takahashi, and Sara Heiny, first koto
Keiko Nishiham, Tomomi Takamoto, and Jun Ando, second koto
Aiko Ichimura, Kyoko Morishima, Kayo Warren, Yumiko Matsuno, and Yukiko Mizobuchi, third koto
Mayuko Matsuda and Motoko Kuroda, bass koto
John Kaizan Neptune, shakuhachi

This concert was recorded on March 3, 2018, and was made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Jane and Raphael Bernstein/Parnassus Endowment.


Adapted from notes provided by the artists.

Haru no umi (The Sea in Spring)
Michio Miyagi (1894–1956)
This work is popular not only in Japan but also throughout the world. It is considered among the best compositions by the great Japanese koto player Michio Miyagi. Writing it while sailing through the scenic Seto Inland Sea, Miyagi tried to weave into the music the sensations of waves lapping, boats creaking, and sea birds singing. The first of the three sections starts with the koto depicting gentle waves while the shakuhachi creates a peaceful mood of spring. The second section is built upon a fast tempo that suggests a fishing boat surging and the dynamic movement of oars. For the last section, the music returns to the original mood of a calm sea in spring.

Katsuhiko Yoshizaki
Originally, Gun was composed as a practice piece for shamisen students to play before learning such classical pieces as Rokudan. It is designed to teach the possibilities of the shamisen and to guide students to improve fundamental techniques. Each part is composed with the same level of technicality, bringing out both harmonious and asymmetrical parts.

Tsuru no sugomori (The Nesting Life of Cranes)
This work is a classic example of honkyoku, the traditional solo shakuhachi music played for meditation. It is characterized by a free rhythm, little conventional melody, an emphasis on subtle aspects of pitch and tone color, and the importance of the space between notes. As the title indicates, natural sounds are imitated, in this case the vocalizations of cranes. Influence from natural sounds is common in traditional shakuhachi music. Many versions of this piece have survived among the different schools of shakuhachi, but it consistently intends to convey the message that things are always deliberately simplified.

Yomigaeru Itsutsu no Uta (Five Songs of Youth Revisited)
Tadao Sawai (1937–1997)
This suite is based on five short poems written by the composer’s son, Hikaru Sawai, when he was just thirteen. Upon reading the verses, which convey the often over-powering emotions and uncertainty of a young person, Tadao Sawai felt he was reliving a part of his own youth.

West of Somewhere
Blue Bamboo
John Kaizan Neptune (b. 1951)
The “somewhere” in the first title is deliberately vague. An American playing shakuhachi, using a scale from India, and performing with a multicultural ensemble—where should one say this music originates? It is my hope that a kind of harmony can be found between different instruments and people around the world. Improvisation is not common in traditional Japanese music, but improvisation on the twelve-bar blues used in this piece seems uniquely suited to shakuhachi and koto. The second piece was recorded on the album Shakuhachi Mellow Jazz.

Midnight Rain
Elizabeth Falconer (b. 1956)
The composer notes: “Having grown up in lush, rainy Oregon, I feel a very close affinity with the sound of rain. The expressive sound of the koto has long been used for portraying nature, including various types of water sounds and movements. In keeping with this tradition, I employed light, shifting rhythmical patterns and percussive techniques in this piece to evoke the sound of raindrops as they fell on the roof late one night.”

Canyon View (first movement, 1994)
Moon Spirits
John Kaizan Neptune (b. 1951)
In Canyon View, I use a different pentatonic scale for each of the three movements; in each one, only a single note changes by a half-step. I was still searching for a title when I had a chance to visit the Grand Canyon. Each viewpoint there is quite unique though separated by only a short distance, and I thought it was similar to the piece I wrote. It’s pentatonic, but go a short distance and it’s a completely different view. This piece was written for my album Prime Numbers (1994). The three koto parts work well with fairly distinct ensemble function: lead/solo koto, rhythm/harmony koto, and bass koto. A longer shakuhachi and a standard shakuhachi are both used.


Masayo Ishigure, koto, bass koto, 20-string koto, and jiuta-style shamisen, began playing the koto and jiuta shamisen at the age of five in Gifu, Japan. She joined a small group of virtuoso disciples of the Sawai family and successfully completed the 33rd Ikusei-kai program sponsored by the broadcaster NHK to foster and train aspiring artists in Japanese music. In 1988 Ishigure received a degree in Japanese traditional music, with a concentration on koto and shamisen, from Takasaki Junior Arts College. Since she moved to New York City in 1992, Ishigure has performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, BAM, Merkin Hall, the Asia Society, the Japan Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Symphony Space. She has also appeared as guest artist with symphonies in San Diego, New Haven, Seattle, and Hartford, and she has participated in several international music festivals. In 2005 she joined Yitzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and others on the Grammy Award-winning soundtrack for the film Memoirs of a Geisha. Ishigure has taught koto and shamisen at Wesleyan University and Columbia University since 2010.

John Kaizan Neptune, shakuhachi, received his master’s certificate from the Tozan School of Shakuhachi in 1977, at which time he was awarded the name Kaizan (Sea Mountain). His second album, Bamboo, was named Outstanding Record of the Year by the Cultural Affairs Agency of the Japanese Ministry of Education. Subsequent albums (twenty-four to date) and his international concerts have made his original music, from traditional Japanese to contemporary jazz, widely known. Born in California, Neptune now lives in Kamogawa, Chiba-ken, Japan.

Michael Gilsinan, guitar, has had an international music career that includes performances at the Sydney Opera House, Teatro Nacional in Panama, Camerata Hall in South Korea, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. His educational initiatives led him to establish the Fort Lee School of Music and earned him a fellowship at the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain. He and his wife, Gigi Lau Gilsinan, founded Common Grain, Inc., as a platform to focus on music and design. Gilsinan holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in classical guitar performance from the Mannes School of Music.

Manny Arciniega, percussion, received his undergraduate degree in music education and theory/composition from Texas Christian University and a master’s degree in timpani and percussion from the Royal Academy of Music in London. His performances vary from playing tabla and percussion in the group Tablature (with Kuljit Bhamra) to playing buckets on the Netflix Original series House of Cards. He has appeared in musical theater productions in the Washington, DC, area as well as with the London Sinfonietta, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra of India, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Miyabi Koto Shamisen Ensemble is a New York-based group founded and headed by Masayo Ishigure. The ensemble consists of members of the Sawai Koto Academy, one of the world’s leading institutions for contemporary koto and shamisen music. The academy incorporates many influences, from classical to jazz, to change the perception of the koto as solely a traditional Japanese instrument into one of universal expressiveness. Since its foundation in 1996, Miyabi’s repertoire has ranged from classical to contemporary koto and shamisen music. The ensemble especially dedicates itself to playing the innovative works of Tadao Sawai. The musicians have performed widely in the New York City area, along the East Coast, and as far away as Hawaii and South America.


The podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording by Andy Finch and audio editing by SuMo Productions. Web design by Ryan King, with additional web production by Torie Castiello Ketcham. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. This concert was made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Jane and Raphael Bernstein/Parnassus Endowment. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer Gallery of Art.

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