Reiko Kimura: Traditional and Contemporary Music for Japanese Koto

Three centuries of music for Japanese koto are performed by virtuoso Reiko Kimura in this concert, recorded at the Freer Gallery on January 15, 1998. Compositions range from the exquisitely delicate to the rambunctiously adventuresome, and feature both the traditional thirteen-string koto and the contemporary twenty-string koto. This concert was presented in cooperation with Music From Japan, Inc. (New York) as part of the Music From Japan Festival 1998. Four years earlier, Kimura joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as guest koto player for the premiere of Minoru Miki’s Symphony of Two Worlds at Lincoln Center.


Midare (0:00–10:04)
Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614–1685)

Chidori no Kyoku (rev. 1855) (10:11–16:14)
Yoshizawa Kengyo (1800–1872)

Godan no Shirabe (1979) (16:20–23:35)
Minoru Miki (b. 1930)

To Nishikgi—Five Small Pieces (1973) (23:43–39:30)
Katsutoshi Nagasawa (1923–2008)

Hanayagi (1976) (39:38–49:32)
Minoru Miki (b. 1930)


Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614–1685)

Midare, also called Midare Rinzetsu, is a work for solo koto without lyrics. The blind seventeenth-century composer Yatsuhashi Kengyo created a new school of koto composition and is regarded as the father of modern koto music. Midare is among the most famous of all koto pieces, along with two of Kengyo’s other works, Rokudan no Shirabe and Hachidan no Shirabe. Yatsuhashi composed Midare in a relatively free style, without following the rigid rules that prevailed during his lifetime for works in the danmono and shirabemono forms. The result is a composition with neither definitive stops nor a set number of measures. This accounts for the name he chose for the piece, which means “disturbance.”


Chidori no Kyoku
Yoshizawa Kengyo (1800–1872)

The title of this work translates as “Song of the Plover.” The plover, a type of shorebird, has been a popular subject for Japanese artists since the Heian period (794–1185). Its piercing call sounds like “chi-yo, chi-yo,” which might evoke for Japanese speakers associations with the word chiyo, “for thousands of generations,” a sentiment used to wish someone a long life. Often seen running at the water’s edge or skirting just above the surface of waves, the bird is a symbol of artful survival in life’s ever-changing circumstances and is alluded to in classical literature.
This performance is an excerpt from the full piece for voice and koto, composed in the aristocratic song form called kumiuta. The full piece begins and ends with 31-syllable poems (waka) from the tenth and twelfth centuries, sung by the koto player. Each poem is interspersed with two short instrumental interludes for koto, with a longer koto interlude (tegoto) separating the two poems.
In this performance, the tegoto is performed as an independent piece. It is preceded by a short introduction taken from the first section of the original composition. The tegoto then begins the makura portion, representing waves (11:56–13:16 on the recording), followed by the main segment (hon-tegoto), representing plovers (13:17–16:14).The arrangement concludes with a brief phrase taken from the final section of the original piece.
Originally written for voice and kokyu (fiddle), the piece was adapted for koto and voice in 1855 by the blind composer Yoshizawa Kengyo. It is now one of the most popular works in the koto repertoire, often performed as a duet with shakuhachi (bamboo flute).
(Poems translated by Tsuge Gen’ichi.)

First waka (classical verse in 31 syllables)
Anonymous, from Kokin wakashu (tenth-century anthology)

At Shionoyama
Frequenting the sand spit
Plovers call out:
“You, my lord,
May you live eight thousand years!
You, my lord,
May you live eight thousand years!”

[instrumental interlude (tegoto)]

Second waka
Minamoto no Kanemasa, from Kin’yoshu (twelfth-century anthology)

At Awaji Island
The call of the plovers,
Flying to and fro.
How often they have awakened
The guard at Suma Pass!
How often they have awakened
The guard at Suma Pass!

Godan no Shirabe (1979)
Minoru Miki (b. 1930)

This piece is the second section of a larger work titled Higashi kara (From the East). The first section, not performed here, is an evocation of the moods of evening, using the tunings and conceptual approach of Indonesian gamelan music. The section heard on this recording is intended, in the words of the composer, “to communicate the intensified pulse of the rising sun as it looms up through the morning from the east.” To complement the Southeast Asian tunings and form, the composer employs a traditional Japanese scale. Compositions such as this one, structured around development through a number of separate sections, are a familiar part of the Japanese koto repertoire. This work remains true to the classical form by gradually accelerating within the Japanese 104-beat meter toward the climax at the end.

Composer Minoru Miki was born in Tokyo in 1930. He studied composition under Tomojiro Ikenouchi and Akira Ifukube and graduated from Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music in 1955. His first composition, Trinita Sinfonica, was performed by Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1953. In 1964, he cofounded the ensemble Pro Musica Nipponia and in 1975 became its artistic director. Since then, the ensemble has played Miki’s works in more than 160 concerts worldwide.

In 1974, Miki received the cultural prize of the Tokushima Shinbun-sha, and in 1975 was awarded the Wienerwald Opera Prize for his first opera, Shukinsho. His composition Time for Marimba was given its American premiere by Music from Japan; his Symphony for Two Worldshad its American premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1994. The four-record set The Music of Minoru Miki won the Grand Prix in the 1970 National Arts Festival. Miki is also founder of the group Utayomiza, which is dedicated to the development of Japanese musical theater.


To Nishikgi—Five Small Pieces (1973)
Katsutoshi Nagasawa (1923–2008)

Commissioned by Keiko Nosaka for the twenty-string koto, this work was first performed by Nosaka in 1973 at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan recital hall. As the composer explained at the time, the word nishikigi (literally, embroidery tree) appears in the 31-syllable poetic form of the Heian period (794–1185) known as waka. The “embroidery tree” refers to a courting practice of the time, in which a suitor, instead of sending a love letter, would decorate a one-foot tree in five colors and place it at the entrance to his beloved’s house. If she cared for him in return, she would take it into the house. It is said that, in the face of no encouragement, a persistent admirer might continue to leave trees as a demonstration of his ardor for up to 1,000 days.

In this composition, Nagawasa conjures up the kind of dreamy frame of mind that might have absorbed a young man as he affixed his hopes to the colorfully adorned trees. Later, titles for the five sections—each a specific color and rich in poetic allusions—were added: Rangyoku (indigo), Moegi (a yellowish fresh spring green), Akanegumo (a subtly ruddy red), Ruri (lapis), and Kohaku(amber).

Nagawasa was born in 1923. During World War II, he was a prisoner of war in Jurong (Joron), Singapore, where he created a musical group with fellow POWs called the Joron Ensemble. After the war, Nagasawa studied composition with Yasuji Kiyose and wrote choral works and music for Japanese plays and movies. In the early 1960s, he turned his attention to Japanese traditional instruments. He cofounded the ensemble Pro Musica Nipponia in 1964 and remains one of its leading forces.


Hanayagi (1976)
Minoru Miki (b. 1930)

Hanayagi was composed in 1976 as the last section of Ballades for Koto Solo, vol. II, Spring. Other sections are called The Young Sprout, March, Skylark, and Around My Country; each can be performed independently as a short work. According to Miki, Hanayagi (The Greening), which has been widely performed, “sings in praise of the brilliant life-power of the seasons as they slowly shift from spring into early summer.” The prelude was added in 1978.


Reiko Kimura was born in Nagano prefecture. Her mother played koto, and Reiko began lessons at the age of six. She graduated from Seiha Music School, where she studied koto in the Ikuta school and jiuta shamisen. In 1977, she joined the Japanese ensemble Pro Musica Nipponia, with which she has toured more than twenty countries. In 1979, she won first prize in the Pan-Musique Contemporary Music Competition. She twice received the Nipponia Prize, in 1985 and 1987. Under the auspices of the Japan Foundation, she toured Europe with a five-member ensemble. In 1994, she appeared at the Adelaide Festival in Australia and was the koto player with the New York Philharmonic for the Lincoln Center premiere of Minoru Miki’s Symphony of Two Worlds. The same year, she received the Arts Festival Award from Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. In 1995, she participated in concerts celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Music From Japan, with performances in Japan and Brazil and at the United Nations. In 1997, she became a soloist with Miki’s Orchestra in Asia.

Music From Japan, Inc.

Founded in 1975 by Artistic Director Naoyuki Miura, Music From Japan is the leading presenter of Japanese contemporary and traditional music in the United States and around the world. The organization has presented nearly 400 works, including 71 world premieres and 59 commissions for both Japanese and American composers, alongside traditional Japanese music. More than 130 Japanese composers have been showcased in concerts, panel discussions, and lecture-demonstrations in Japan, North and South America, and Central Asia. In 2007, Music From Japan received the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation and Miura was awarded the Commissioner of the Agency of Cultural Affairs’ Award. In 2010, he received the Sen Kayoko Award from the Soroptimist Japan Foundation.


James Ulak, label text for Japanese art in the Freer and Sackler collections

For notes on Chidori no Kyoku: International Shakuhachi Society website,, accessed June 23, 2011

Music From Japan, Inc. (New York), for notes on the program and the performer.


Podcast, notes, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager. Web design by Liz Cheng, audio engineering by Andy Finch, music review by Joanna Pecore, curatorial review by James Ulak, and text editing by Joelle Seligson.

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