Voice of the Biwa:
Junko Tahara Ensemble

Hear the ancient Japanese biwa, a lute related to the Chinese pipa, in a rare performance outside Japan by one of the masters of the instrument. Junko Tahara breathes new life into a style of medieval music made popular by itinerant monks (biwa hoshi) who wandered the countryside singing The Tale of the Heike, one of Japan’s greatest epics. Alongside this classic, she performs transcendent and evocative new music written for biwa with traditional Japanese flutes and dynamic tsuzumi drumming. This concert was presented at the Freer Gallery in 2007 as part of the Music From Japan Festival.


Voice of the Biwa: Junko Tahara Ensemble
Junko Tahara, biwa and voice
Kohei Nishikawa, fue, nohkan (noh flute), and shinobue (Kabuki flute)
Akikuni Takahashi, Japanese percussion

Junko Tahara
Hana no Uta (ca. 1980)**
Atsuki Sumi
Hikari no Niwa (1983)**
Seiho Kineya
Tensei Chikyou (1975)
Masataka Matsuo
Biwa Yuyu (2007)* (Commissioned by Music From Japan)
Koji Tomotani
Gyo (1978)**
Kyokuso Tachibana I
Nasu no Yoichi, from The Tale of the Heike

*World premiere
**American premiere

This concert was presented on February 24, 2007, as part of the Music From Japan Festival 2007, which took place at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City; the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Middle Tennessee State University; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Yasuragi Center in Mahopac, NY. The festival was organized by Music From Japan, Inc., Naoyuki Miura, artistic director, and made possible in part by public funds from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan, and by the Japan Foundation through the Performing Arts Japan program.

Notes on the Program

The biwa is a short-necked Japanese lute played with a plectrum. A close variant of the Chinese pipa, the biwa reached Japan during the Nara period (710‒794 CE). It was popular among biwa hoshi (biwa monks) who wandered the countryside recounting The Tale of the Heike. This narrative with biwa accompaniment became an important literary and musical genre.

Hana no Uta (ca. 1980)

Junko Tahara

Junko Tahara writes, “Traditionally, biwa story-telling has involved fitting a melody to an existing narrative. However, when I encountered Makoto Sato’s charming yet deeply meaningful poem, I decided to try and create a folksong-style piece. If my memory serves me, I wrote it in 1980. In the poem, the narrator remembers a song about wildflowers that bud and bloom with the rains of spring that in turn reminds him of himself and his companion(s) in a different time: During the worst snows of winter, they sang the song under their breaths, to recall those sweeter moments.”

Hikari no Niwa (1983)

Atsuki Sumi

The composer writes, “Commissioned by Junko Tahara and premiered in Tokyo in 1985, this work was inspired by the novel Story of the Sea of Camellias by Michiko Ishimure. Ishimure is best known for exposing the plight of industrial pollution victims in her hometown of Minamata in southern Kyushu. Story of the Sea of Camellias depicts her childhood in Minamata. The lyrics for the song in the last section of the piece come from a short poem that appears in the book:

blossoms of citrus fruits
fill the air with the fragrance
of my homeland
between spring and summer
another season exists

The work begins with the sound of a gentle breeze that blows through a garden overlooking the peaceful sea. Then it weaves together the sorrows and aspirations of everyday life.”

Tensei Chikyou (1975)

Seiho Kineya (19141996)

Scored as a duet for biwa and tsuzumi (Japanese two-headed drum), this work was commissioned by biwa artist Mikiko Yamada and was premiered by her in 1975.

Biwa Yuyu (2007)

Commissioned by Music From Japan

Masataka Matsuo (b. 1959)

The composer writes, “I have been actively involved in composing for Japanese traditional instruments for well over a decade, but I had never written for the biwa. Even though I gladly accepted this commission from Music From Japan, I needed time to familiarize myself with the instrument. I was fortunate that Junko Tahara was so generous with her time and explanations of the biwa’s characteristics and techniques. Gradually, I was able to adjust my sensibility to the instrument; I finally finished writing the piece by the end of the New Year’s holiday. The resulting work takes particular advantage of the delicate expressions made possible by the traditional practice of tuning two of the biwa strings to the same pitch. The biwa is accompanied by the flute player, who alternates between nohkan (flute used in noh drama) and shinobue (a thinner flute used in Japanese festival music and in Kabuki theater), and by the tsuzumi player. My hope is that, together, they generate a kind of infinite sound space, such as might evoke the leisurely image of a peaceful rock garden in a Buddhist temple.”

Gyo (1978)

Koji Tomotani (b. 1947)

The composer writes, “This piece developed from my encounter with the world-famous biwa player Kinshi Tsuruta. Her performance transcended the traditional vocabulary of the Satsuma biwa and left me convinced that the instrument was a fitting vehicle to convey the plight of humanity and the complexity of the human condition. I was commissioned by Hiroyuki Koinuma to compose a piece for his Tokyo recital in 1978 at Umewaka Nohgakudo. The resulting piece, “Gyo,” was premiered by Koinuma on shinobue and nohkan, with Junko Handa on Satsuma biwa. The shinobue used has the lowest possible range and the richest tone of all shinobue types. The title “Gyo” is a Buddhist term referring to hard or ascetic practice. I sought to evoke the passions from one’s past incarnations through the dialogue between the flutes and the biwa.

Nasu no Yoichi, from The Tale of the Heiki

Kyokuso Tachibana I (18921967)

“Nasu no Yoichi” is a selection from the medieval classic The Tale of the Heike. It is the first year of the Geruyaku Era (1185), near the climax of the Minamoto and Taira clan wars, on the island of Shikoku. From their ships, the Heike (Taira clan) confront the shoreline encampment of the Genji (Minamoto clan). The sun has set and both sides acknowledge the fighting should end for the day. A small ship separates from the Heike fleet and approaches the shore and its assembled Genji soldiers. A beautiful court lady appears and points to an open fan, mounted on a pole in the ship’s stern, and challenges the soldiers to shoot it. The challenger, chosen from among the Genji warriors, is the young Nasu no Yoichi Munetaka. It is a daunting challenge, as the target bounces madly on the high waves. If he misses the fan, he will be obliged to kill himself in dishonor. He urges his horse into the current, offers prayers to the gods and Buddhas, and waits for a lull in the fierce winds. He notches the arrow, lets it fly, and all gasp as it hits the fan squarely, knocking it into the waves. Both sides break into thunderous applause.

(English translation of program notes and supplemental information provided by Sharon Nakazato and edited by Yuhka Miura and 21C Media.)


Atsuki Sumi graduated from Kagoshima University, where he studied with Yoshiaki Enokizono. He went on to study theory and composition with Toru Tamura at the Musashino Music Academy. Music From Japan first invited Sumi as a guest composer to the 1999 Festival New York. In 2002, he directed the first contemporary music concert for Japanese traditional instruments at the Reykjavik Arts Festival in Iceland. His works have been premiered internationally.

Born in Tokyo in 1914, Seiho Kineya studied shamisen (Japanese lute) with his father, Shoshiro Kineya. He toured with a Kabuki troupe around the age of twelve and took up composition circa 1940. After his father’s death, he became Shoshiro II but assumed the name Seiho in 1943. In 1948, he began studying Western composition and theory with Akihiro Norimatsu. A prolific composer, Kineya wrote more than a thousand works for Japanese and Western instruments and voice. He also wrote extensively for film and stage and was for many years in charge of the music for the popular NHK Taiga Drama (historical TV series). He was a lecturer for forty years at the NHK Ikuseikai School for traditional Japanese music and taught at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music. He died in 1996.

Masataka Matsuo (commissioned composer) is Professor of Music and Acoustic Design at Senzoku Gakuen College of Music and teaches at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. His many awards include the Special Prize at the Japan/France Contemporary Music Competition and First Prize at the ACL (Asian Composers League) Young Composers Award. His work was selected for ISCM World Music Days 1992 in Warsaw. He has written commissions for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, NHK, the National Theater of Japan, and Pro Musica Nipponia, and these works have been performed by the Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra (Lisbon), Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. He was Chairperson of ISCM World Music Days 2001 in Yokohama and organizer of the Tokyo Philharmonic’s Asian and Pan-Pacific Composers Series from 1998 to 2001.

Koji Tomotani was born in Hiroshima in 1947. He studied at Kunitachi College of Music and the École Normale de Musique, with Saburo Takata, Yuzuru Shimaoka, Marcel Bitsch, and Olivier Messiaen. He was a finalist in the Second International Music Composition Competition in Tokyo and was awarded the Arts Festival Prize from the Agency for Cultural Affairs. His work was selected for the ISCM-ACL World Music Days 2007 in Hong Kong, and his orchestral music has been premiered by the NHK, Tokyo, Kyoto City, and Hiroshima Symphony Orchestras. He is a professor at the Elisabeth University of Music in Hiroshima. He is a member of the Orchestra Project, where he is in charge of the Project on Contemporary Music.

Kyokuso Tachibana I was born in 1892 in Hakata, Fukuoka, as the second son of the originator of the modem Chikuzen biwa, Kyokuou Tachibana. He began learning the biwa at five years old and was assisting his father in teaching the students of the Asahi-kai School by twelve. In 1918, he established the Japan Chikuzen Biwa Tachibana-kai. He composed over 120 works for the four-string biwa and approximately 150 works for the five-string biwa. He died in 1967.


Junko Tahara (biwa and voice) studied the Chikuzen biwa with Mikiko Yamada and the late, legendary Kyokusui Yamazaki. Tahara specializes in the art of katarimono—narrated songs in Japan’s ancient oral tradition—including the medieval classic The Tale of the Heike. She also regularly performs original katarimono and contemporary works for biwa. As a member of Pro Musica Nipponia since 1972, she has performed extensively both in Japan and abroad, at major international venues including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. In 1982, Junko Tahara won First Prize at the Biwa Competition, as well as the Education Minister’s Encouragement Prize and the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) Chairman’s Award. She has also performed with kyogen (traditional Japanese theater) artists and with other musicians on such instruments as viola, fue, flute, and harp. In Kyoto in 2002, she premiered Laurent Martin’s Isshokenmei, written for her and two guitarists. In February 2005, King Records issued a four-CD set of Tahara’s complete recording of The Tale of the Heike: Miyao’s Book.

Kohei Nishikawa (fue) studied flute with Ririko Hayashi at the Toho Gakuen School of Music. He became principal flutist of the Osaka Philharmonic in 1975 but left after three seasons to specialize in the nohkan and the shinobue. He joined Pro Musica Nipponia in 1980 with which he performed traditional and contemporary Japanese music with the New York Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and several Japanese orchestras. In 1999, Nishikawa was a guest soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Pasadena Orchestra in performances of The Tale of Genji by Isao Tomita. The following year, he premiered Liturgia, a concerto for shinobue and orchestra by Diego Luzuriaga with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1997, he created the Nishikawa Ensemble, which has had five tours of the US and Canada. His four-volume CD series, Flutist from the East, is available from Live Notes.

Akikuni Takahashi (Japanese percussion) joined Pro Musica Nipponia in 1972. Specializing in both Japanese and Western percussion, Takahashi has participated in premieres with the Tokyo Mixed Chorus, the Japan Opera Society, and the Japan Society for Contemporary Music. From 1984 to 2000, he was a member of the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa and served as programming director of the orchestra’s chamber concerts. In recent years, Takahashi has coached taiko (traditional Japanese drumming) groups in Japan on the music of Akira Miyoshi and on regional traditional music. Under his direction, the groups performed at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and the Matsumoto Performing Arts Center. Takahashi leads the Tokyo Hougaku Ensemble and The Dagakuza, performs with Pro Musica Nipponia and the Polonia Percussion Group, and serves as Musical Director for the plays of Asaya Fujita.


This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by Andy Finch and Suraya Mohamed. Web production by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Ian Fry. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. The concert was a part of the Music From Japan Festival 2007, which took place at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City; the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Middle Tennessee State University; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Yasuragi Center in Mahopac, NY. The festival was organized by Music From Japan, Inc., Naoyuki Miura, artistic director, and made possible in part by public funds from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan, and by the Japan Foundation through the Performing Arts Japan program.

About Music From Japan

Founded in 1975 by current Artistic Director Naoyuki Miura, Music From Japan continues to preside as the leading presenter of Japanese contemporary and traditional music in the United States and the world. After four decades of touring throughout North and South America, Central Asia, and Japan, Music From Japan has presented about 645 works, including 106 world premieres and 94 commissions (for both Japanese and American composers). Over the course of forty-six years, 198 Japanese composers have been showcased, as well as many traditional Japanese pieces. Music From Japan was honored for its activities when the organization received the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendation in July 2007. Mr. Miura was awarded the Commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Award in December 2007, the Sen Kayoko Award from the Soroptimist Japan Foundation in November 2010, and the Gen-On Special Award (given by the Japan Society of Contemporary Music) in 2012.

Related Images