Making Musical Waves

Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21
Descending Geese of the Koto; Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1724–1770); Japan, Edo period, ca. 1766; woodblock print; The Anne van Biema Collection, S2004.3.21

We owe the emergence of modern music for the koto, a Japanese zither, to a temple-court musician named Hosui. In the mid-1600s, Hosui was dismissed by the famously capricious nobility in Kyoto for giving an unacceptable performance.

Hosui ultimately prevailed. After resettling in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), he taught blind commoners how to play the exclusive court music styles and instruments that were previously restricted to Buddhist priests and Confucian scholars. Among Hosui’s students was the shamisen player Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614‒1685), who pioneered a large and influential repertoire of secular koto music that is still performed today.

More than three hundred years after his death, Yatsuhashi’s tomb in Kyoto is marked by a commemorative stone. His accomplishments in music mirror those of the Japanese artist Sōtatsu, who is credited with bringing the visual arts of the court to a much wider public.

You can hear a few of of Yatsuhashi’s signature works and several of their later incarnations performed by local koto artist Miyuki Yoshikami and flutist Amy Thomas. Their free performance is held on Saturday, January 30, at 1 pm in the ground-level pavilion of the Sackler Gallery. While you’re here, take a last look at Sōtatsu: Making Waves before it closes on January 31.

Michael Wilpers

Michael Wilpers is the manager of performing arts at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. He oversees the museum’s chamber music series, which focuses on Asian composers and music inspired by Asia, as well as other programs that explore genres from traditional Asian music to new music, jazz, and fusions. Many of these concerts are featured in podcasts on our website, where listeners can enjoy more than one hundred high-quality audio recordings. During the museum’s closure due to COVID-19, he developed our Look & Listen series, which brings together top performers and curators to explore the intersections of art and music. He also produces concerts with studio-quality video recordings made especially for the museum. Wilpers received his master’s in music from the University of Maryland and was formerly the president of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has played a variety of music, including jazz and Indonesian gamelan, in ensembles such as a Ugandan xylophone quartet, the Washington Toho Koto Society, and the Thomas Circle Singers.

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