Performance: Shoko Hikage performs Music for Koto

Sunday, 5/23/2021
2:00 - 3:00
Virtual Library

United States

Acclaimed musician Shoko Hikage performs traditional and contemporary music for koto. The performance features works by Yatsuhashi Kengyo, Tadao SawaiHyo-shin Na and Jon Raskin.

YouTube Live



Tadao Sawai (1937-1997)

Futatsu no Hensokyoku (1971)

Two Variations—Sakura and Kojo no Tsuki (Cherry Blossoms and Moon Over the Ruined Castle)

Yatsuhashi-Kengyo (1614-1685)

Midare (traditional)

Hyo-shin Na (b. 1959-)

Koto Music for koto solo (2011)

Jon Raskin (b.1954-)

in the blur of time solo composition for improvisation (2018)

Hyo-shin Na (b. 1959-)

The Sky Was Beyond Description for koto/bass koto (2014)


About Shoko Hikage

Shoko Hikage is a koto player currently based in Sacramento, California. She is grateful to have had wonderful teachers, including Chizuga Kimura, Iemoto Seiga Adachi, and Tadao and Kazue Sawai.

Hikage graduated from Takasaki College in Japan with a major in koto music and received her master's certificate from the Sawai Koto Institute. In 1992 she moved to Honolulu, where she taught koto at the Sawai Koto Institute’s Hawaiian branch and at the University of Hawaii. Hikage moved to San Francisco in 1997 and has continued her career as acclaimed koto performer and teacher.

Currently a member of the Wooden Fish Ensemble and the koto ensemble Lantana, Shoko Hikage has garnered praise for her work with contemporary composers, such as Hyo-shin Na, and for her many cross-genre collaborations with diverse artists such as filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-Ha, storyteller Brenda Wong Aoki, Butoh dancer Lori Ohtani, Taiko master Kenny Endo, poet and playwright Hiroshi Kashiwagi, musician Mark Izu and Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra. Hikage was also a member of important new music ensembles, such as the Natto Quartet, the Ghost Dance Trio and Koto Phase.

As Artbeat critic Lynda Hess rhapsodizes, "Shoko Hikage, koto player extraordinaire, will take you through the universe and beyond on her strings of sound. From “Cherry Blossoms” to John Cage, Shoko's performances will make you hear things you would never even dream before."

Connect with Shoko Hikage - Website


About the Music

Two Variations begins with a short introduction, followed by five variations on Sakura and three variations on Kojo no Tsuki. Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) and Kojo no Tsuki (Moon over the Ruined Castle) are perhaps the best-known of all Japanese melodies. Sakura is a joyful tune that expresses the happiness of spring. Based on the simple melody of an old Japanese song, Sakura-Sakura, Tadao Sawai’s Sakura variations reflect five different aspects of the song’s breathtaking beauty. In contrast to Sakura, the tune Kojo no Tsuki is melancholic and reflective and is based on the song composed in 1901 by Rentaro Taki (1879-1903) with these lyrics by Bansui Doi (1871-1952):

On the castle tower in the spring, a cherry-blossom-viewing feast

Exchanging cups of sake, the moon dancing in each

Branches of pine trees shooting out, they've grown a thousand years

Where have the glorious old days gone?

(Translation: Katsuei Yamagishi ©)

Midare, also known as Midare Rinzetsu, is a work for solo koto. The blind composer Yatsuhashi Kengyo, born in 1614, is thought to be the work’s author. Midare is composed in a relatively free style and does not follow the strict rules for works in the danmono and shirabemono forms. The composition has neither definitive stops nor set number of measures, which fact accounts for the composition’s name, which means “disturbance.” 

Koto Music exists in two versions, a version written in 2009 for three kotos and a version from 2011 for koto solo. The materials used in this piece are very limited and they are not developed.

in the blur of time was written by composer Jon Raskin and is dedicated to the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. The composer provides the following note for his work:  

Today you will hear a koto version of in the blur of time. There are six graphic elements. The central one, an interpretation of a Minkowski spacetime diagram, adds Carlo Rovelli’s concept of time as “blurred” human perception.

For The Sky Was Beyond Description composer Hyo-shin Na provides the following note:  

I began to write music for koto and bass koto in 2003, specifically for Shoko Hikage. Since then I have written 27 pieces for these two instruments and they have all been premiered and performed subsequently many times by Shoko. When I thought about writing another piece for her, I realized that, since she played my older music that uses the instruments separately with such insight and virtuosity, she could certainly play, or find a way of playing, a new piece that uses both instruments simultaneously. Since the pieces I had already written had their roots in poems and/or paintings, I wanted to write something that was independent of these sources and I found inspiration in the sound of the two instruments themselves – their tunings, comparative ranges and individual voices. The Sky Was Beyond Description was made possible by a generous grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation.


About the Koto

The koto, an instrument similar to the Chinese gu-zheng, is a plucked zither. The instrument is approximately six feet long and typically has thirteen strings arched over independently moveable bridges that sit on its hollow body of paulownia wood. A 17-string koto was developed early in the 20th-century by koto master Michio Miyagi, and this instrument now plays an integral role in contemporary ensembles. Appearing in Japan in the 7th century, the koto became a feature of gagaku court music ensembles for over one thousand years. The koto also became popular with the merchant class of Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868).


About the Composers

Tadao Sawai (1938-1997) was the greatest koto composer/performer of the late twentieth century. He had the keenest musical sense and a natural talent for bringing his instrument to life. His compositions for the jushichigen (17-string bass koto) have been important to the development of that instrument, and his wife Kazue Sawai is the leading interpreter of his works for the jushichigen. Tadao Sawai himself was known for his dynamic playing style, his willingness to experiment and improvise, and his talent for challenging the limits of modern koto playing.

Tadao Sawai began playing koto at the age of ten and graduated from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 1959. Inspired by the works of his legendary predecessor, koto composer Michio Miyagi (1894-1956), Sawai embarked on a series of recitals in 1961 that sought to develop a new world of koto music. He performed extensively both in Japan and around the world for many years, and several of his more than one hundred recordings received awards. Tadao Sawai’s stunning, expressive compositions continue to inspire musicians and audiences around the world.

Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614–1685), a blind koto player, is known as the inventor of hira-joshi (the basic scale of traditional koto music). He received the honorific title kengyo as a sign that he was a member of the highest rank in the guild of the blind. Recognized as one of the kengyo because of his rare talent with the koto, he became known as a "father of the koto." Yatsuhashi’s music has been loved and enjoyed for over 300 years.

Hyo-shin Na (b. 1959-) is an award-winning contemporary classical music composer who has lived in the United States since 1983. After studying piano and composition in her native Korea, she did graduate work at the Manhattan School of Music and at the University of Colorado, where she received her doctorate. Hyo-shin Na writes for both Western and traditional Korean instruments, and her music frequently combines both Western and Asian (Korean and Japanese) instruments as well as Western and Asian performance traditions. In Korea the composer has twice been awarded the Korean National Composers Prize, and her music for traditional Korean instruments is recognized as uniquely innovative by both composers and performers. In the West, the composer has received numerous performances and commissions, including commissions from the Fromm and Koussevitzky Foundations.

In recent years, concerts devoted to Hyo-shin Na’s music have been presented in Amsterdam, Seoul, Texas, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Her music is performed around the world by ensembles as varied as the Barton Workshop, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Kronos Quartet, and the Korean Traditional Orchestra of the National Theatre.

Hyo-shin Na is the author of the bilingual book Conversations with Kayageum Master Byung-ki Hwang (Pulbit Press, 2001). Her music has been recorded on the Fontec (Japan), Top Arts (Korea) and New World Records (US) labels. Since 2006 her music has been published exclusively by Lantro Music (Belgium). 

Jon Raskin (b.1954-) has been a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet for the last 42 years, exploring the relationship of improvisation and composition, developing and honing the language of ensemble music and researching the linguistic possibilities of the saxophone.

Weaving Stories: Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Interest
Connect with AANHPI heritage with programs and workshops, book recommendations and more.

Weaving Stories is the Library's celebration of the many diverse histories and cultures from Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities.

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