Kotohime, a trio of musicians from Japan, China, and Korea, strives to unite their native countries through the innovative East Asian music they perform together. All three are solo artists who perform different versions of zithers from their own countries: Xiao-Qing Jiang from China plays the gu zheng, Sun-A Pak from Korea plays the kayagum, and Nobuko Baba from Japan plays the koto. Together as Kotohime, or "Princesses of Koto," the three performed in a joint concert on February 1 at the Japan Information & Culture Center.
The concert, which was sponsored by the cultural offices of the Embassies of Japan, China and Korea, included among its audience the wives of the Ambassadors of Japan (Mrs. Hanayo Kato) and China (Mrs. Xie Shumin), as well as diplomats from all three embassies.
Kotohime Brings East Asia Together
Kotohime is the first koto unit in the world to include a Chinese member, a Korean member and a Japanese member. The three women met in 1996 through coincidence. Their common language is Japanese; Pak was born in Japan, and Jiang studied abroad in Japan. They each reside in Japan and have performed together for ten years now.
Their union as Kotohime reflects not only their musical pursuits but their personal values as well. Because of wars and interrupted communication over the centuries, "We East Asians used to have an impression that China, Korea, and Japan were countries that seem close to each other but were actually far apart," Baba said. "But we found that we can achieve mutual understanding through joint performances like this."
Although their backgrounds and talents already help fulfill their wishes to bring their three countries together, they hope to extend that further. The artists expressed their excitement that while they have visited the U.S. individually, this is their first American visit together. "Through our music, we hope to unite not only East Asia and the United States, but the whole world as well," Baba said.
Similarities and Differences
Kotohime wowed the guests by opening their performance with a melody specifically composed for and named after the trio, and a medley of Japanese, Chinese and Korean folk songs. In an unusual move for a concert, they then paused their music for a demonstration-lecture, explaining the similarities and differences of each instrument through words and examples:
All three instruments are made of paulownia wood. Silk was traditionally used for the strings, but since they break easily, each instrument uses substitute synthetic materials such as nylon (gu zheng), steel wrapped in silk (kayagum), and tetron (koto). These sister instruments originated from the Chinese gu zheng, but in the many centuries after they were incorporated into Japan and Korea, they began to differ in sound, shape, and performance style.
Pak said that the kayagum was born about 1,500 years ago, in a country called Kaya, which was in the middle of the southern part of the Korean peninsula. While the other two instruments are played with picks, the kayagum is played with bare hands and specializes in expressing human emotions.
The kayagum usually has twelve strings, but the one Pak played this day was a special version of twenty-one strings, so that it would harmonize better with the other two instruments. Pak explained the many meanings behind the specific numbers, demonstrating how the design of the instruments reflects East Asian beliefs. The twelve strings come from the twelve months of the year. While this kayagum is stringed on a seven-note scale, many East Asian instruments are pentatonic (on a five-note scale)--which comes from inyo gogyo, or the idea that everything in the world is created from the two principles of yin and yang, and the interaction of five elements: fire, water, wood, metal and earth. The three musicians turned their instruments over for the audience: all of them had holes underneath for better resonation of the sound, but the three holes of the kayagum symbolized the earth, the moon and the sun.
Jiang then explained the gu zheng: it is the oldest of the three instruments, born about 2,300 years ago. The 21-string instrument is decorated with many auspicious symbols, such as cranes, pines and plum trees, and is played with four picks on the right hand. The gu zheng, as well as the other two instruments, used to be played only with the right hand, with the left hand pushing down the strings. The playing became more complex over time, and now all instruments are played with both hands, with the right hand playing the melody and the left hand accompanying the tune.
The koto demonstrates the Japanese characteristic of maintaining tradition. Baba said that the koto has only 13 strings, all of which have the same thickness, retaining the design from when it first came from China 1,200 years ago. All three instruments used to be considered as metaphors of a dragon, but the koto is the only one that still reflects this idea today: the artists' left hand side is addressed as the dragon head, and the right hand side is called the tail. Using three picks on the right hand, the Japanese style of playing also emphasizes traditional technique, and there are specific ways to express certain sounds, such as "wind" or "water."
After the lecture, the members of Kotohime played three songs solo, demonstrating the characteristics and qualities of each instrument and of the music of their own country. They collaborated for three others songs, including a western melody: J.S. Bach's Ave Maria, where the kayagum played the arpeggio accompaniment. Even though the kayagum and the gu zheng here both have more strings than the koto (twenty-one, rather than thirteen), as well as different string thicknesses, the gu zheng has more range. The gu zheng, which is pentatonic and skips some notes that the seven-note-scale kayagum plays, is often responsible for the soprano and the melody when the three of them collaborate.
The guests were delighted to have the opportunity to listen to this one-of-a-kind music that the trio created, and to witness such a rare musical partnership. Following the concert, the three performers in their respective colorful national costumes--a China dress, a kimono and a hanbok--were very popular with the guests who hoped for a photograph with them.