Check out Alain Drouot's interview with Michiyo Yagi for Citizen Jazz:
English version follows:
Michiyo Yagi modernizes tradition
The Japanese koto player occupies a special place
in the landscape of improvised music
A late arrival in improvised music, Michiyo Yagi has been catching up during the last two decades by rubbing shoulders with elite Japanese (Otomo Yoshihide, Akira Sakata, Satoko Fujii...), American (Elliott Sharp, Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake...), and especially European (Peter Brötzmann, Paal Nilssen-Love, Bugge Wesseltoft, Eivind Aarset…) musicians. In addition, in recent years her duo with drummer Tamaya Honda has continued to grow in strength. Finally, her talents as an improviser should not make us forget that she is an outstanding composer, as evidenced by her evocative and cinematographic music.
Q: What inspired you to play the 21-string and 17-string kotos?
My mother was a koto teacher, so I was fooling around with kotos from a very young age — they were like toys around the house. I seem to have had a natural aptitude for the instrument, so my mother tried to give me proper lessons on the conventional 13-string koto. But I was an unruly student, and soon grew bored with the pentatonic scale, on which much of the traditional repertoire is based, as well as the limitations of the instrument in terms of range. So, I switched to piano studies and was happier with that. I also began making up original songs based on snippets of music from cartoon shows on TV. In retrospect, that might have been the origin of my career as an improviser.
In my late teens I happened to hear a contemporary music composition for the 17-string koto on the radio and found it fascinating. It inspired me to take up the koto again. I became a serious student of the koto and eventually became a live-in apprentice of the prominent modern koto master Tadao Sawai and his wife Kazue Sawai.
The 17-string koto is also called a bass koto. It was created just over a hundred years ago by the most famous koto player-composer of modern times, Michio Miyagi (of course I’m aware of the curious similarity of my name to his), who felt that traditional Japanese music was lacking in the lower registers compared to Western music. The 21-string koto, originally the 20-string koto, came into being in 1969. An extra string was added a couple of years later, but it continues to be called a “20-string koto.” I think that’s kind of absurd, so I insist on calling it the 21-string, which is exactly what it is. The 20-string koto eventually evolved into the 25-string koto, which has its adherents, but I find the 21-string just right for my diminutive stature.
For me, the 21-string is kind of like a guitar and the 17-string is like a bass, although it’s more in the cello range. Both kotos I travel with are modified for amplification. I call them “electric kotos,” but “electro-acoustic” is probably the correct description.
Q: What did you learn from performing with European and American improvisers?
I learned there’s common ground between improvising musicians wherever they may be from and whatever instrument they play. I learned the importance of listening, of interplay, of keeping a steady rhythm when necessary, the difference between idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvising…things like that.
Q: You mention Peter Brötzmann as being a mentor. What kind of advice did he give you?
Peter famously didn’t give much advice to anyone. From the very beginning I was pretty much “thrown to the wolves” and had to find my place when playing with him and, in most instances, a drummer. At first I was playing atonally, but I could hear that he tended to play around a tonic if not an actual key, so I began to follow his modulations by tuning my kotos while playing. That may need some explanation.
Kotos have moveable bridges and need to be tuned beforehand to whatever composition is being played. That means playing over chord changes is difficult and often impossible. They are also essentially monophonic instruments played with fingerpicks on the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the right hand. The left hand is mostly used for effects such as bending and muting the strings.
In my case, I use all my fingers when I’m playing my own compositions or improvising. I also use a contrabass bow, drum sticks, and other tools that are not part of the traditional gear. Plus, I use a variety of electronic effects — ring modulator, distortion, looper, octave generator, reverb, delay unit, etc. When I refer to myself as a “hyper-koto player,” I’m talking about the combination of traditional and extended techniques as well as the entire electro-acoustic setup that defines my sound. When I first began playing with Peter, I wasn’t using any electronics. But he was always open to new sounds, and never objected to my gradual adoption of pedals.
Working with Peter made me stronger, improved my technical abilities, and developed my ears.
Once, after a duo gig, we were having dinner and I asked him something like, “What’s on your mind just before you’re about to play a one-hour set?” I didn’t expect him to answer, but after a long silence, he gave me a detailed description of how he prepares for a performance and what he’s thinking during it. I won’t go into what he said — I’d like to keep it my secret. I have heard from many people that Peter almost never talked about methodology, but I think he might have made an exception in my case because I was so ignorant about jazz in general, and especially about free jazz. Despite my naïveté, he saw something in my playing, and encouraged me in his own peculiar way.
Peter could be terrifying, but he was also one of the sweetest people I ever met. He used to call me, “My little sister.” I wear that nickname like a badge of honor.
Q: When and why did you decide to start singing?
Singing in the traditional jiuta style is a part of traditional koto studies. In my own music I mix that with more conventional singing.
Q: And what is the jiuta style of singing? Did you get some training?
It comes from a long tradition of shamisen & vocal music. The shamisen is a kind of Japanese banjo. Koto studies are often combined with shamisen and vocal lessons. Traditional Jiuta singing tends to sound nasal and buzzy to Westerners.
Q: How did the duo with Tamaya Honda come about?
Tamaya was a mostly mainstream jazz drummer whose playing my producer / manager / husband Mark Rappaport had admired for a long time. In 2007 Mark produced a concert called “BrötzFest”wherein Peter Brötzmann played three sets with three different drummers — Yasuhiro Yoshigaki, Hideo Yamaki, and Paal Nilssen-Love. Tamaya was sitting in the front row throughout the evening, arms crossed and listening intently, and after the show he came up to Mark and said, “Why didn’t you ask me?” Mark told him, “I didn’t think this was your kind of music, but if you think you can do it…”
And that was the beginning of our duo. We began by inviting various guest musicians to be a third member for improv sessions at a tiny underground venue called Aketa No Mise. Mark dubbed these sessions “Aketa Dōjō.” Dōjō means a place where martial arts are practiced. The name stuck.
Q: What is the most satisfying aspect of this collaboration?
We’ve been playing together so long that we can just get up on stage without preparing anything and make some exciting music. What I liked about Tamaya from the very beginning was that he didn’t hold anything back. Very often, when I play with a drummer for the first time, he will assume that I’m playing a soft, delicate instrument and be overly restrained. But ever since I electrified my instruments I don’t have to worry about volume, so I like to go head on with drummers. Tamaya has a strong jazz background and can be a sensitive accompanist, but he’s also a huge hard rock / heavy metal fan and can burn down the house. A year after we first played together as a duo, we did a gig with Peter, and from then on we became Peter’s “Japan Trio” whenever he’d visit Japan.
Q: Do you use a specific methodology when you compose?
Because the bridges on a koto are moveable, just playing around with random tunings can result in ideas for original compositions. But I sometimes compose at the piano too. The traditional koto repertoire can provide ideas for interesting updates. But rock music or electronica can also give me ideas. I grew up listening to Queen and the Bay City Rollers. I like Underworld. Porcupine Tree. Cibo Matto. Juana Molina. Laura Veirs.
Q: Has the cost of traveling with two kotos prevented you from getting some gigs in the past?
Oh, for sure. We get asked to play overseas all the time, but most of the offers go down the drain when we mention the logistics. Sometimes we’ll explain how big the kotos are (I prefer to travel with both the 21-string and 17-string) and what the excess baggage charges are likely to be, and…we never hear back.
We are honored and delighted to announce that Michiyo Yagi has been named Artist in Residence at JAZZFESTIVAL SAALFELDEN 2023 (August 17 - 20) and Featured Artist at COLOGNE JAZZWEEK 2023 (August 12 - 18). See you in Germany and Austria in August!