Satsuki Odamura positions herself before a curved length of fine-grained Paulownia wood.
There are 13 strings attached, their nylon stretched over little bridges that Satsuki shifts closer to her body or farther down the wood. She must place them carefully, though – they will change the way the strings sound, higher or lower according to their place.
After tuning each string, Satsuki reads Japanese sheet music that tells her which ones to pluck with the fingers of her right hand. (Her left lingers above the bridges, waiting to apply pressure to the strings; their pitches bend as they resonate.) The notation reveals a series of numbers representing each string from the top of the instrument to the bottom, if you were to look through Satsuki’s eyes.
The koto became increasingly popular in Japan through the 17th Century, though it was used in court music about a thousand years earlier. It is now the national instrument of Japan, and its presence in Australia grows stronger through concerts like Musica Viva’s Silk, Metal, Wood, featuring brand new music for the koto.
Satsuki is Australia’s foremost koto player, and for much of her career she has also worked with Western composers – Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe, and today Jakub Jankowski – to develop her original approach to the instrument. Satsuki tells us: “My aim is to incorporate all that I have experienced with Australian musicians from different music genres, to create a unique style of Australian koto music.”
Her early koto training took place in Tokyo, and as a young adult she spent four years living with her teachers – famous composer and koto performer Tadao Sawai; and renowned soloist and improvisor Kazue Sawai, who has collaborated with Yuji Takahashi and John Cage.
Satsuki describes this live-in educational method as immersive and traditional. In return for free lessons with these koto masters, she became an apprentice, expected to help with domestic and professional tasks alike.
“The purpose of this training is that in addition to formal lessons, the student learns through observation, acquiring skills and techniques through their own effort and understanding,” Satsuki shares.
“It was an extremely rigorous period in which I practised a lot, but the real value of this experience was being continually surrounded by koto music every day, and learning the musical philosophy of my teachers.
“This helped me tremendously to absorb the music and improved my koto proficiency.”
Along with technical skill, the virtuoso also practises the concept of ma (間) – “not something that is learnt at university”.
“It is a concept that is deeply embedded in Japanese culture – not just koto music – and can be considered part of the Japanese DNA.”
In English, this word may conjure the idea of a “pause” or “space” between.
“In koto music, it is in this space or silence that one listens to the fading of the notes, and feels the tension and emotion of the koto player.”
Whether listening to the attack of the notes or their ethereal resonance, Adelaide composer Jakub Jankowski says this string instrument reveals “a beautiful and enchanting sound”.
“The timbre is unique. From a composer’s perspective, there’s so many things to love, but for me the wide array of pitch-bending and plucking techniques really stand out.”
Jakub has composed new music for Satsuki to perform in Silk, Metal, Wood. His piece Eclogue brings together Japanese and Western instruments: internationally renowned cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras (France) and contemporary music specialist James Morley (Australia/Switzerland) share the stage with Satsuki to form an unusual new trio.
Jakub’s music has been commissioned by the ABC and performed by some of Australia’s biggest orchestras. He works with Western notation – and continued to do so for Eclogue, under Satsuki’s advice. For this collaboration, she then transcribed each of the notes he had written on the page. (“I am happy to work with such a young talented composer,” she adds.)
Eclogue is a pastorale, according to Jakub, and its soundworld represents a range of ideas such as “birds and spirals, and the colour green”. James says Jakub’s striking combination of koto and cello “has kept me extremely curious and excited for some time now”.
“Koto is to me perhaps an instrument that everyone knows, even in the Western world — and yet people very rarely seem to recognise it by name,” James observes.
“There’s something almost puppeteer-like in the way the performer works, in the posture of the hands and the longitudinal and latitudinal plane they extend across.”
Noting how rarely this instrument is presented by Australian arts organisations, the cellist adds that “any opportunity to hear something new and unique is a great thing, so why not bring it to a big classically billed tour?”. Favourites from Bach and Britten feature alongside it.
Preparing for this tour, James listened to recordings of Satsuki and Jean-Guihen to understand “the essence of their individual approaches”. The trio has also been in touch to talk through Jakub’s piece as it was being developed, even when they couldn’t meet in person.
Jakub and James’ relationship extends even further back; they used to play cello together in the Adelaide Youth Orchestra.
“I think Jakub was always placed ahead of me in orchestra, so I guess his musical intelligence was apparent from a young age, which one obviously must have in order to be a good composer,” James says lightly.
Jakub adds that he is grateful to have been commissioned for Silk, Metal, Wood.
“Musica Viva is an incredible organisation with an absolutely wonderful team. Their support of Australian music is inspiring, as is their continued efforts to bring stellar musicians and performances to the Australian stage.”
By Stephanie Eslake