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Sakura - The Art of the Japanese Koto - Network4Musicians


Sakura - The Art of the Japanese Koto

Review Articles ◦ Musician
Created by: Kevin Robb
Sat, May 03 2014
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PerformanceSpecific Elements

This performanceof Sakura uses a solo Koto player: Aiko Hasegawa playing a traditional 13 stringed Japanese Koto. (Chordophone)

Therecording supplied is a well produced and mastered version of Sakura – It seemsto be recorded in a large room, with natural reverberations and reflections onthe walls, (most likely achieved with the use of 2 large diaphragm condensermicrophones in overhead/room placement, and a close mic’d small diaphragmcondenser to pick up the articulations) giving this performance a very deep andnatural sound, lending a hand in achieving the sonic intimacy, of which, themusic itself offers.


General Texture:


Theoverall texture of this piece bounces around from single line melody, whichat points, suggests harmony, single line rolling arpeggios, andthe more harmonic sections, that seem to suggest a bass line, beneathhigher register rolling chords, which implies the harmony.

 The main texture is one of MelodyDominated Homophony. As most of the single line melodies aremonophonic, (because of the solo nature of the piece) we could think of thetexture of the piece as being flipped back and forth between Homophony,and  Monophony . This may be truefrom section to section, However - Within the context of viewing the piece as awhole, I feel that the Monophonic sections  are outlining, and reflecting importantpoints in a Suggested Harmony - similar to the idea of the ‘head’ of a Jazztune outlining changes in harmony beneath. If a person were to extract themelody of a jazz tune (and drop the added embellishments / passing tones)  the harmonic integrity of the melodywould still be present, and subject to harmonic analysis - based on just themelody. Given this particular context, and in reference to the well accepted,similar idea in Jazz (and other music), I am confident in calling the piece asa whole, one of Melody Dominated Homophony. __________________________________________

Instrument Specific Texture/Timbre:


 As the koto is being used in a soloperformance context here, it is very important to take note of all thedifferent articulations, dynamics, techniques, and nuances in the constructionof the instrument, which make up the surprisingly rich and full sound in thisrecording. The koto embodies one of the most naturally musical vehicles, thesimple chordophone – sound board, bridge, and strings- of course, chordophones are second to idiophones, being the most naturallymusical vessels of delivery.

TheKoto’s construction adds much to the tone, characteristic, and musicalityof the instrument.

The(usually about 6 foot long) sound board is typically made of asolid piece of Paulownia wood, which is specially treated by koto makers, toachieve more sustain and a more deep, dense tone. The treatment usuallyinvolves the process of water logging, and drying out the wood,  (many times over the course of 6 – 12 months)so as to add weight (before being finished with sealant) and therefore, densityto the tone.

Themovable bridge-post materials also play a part in the characteristictone – they are traditionally made of ivory, (plastic nowadays)  which adds to the presence of  attack of the strings. This isbecause of the hard material where the rake angle in the strings lie (the pointof most tension on the string). The bridge that supports the tension in a koto isalways made of a very hard material - which is in principle,  a way to boost the attack inchordophones.

 The strings of a koto are also veryimportant. They are traditionally made from silk – although these days, due tosilk being easily breakable and expensive, they are typically made from syntheticsoft plastics, which emulate the feeling, sound, and tension of silk. These softnon metallic strings provide much of the soft quality in the soundof the koto.

Thelast physical pieces of the koto are the fixed plectrums. The plectrums arecalled fixed, because unlike a standard guitar ‘pick’, the plectrums arefastened to the players thumb, index, middle, and sometimes ring fingers, via awooden, or plastic fastener – similar to the fingerpicks of  lap-steel guitar players. Theseplectrums are also traditionally made of ivory, to add to the presenceof attack - but again (for obvious reasons) they are now typically madeof hard plastics which emulate traditional ivory.

 The characteristic ‘fuzzy twang’ of akoto lies in the combination of the qualities of construction, and is in fact adichotomy (turned duality) of two characteristic sound qualities: soft  and  harsh - meeting to produce a single sound The very densetone wood of the sound board,  is met by a hard material bridge post, whereuponthe tension of soft, silk-like strings  lie, and are plucked by hard material plectrums _______________________________________

Theplayingtechnique  is another keyfactor in producing the unique timbre of the Koto. Similar toClassical Guitar, the closer the player gets to a bridge post, the moredefinition in attack the sound has – the same applies to the opposite – thefurther away from the bridge post, the softer the attack. The angle in whichthe strings are struck is also important . For the melismatic and longer tones,the strings are struck by the front of the plectrum (fingernail side). It alsomakes a big difference in roundness of tone, whether the strings are pluckedwith a follow through of the plectrum or not – giving it a more full bodiedtone with a follow through, or a thin tone, without. Very similar to reststroke in the Classical Guitar idiom. There are many more aspects of idiomatickoto technique, which add to the timbre of the instrument, but these are just afew to listen for in this recording.


Form & Structure (WithContextual Harmonic and Melodic Information):


Dueto the solo nature of the piece, we can use the changing of textures, and rolesof harmony to differentiate sections, and to view the piece as a self containedwhole, comprised of separate, yet related sections. Overall, I feel that thestructure is a simple binary form - || A | B ||, mostly based on the changes ofdensity in texture between the two large sections . That being said, there aremany different components within the large A/B sections to explore; here is atime captioned summary of the piece, explaining the structure.



a:                        ( 0 – 0:30 ) Texture – monodic, leading to single voiceimplied harmony.


0:00 – 0:13              -Motifintroduced

                        -Slowscalar ascent: middle to high range – suggests mode / scale.

0:13 – 0:20            -Rhythmicdensity increase: scalar descent high range, to low.

0:20 – 0:30            -Rhythmicdensity increase: arpeggio implies  harmony; descent, then ascent.


a tag:            (0:30– 0:42)


0:30 – 0:42            -Beginningquietly, increase density to a tremolo.

                        -Harmoniesenter; simile; harmony fully revealed: tremolo again (slower).


b:            (0:42– 1:47) Texture – Scarce homophony – harmony unfolds.


0:42 – 0:51            -Motivic elaboration; previous melodic content.

-Intervalsused in melody; suggested harmony.

0:51 – 0:59            -Every second note offers bass line / counter melody.

0:59 - 1:07            -Everyfirst note offers bass line / counter melody.

1:07 – 1:14            -Countermelody present; rising over high pedal tone (+ upper N.T.)

1:14 – 1:22            -Middleregister; similie - cadential strum / descending ornamental line.

1:22 – 1:32            -Strumpattern; motif in 8ve’s (harmony present).

1:32 – 1:39            -Cadencefigure; leads to strum.


b tag:            (1:39– 1:47)


(1:39 – 1:47)            -Tremolo;fast single note – ; switches octave via harmonic; simile.



a:            (1:47  - 2:28)            Texture:thick; arpeggio patterns; harmony established; dense.


1:47 – 1:56            -Rhythmicallydense pattern;1^, 1^ 2^ bass, repeats with cadence figure.

                        -Repeatswith triplet variation; chord strikes marking antecedent figures.


1:56 – 2:12            -Similararpeggio patterns; lower register.

                        -Bassline; harmonic rolls of strings.

                        -Singledescending line; marks end of first statement; disjunct.


2:12 – 2:26            -Similararpeggio pattern; short; repeats in high register.

                        -Highregister begins to ascend; leads to:

-Harmonic arpeggios (no bass line). Open strings; ascend anddescent.

-Octave arpeggio pattern; no harmonic motion.

                        -Rhythmicdensity decreases.


b:            (2:26– 3:08)            Texture:less thick; modulates texture - flexible; less harmony.


2:26 – 2:39            -Monophonicbends; growing and dying dynamics.

2:39 – 2:53            -Cadence figure; repeats varying dynamics – back to harmonic area.

2:53 – 2:59            -Bendsre-enter; richer harmonic / rhythmic density.


b tag:            (2:59– 3:14)

(2:59 – 3:14)            -Tremolotag; multi note; ends on high harmonic; sustain and fade.

                        -Middle register pattern emerges; softly;gets cut off.


b’             (3:14– finish)            Texture:mixed; condensed recapitulation of ‘a’.

                        -Mostmotifs and riffs from ‘a’ are restated.


-Recap of previous material; seemingly improv-based.

-Open string arpeggios return, and lead to the cadential strumfinish.




As you can see bythe longhand form above, the overall form will look like this in short:


||     A     |     B    ||



|| a | a tag | b | b tag||            ||a | b | b tag | b’ ||



General Rhythm:

            Therhythm in this piece is quite consistent – in terms of phrases on their own.That is to say, that within the context of the piece in its’ entirety, there isquite a bit of rubato, ritardando, rallentando, accelerando, and in general aseemingly free rhythm. Though, again, within phrases as individual constructs,the rhythm is quite fixed. It is the beginning, and ends of phrases ( as wellas transitions between phrases) that vary in tempo, and rhythmic placement. I choseto transcribe the A section in 4/4, because it seemed to make sense given thenature of the tempo changes, and rubato.


Harmony & Scalar Information:

The harmony of this piece can be describedas a playful tonic / dominant minor relationship, with ‘A’ in the key of gminor and ‘B’ in d minor – with most of the basslines revolving around the tonic of ‘g’, or the dominant minor of ‘d’. Allmelodic material is contained within a pentatonic scale, derived from GHarmonic Minor, as it lacks the 4th and the leading tone, raised 7th:

G, A ,Bb ,D, Eb


***NOTE: I am calling theTonic Key g minor, because the above pentatonic scale is present in both keyareas –part B seemingly lacks the parallel dominant minor scale tones, if itwere to really have modulated to v.





Thereis an obvious melodic motif strung throughout this piece:


Thissimple ascending motif of three notes can be found throughout mostparts of the piece, and is either present on its own, variedupon, or elaborated upon. It is used as a lone melody, a bassline,  a melodyover harmony / bass line, and is the fundamental motif of the piece.



^1  (do)        -        ^2  (do)       -           ^2  (re)




Theattached transcription is of Part ‘A’ in its’ entirety because itexposesand unfolds the motif, and presents all motivic material tocome in Part ‘B’.


A research paper and transcription, revolving around the piece "Sakura", performed by Akiko Hasegawa.


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