Miyagi Michio: Father of modern koto

The koto is a 13-stringed harp-like Japanese musical instrument.

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The author of this site is Rick Lavin. The text in the right-hand column is contributed by Anne Prescott.

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Anne Prescott studied koto with Ando Masateru in the Miyagi School of the Ikuta-ryu. She began playing koto at Cornell College (Iowa, U.S.A.) and she visited Japan for the first time in 1982 as a member of the Cornell College Koto Ensemble. She has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Kent State University (Ohio, U.S.A) and her dissertation was on the koto composer Miyagi Michio-his inventions, innovations, and compositions. She plays shamisen as well. Anne lived in Japan for over 7 years and supported her koto habit by working for a translation company. She also did the liner notes for the recordings of traditional music by Kyoto Records (almost 20 releases now). Now she teaches koto in the U.S.

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calligraphic koto Miyagi Michio (1894-1956) is known as the "Father of Modern Koto Music." He took the koto in previously unknown directions and was the instigator for what was the most far-reaching reform movement within koto music. He changed koto music by inventing new instruments, using new forms, stretching traditional forms, creating new playing techniques, and restoring popularity to the genre. Other koto composers and performers soon followed his lead, and most of today's pre-eminent koto performers, teachers, and composers are part of the Miyagi legacy.

Miyagi's reforms were primarily drawn from Western music, and he was the first composer to successfully introduce Western musical ideas into koto music. Although Miyagi did not want to abandon traditional koto music, he thought that there were aspects of Western music which could be incorporated into Japanese music to make it more accessible to the average Japanese at a time of increasing Westernization.

Miyagi exhibited an unusual degree of individualism when he broke with koto music traditions to create a new style of music. In the two hundred years before Miyagi only a handful of koto players had dared to make any substantial changes to the koto and its music. When viewed from a historical perspective today, those changes which occurred before 1907 [the year Miyagi composed his first work "Mizu no Hentai" (Transformations of Water)] were minimal compared to those created by Miyagi.

Miyagi began his study of the koto at the age of 7. He had begun to lose his eyesight shortly after birth, and one of the few acceptable professions for the blind at that time was to be a koto performer and teacher. When he was 13 he moved to Korea and he lived there for 10 years before returning to Japan to begin his career as a performer, composer and teacher. Miyagi taught in the koto department at the Tokyo Ongaku Gakko (Tokyo Academy of Music), which after the Second World War became Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku (Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music). In his position as an instructor there, Miyagi influenced scores of koto players, teaching them his new techniques and compositions.

"When viewed from a historical perspective today, those changes which occurred before 1907 [the year Miyagi composed his first work "Mizu no Hentai" (Transformations of Water)] were minimal compared to those created by Miyagi."

Miyagi was the first traditional performer and composer who was conversant in both Japanese and Western traditions. He created new playing techniques for the koto, including pizzicato, staccato, and harmonics. Most of these techniques are adaptations of Western instrumental practices, but one, the hajiki, was taken from shamisen music. Miyagi was the first composer for traditional instruments to utilize the Western classic style of singing. He also adopted and expanded compositional forms and techniques, experimented with the Western rondo, ABA, strophic, and variation forms, and the traditional Japanese kinutamono and tegotomono forms and kaede and kakeai techniques. He also was the first composer working in a traditional genre to make significant use of triple meter, and he wrote for groupings of instruments which had not previously been used by traditional composers. These include the mixed-instrument quartet, orchestra of traditional instruments, combinations of Western and traditional instruments, and koto concerti with Western orchestral accompaniment.

Miyagi's best-known work, "Haru no Umi," is heard everywhere in Japan during the New Year's holiday. Some of his other famous works are "Mizu no Hentai," "Ochiba no Odori" (Dance of the Falling Leaves), "Seoto" (Sounds of the Rapids), and "Tegoto" (Interlude).

Editor's note: Visitors to Tokyo can check out the Michio Miyagi Memorial Hall. Information regarding location, opening times, etc. is available (but only in Japanese) on the web.