Koto, Yueqin, Shakuhachi
by Gregg Miner, as part of www.minermusic.com)


O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
(9th century Latin, 13th century plainsong)


Koto - Japan

Yueqin - China

Shakuhachi - Japan (owned and played by David Zasloff)


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We now travel to the Far East to bring you the Japanese koto, the most striking member of the venerable family of "long zithers." This group of instruments evolved from the 4th century B.C. Chinese zheng (or cheng), which migrated outward through South-East Asia and Korea (with each country developing its own counterpart) - finally reaching Japan around the 8th or 9th century. Here it evolved into its most dramatic form, the six-foot-long koto. The basic koto has thirteen braided silk strings, fastened at opposite ends of the instrument - made from two planks of beautiful native paulownia wood - and all stretched to equal tension. The pitch of the strings (which are tuned to a specific pentatonic [five-note] scale) is then determined by the placement of individual inverted-Y-shaped bridges under each string. This is where the unique sound and playing techniques of the long zithers come in. Whilst plucked near the end of the strings with the finger- and thumb-picks on the right hand, the strings are individually pressed behind the bridges by the left hand to "bend" notes up or down and create vibrato. Whereas most Western koto players use the "friendlier" tuning of our own pentatonic scale (eg: c,d,e,g,a), I was determined to use the distinctive, Oriental-flavored hira-joshi tuning (eg: a,b,c,e,f) - which actually fit this traditional carol quite nicely!

While many Chinese instruments are duplicated in the other Far East and South-East Asian countries, only China has the adorable yueqin - known to Westerners as the "moon guitar." These are very simply-constructed instruments, but they do have one interesting feature, besides the bulbous shape: all are built to accommodate either of two different stringing configurations - three metal strings or two pairs of silk. This specimen was set up with the three steel strings when I got it and, frankly, sounded like a homemade, cigar-box guitar. Then I strung it with two double-courses of nylon, silk-wound strings (tuned a fifth apart) and it sounded rather sweet.

I knew that I had to use Japan's traditional bamboo flute, the shakuhachi, for the haunting melody of this song. Unfortunately, I had neither an instrument nor the ability to play one. Normally, neither point would necessarily stop me from making the attempt, but I was running out of time and also had it on reasonable authority that I could never play this demanding instrument - with its end-blown, notched mouthpiece and subtle breathing requirements - in a million years. To my rescue came David Zasloff, who was required to play this melody with only a five-note scale available on the instrument. I never did figure out how he did it.


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