In 1988 I was sent to Sydney by the Sawai Koto School in Tokyo to establish a branch school and to promote koto music around Australia. Some years later, I married an Australian and started a family here. I have spent half my life in Australia, gaining an understanding of both cultures. Blending cultures has become a theme in my life and my music.
I started learning the koto at the age of nine. At that time, children were encouraged to learn western instruments rather than Japanese instruments, and Japanese musical history was not taught at school. I was interested in the piano but nevertheless I learnt koto, mainly due to the fact that my aunt owned a koto and my parents coincidentally were friends with a koto teacher in my hometown. I felt that my parents encouraged me to learn the koto as part of my cultural mores rather than my musical education. In my mother’s generation it was common for girls to pursue cultural interests and arts in order to prepare them for marriage.
I entered the Sawai Koto School at the age of 18. My first teachers at the school were Tadao and Kazue Sawai, leaders in contemporary Japanese music who brought koto music to musicians and audiences that had never had the opportunity to fully experience the depth and breadth of the koto sound. Kazue Sawai is still teaching and performing actively but her husband Tadao passed away in 1997. He was well known throughout Japan for his skill in playing the koto and for composing profound koto music; his achievements are legendary and he is acknowledged in koto history.
Tadao and Kazue Sawai were pioneers in spreading koto music throughout the world by collaborating with musicians from a wide range of styles and sending koto players overseas, like me. Their goal was to take koto beyond the boundaries of traditional Japanese music and to develop new means of expression. Moreover, their continuing philosophy is that the koto should not be confined to Japan but that the koto should be a part of the world wide music scene.
I spent four years at their home in Tokyo as a live-in apprentice before coming to Australia. This form of intensive music training is a traditional Japanese teaching method. The lessons are free, but in return the apprentice has to perform a variety of tasks including domestic housework, secretarial work, and helping out at concerts.
The purpose of this form of music training is that rather than being taught directly, the apprentice learns through observation, acquiring skills and techniques through their own effort and understanding. 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. This helped me tremendously to absorb the music and improved my koto proficiency. In reality, live-in apprentices take fewer lessons than regular students, but by living in they learn very quickly and effectively.
Furthermore, I was very lucky to have been a live-in apprentice when Tadao and Kazue Sawai’s were at the peak of their careers, teaching all over Japan, composing, rehearsing, performing concerts domestically and internationally, as well as working with musicians such as Teizo Matsumura, Yuji Takahashi, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Akira Nishimura, Maki Ishii, all of whom were established musicians not only in Japan but also internationally. This period in their life was precious to me. I acquired a great deal of knowledge from my teachers, not only regarding koto music but also in terms of their philosophy, perspective, wisdom of koto music. Their paradigm of koto music greatly influenced my career as a musician and formed the foundation of my music career in Australia.
The further I went in exploring the world of modern koto music, the more I became fascinated with the aesthetic of traditional koto music. Perhaps the most alluring and mysterious aspect of traditional koto music is the concept of Ma. Ma (間) is a Japanese word which can be roughly translated as “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two notes”. This is a concept that is not found in Western music but can be considered part of a Japanese person’s DNA. In Japanese culture this concept of Ma is very important. It is in this space or silence that one listens to the fading of the notes and feels the tension and emotion of the performer. This is a concept of beauty in Japanese culture called “yuugen”, which roughly translates to a world of hidden beauty. In koto music, Ma is created every time a sound is produced due to the nature of the instrument, namely the reverberation of the string. Each sound is imbued with the essence and soul of the performer, making every sound profound and meaningful.
Nowadays, the koto is used in various genres of music in Australia, and all over the world.
I feel that when playing the koto in contemporary genres the player needs to perform in the spirit of koto tradition – of which Ma is an essential part. These new genres should be like plants seeking to root themselves firmly in the koto tradition. If a player is not aware of the original spirit of koto music then their music will not thrive. I would like to keep practising the aspects of traditional koto music and also performing contemporary music.
Having lived here for 30 years as a migrant, and having worked with a range of different Australian musicians, I have been exposed to new cultures and music. This multiculturalism has allowed me to go beyond the boundaries of conventional koto music and Japanese culture. My goal is to incorporate all that I have experienced to create a unique style of koto music that is influenced by various Australian musicians. In this way, I seek to blend cultures, musical styles and traditions.
Satsuki Odamura is a koto virtuoso, who has pioneered this ancient Japanese instrument in Australia. She works with musicians from other genres, such as jazz and classical music, inspiring composers who have no previous knowledge of the koto or its cultural setting. She has recorded three of her own albums in collaborations with Australian musicians and in the process, has found new directions for the koto in Australia. www.satsukikoto.com.au