miya masaoka

The Koto

Gagaku is considered to be the oldest living form of written, continuous orchestral music in the world It originated in the Tang Dynasty in China and incorporates musical influences from China, India, Vietnam, Korea Persia and Japan. Percussion, string and wind instruments comprise the gagaku orchestra. Gagaku is sacred, ceremonial music that is performed at Shinto shrines, ground-breaking ceremonies and rituals associated with the seasons Some of the music is so sacred it is not usually performed for the general public.

Additional information on gagaku by Prof. Robert Garfias.

Koto, showing strings and ji.

The koto is a Japanese instrument with moveable frets in the long zither family of Asian instruments. Its evolution reflects the continuum of change through the epochs of Japanese history, and includes ritual, sacred and secular folk and court forms. The full name, kami no nori koto, means literally, "Oracle of the gods" and was used in Shinto practices that continue in modern Japan. It is made of the rather soft kiri wood, and is over six feet long. The length of the vibrating part of the strings is determined by the placement of the moveable bridges (ji), each string having one bridge. Different placement of the ji produce different tunings. There are some 200 scales in Japanese music. The strings are plucked with ivory plectra (tsume) of varying shape. Miya Masaoka performs on the 17, 21 and 25 string koto. Her 25 string koto was made for her by Takashi Nakaji, and she is one of the few performers on this instrument.

Koto, showing strings and ji.
Above: photo of the San Francisco Gagaku Society circa 1992.

In addition to studying traditional koto with Seiko Shimaoka, Masaoka has studied with teachers of Chikushi, Sawai and Ikuta schools. The koto is one of the instruments in the gagaku orchestra, and Masaoka formed the San Francisco Gagaku Society in 1990 under the leadership of Suenobu Togi, an organization that was dedicated to studying, performing and preserving gagaku. Togi Sensei traces his family lineage in the gagaku tradition more than 1200 years to China. He was educated at the Japanese Imperial Court Music School where he studied Japanese court music and dance since boyhood. Members of the esteemed Togi family were the first Imperial Court musicians in history to teach gagaku to non-Imperial Court Japanese civilians, to non-Japanese and also to women, all prohibited from learning gagaku.

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