Ayako Hotta-Lister,
The Japanese Koto
(ARC, 2003)

This recording of virtuoso koto playing by Dr. Akayo Hotta-Lister includes her interpretation of works by Japanese composers spanning the 17th to the 20th centuries. Lister is an Anglo-Japanese historian at London School of Economics, and these recordings were made in London in 1990, though they remained unreleased until 2003. Lister appears to have been prompted to release this recording by her dismay at the sharp decline in the number of koto players in her native Japan -- yet another country that struggles to retain its cultural identity faced with the unstoppable onslaught of Western influences. She has been encouraged more recently, however, by the fact that traditional music teaching appears to be undergoing a revival in Japanese schools, which may help to redress the balance.

The koto is an instrument dating back some 1,200 years and is the longest of the zithers found in East Asia. The slightly convex body is made of paulownia wood and is almost two meters long. Thirteen silk strings are stretched over the body of the instrument, each supported by a bridge (called a ji). As with other instruments in the zither family, there are innumerable tuning permutations that allow for great improvisation by a skilled player -- Hotta-Lister is an undoubted virtuoso of the koto, having learned to play when a child. Three ivory plectra are worn on the thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand. The left hand is used to alter pitch. Anyone who has seen these types of instruments played live will surely recognise the improvisational potential they offer -- I am reminded of the powerful, passionate qanun playing by Syrian Abdullah Chaddeh, whose live performance I recently reviewed for Rambles.NET.

This album will appeal to those with specialist tastes, and also to those who are interested in the history of musical instruments of the world, for it features pure and simply koto and voice. As an example of its genre, it is extremely accomplished, featuring Lister's imaginative interpretations of compositions by Yatsuhashi Kengyo, blind composer Michio Miyagi and Rentaro Taki. Their compositions are skillfully and often movingly reworked here, and their translated titles evoke strong visual imagery as you listen -- titles such as "Bouncing a Ball," "The Song of the Plover," "London in a Rainy Night," "Moonlit Ruined Castle" and "Windchime."

As I said earlier, this is a very specialised recording, featuring the sound of the koto and little else, and as such will not reach a wide audience. However, I know for certain that this is the work of a passionate supporter of Japanese tradition. This recording is a powerful testament to Lister's wish to promote and preserve her culture.

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 21 August 2004