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The KOTO is a thirteen-stringed zither with a harp-like sound made of a hollow piece of paulownia wood measuring just over six feet (180 cm) in length. The strings are plucked with ivory plectrums called o-tsume which are worn on the thumb, index, and middle fingers of the right hand. The strings are made of tetlon (originally silk) and are stretched over notched, moveable bridges called ji, enabling the player to tune to any eastern or western scale. The bridges were once made of ivory or rosewood, but today are made of durable plastic.
The instrument originated in China and was brought to Japan around the 7th century and used as a court instrument until the late 12th century. After the decline of court life, it was played by priests and noblemen. During the 17th century, Yatsuhashi Kengyo (1614-1685) began to play koto music outside its formerly restricted audience. Called the "Father or Modern Koto," he invented new tunings and composed many pieces for the koto including Rokudan, the most well-known and often played classical koto piece to this day. By the end of the 17th century the instrument was introduced to a wider segment of society, including blind musicians and women.
In the 20th century, Miyagi Michio (1894-1956) was the first composer to combine koto with western instruments and kept the tradition alive by performing in Japan and abroad during a time of immense cultural change in Japan. He composed hundreds of pieces, including Haru No Umi in 1929 which is still played annually in Japan to welcome the New Year. He also invented the 17-string bass koto and expanded the playing techniques for the instrument. Sawai Tadao (1937-1997) and other composers continued to expand the repertoire for koto.
The koto was brought to Hawaii with the arrival of Japanese sugar plantation workers in 1868 and continues to be taught and passed on to the next generation of players. June Kuramoto of the Los Angeles-based band Hiroshima is perhaps the most well-known koto player in the United States. The band's East meets West approach to music combines koto, shakuhachi, and taiko drums with pop, urban, and jazz sensibilities. Other American innovators of koto music include composer and performer Elizabeth Falconer, Reiko Obata as a soloist and with her band East West, and Jody Huybrechts of Ranga Pae.
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