Thursday, March 20, 2014


Japan has a certain sound.  It comes from an instrument called the kokyu.  The music made with this instrument will instantly locate you in Japan, from the very first note.  It is something like the way the banjo locates you in the U.S. or the bagpipes send you to Scotland or the tamborim takes you to Brazil.

This three-stringed instrument played with a bow is unmistakably Japanese.  If you were a Madison Ave. advertising agency and your client wanted to market some product for Japan, you could simply add some music from a kokyu to the commercial.  Likewise, if you were a filmmaker from the West and wanted to be sure the audience knew the movie was set in Japan you could open the first scene with a few notes from a kokyu.

I went to see a performance at be-kyoto gallery featuring a musician that played this unique instrument.  I was mesmerized by the sad, far-away sound.  There was a loneliness to the music.  I was transported to a quiet meadow blanketed in snow, an empty street before sunrise, a forest of bamboo dancing in the breeze.  I was a solitary monk on a narrow mountain path.  It was extraordinarily cinematic, this music. 

It seems appropriate that a culture that is so deeply rooted in Buddhism would have an instrument capable of creating such beautifully lugubrious sounds.  The Buddhist concept of transience, after all, is closely associated with melancholia and sorrow.  It is an essential part of detaching or withdrawing from the material world.

Indeed, with the kokyu guiding me, I felt as if I had left the material world, if only for an hour. 

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