Shoko Hikage is a classically trained Koto (Japanese zither) player from a conservatory in her native Japan. Her repertoire includes court music, popular songs, folk melodies and classical compositions by the likes of masters such as Toru Takemitsu. Having studied composition for the instrument she puts her knowledge to use on Koto: Original Compositions and Improvisations, as both writer and improvising technician. Her works on this album, the majority from 1996-1997, showcase the various tonal and timbral aspects of the koto in all its numerous incarnations, but it becomes difficult to tell which is improvisation and which is composition. The reasons for this are myriad, but the most important is Hikage's direct inversion of the instrument's purpose: either in solo or in an ensemble. Hikage is not so much interested in using the koto for the creation of new melodies and lyric songs, but for a timbral and tonal investigative device which creates new musical scales that cross cultural and musical boundaries; thus in her approach one can hear the instrument as both foreign and familiar. Long harmonic lines are created from a 17-string bass koto in the seven-movement "Dance of Halla Trees," from 1996. Each movement uses a different tonal bridge, creating various timbral harmonics and semi-quavers. In the other piece for the bass koto, "Isana," the lone piece from 1993, Hikage carries the instrument's dronal qualities into the overtonal Eastern pentatonic scale and delineates intervals by the odd shape of a new drone entering the architecture. The tempo collides with the rhythmic drive and the piece completely disintegrates -- and finally disappears altogether -- leaving only the wisp of a droning F-sharp to hold onto in the sea of silence. This is an auspicious debut filled with quark strangeness and charm.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek