Yonin No Kai Ensemble

Japan: Sankyoku

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The Japanese word "sankyoku" translates into a koto, shakuhachi, and shaimsen trio. The koto, dating from the second century AD, is a 13-stringed zither and the root of Japanese Gagaku court music. Its history is rich and varied and it has gone through many periods of popularity and disfavor; it has become of interest to many in the west for its vast tonal range and dynamic possibilities. The shaimsen is a three-stringed lute whose roots lie in ancient Egypt. It did not make an appearance until the 16th century. The shakuhachi played the role of an accompaniment instrument to Gagaku music; it was introduced around the eighth century. The music performed here by the Yonin No Kaï Ensemble dates back only to the 17th century; as no music for either koto of shaimsen exists before that time. The koto music comes from a monk named Kenjun. The program highlights the pairing together of the koto and shaimsen, as well as one piece for trio setting and two for shakuhachi solos. Another features a quartet composed of the trio and a vocalist singing poems, and the opening piece -- a haunting work from the 17th century -- for two kotos. All of the works included here are very long. This is as foreign as music gets, particularly the older works, which can feature two time measures and as many as 104 beats in each one. To the untrained Western ear (which also hears a different musical scale than the Japanese), these pieces sound arrhythmic and perhaps chaotic. What makes them less intimidating is the gentleness and subtlety of the attack on a given instrument; whether it be a solo instrument like the shakuhachi or in ensemble playing where the shaimsen or koto solo. Everything is held in; music reveals itself slowly, over time, in the Japanese folk and court traditions. Even in works from the early part of the 20th century, this rule holds true and is perhaps more apparent. An example is "Iwashimizu" (Spring Among the Rocks)," written around 1904 by Nakao Tozan for shakuhachi solo. The tones of the flute, which are breathy and airy, are held for long periods of time over measures and then rounded off as they enter new melodic territory. It's as if the flute were an instrument of melody and drone simultaneously. In any case, this is a gorgeous, quiet, meditative volume of historical music played by the premier folk ensemble in Japan and an excellent introduction not only to the instruments, but to the history of Japanese music. The package comes with exhaustive notes about the instruments; their place in history, and the music in the program.

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