Thursday, May 3, 2012

Unusual Instruments: Koto Nuts

Mitsuki Dazai, Radim Zenkl and Joe Ross: Koto Nuts


Geoviki’s post about the Japanese koto brought back a wonderful memory of a very interesting recording session that I once had the honor to produce in 2006. I had invited koto master Mitsuki Dazai and mandolin champion Radim Zenkl to lay down a few tracks for some of bluegrass tunes that would appear on my “Spirit of St. Louis” and “Bluegrass Alphabet” albums. That may seem strange enough, and the tracks were eventually accomplished in fine fashion.

Radim’s unconstrained impulsiveness and boundless energy, however, initially led that session down another road less traveled into a territory of free-form improvisation and adventurous tonality. He obviously had a creative vision for a collaboration that emphasized musical joy, understanding and partnership. I felt that a great piece of emotionally stimulating art was being made, and recording engineer Gary Niccolaides kept the computer recording throughout each spontaneous improvisation. Each musician had to know when to lead and when to follow for the group’s collective greater good. I added the synthesized keyboard sounds to the track.

Successive tones in musical space stimulate imagination and create melodic illusions. The sensory and emotional impact of each piece evoked a unique mood based on its configuration of stasis and movement. Tonal realm is divided largely as a matter of culture. Some of these recordings were based on the equal temperment and principle intervals of western folk music. However, many of the improvised melodies and harmonies such as this offering called “Koto Nuts” may seem more uncertain or ambiguous to western ears. It is this very ambiguity that results in an immediate melodic environment with amazing, albeit subtle, expressive power.

Embodying the spirit of meditative Japanese music, the song often casually floats and flows both with and without form. I hope that you find it a joyful experience to tune in to each fleeting moment. Various passages or a piece’s culminating sound inspired their names. The genesis and inspiration for the song called “Koto Nuts” evolved from a Japanese folk melody, “Yashi no mi” (meaning “Coconut”) and provided a perfect moniker for the music.

It was a largely experimental aural journey, and you’re invited to draw your own inspiration from this sample composition. Please listen as closely as we had to, and then formulate your own imagery and associations. Become a part of the creative process. It was truly exhilarating and a very humbling experience to work with musicians of the caliber of Radim and Mitsuki. Their generous sharing achieved considerable chemistry and harmony. Despite individual differences in backgrounds and styles, a bridge was built – both figuratively and musically. Spirits were fused, and I hope that you experience as much pleasure listening as was had making the music. The spontaneous improvisations remain unreleased because I’m just not sure there would be much demand for such experimental music.

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