Album Review of
Autumn: Music for Solo Koto

Written by Joe Ross
March 24, 2015 - 12:00am EDT
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The refined elegance of Mitsuki Dazai's "Autumn: Music for Solo Koto" is a pleasure to behold. Mitsuki Dazai, a graduate of Japan's renowned Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo, majored in vocal performance in the Western Classical tradition. However, she also was drawn to the non - western traditions of Eastern Europe, Middle East and Asia that eventually led Mitsuki on a circuitous route to a discovery of traditional Japanese music and koto, a thirteen - string plucked zither of Paulownia wood with movable bridges under each string. She studied traditional koto music at the Ikuta School. Inspired by the cultural veneration for this instrument, she next pursued advanced studies in contemporary koto music at Sawai Sokyokuin, with instruction by modern koto Master Tadao Sawai and world - renowned Kazue Sawai. 

"Autumn" is Dazai's first solo album and has over an hour's worth of classical and modern pieces. Typically, both types are composed in slow, moderate and fast tempi. To our western ears, classical pieces appear to have no melodic line because of their meandering, contemplative notes built around pentatonic scales. For me, a standard traditional work like "Rokudan" (meaning "six sections") represents the innermost soul and being of Japan itself. Composed in 1953 (only about 3 years before his death), Michio Miyagi's "London no Yoru no Ame" (Rainy Night in London) demonstrates why Miyagi gained worldwide notoriety after releasing his music in the 1930s and later. After losing his sight as a child, he went on to compose more than 500 pieces, improve the instrument, and invent kotos with additional strings for more dynamic expression. Compositions by Tadao Sawai (1937 - 97) and Hikaru Sawai (1964) are splendid selections that convey images of birds in flight, clouds, cherry blossoms in spring, and the shadows of life itself.

The title cut (in three movements) was penned by Tomas Svoboda (1939), a noted Czech composer who relocated to the U.S. in 1964 and taught at Portland State University (Oregon) for nearly three decades. "Autumn" was commissioned in 1982 by the late koto master Yoko Ito Gates. Of special note on this project are the two self - penned pieces by Mitsuki Dazai entitled "Breeze" and "Sky High." Her string bends, plucks, strums and other techniques in "Breeze" capture the inspiration she felt on the windswept beaches of Costa Rica. Married to a retired airline pilot, Mitsuki Dazai has spent considerable time in the air but now calls Oregon her home. Like a hawk surveying the land, "Sky High" evokes the joy of soaring independently and discovering new destinations. The album was recorded over a six month period n 2006 at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon. 

For me, "Autumn" is a sound poem with many verses inspired primarily by the elements of nature. In the hands of master instrumentalist Dazai, the koto pulls us in, plays on our emotions, and leaves us to reflect with greater awareness of both the subtlety and uniqueness of each fleeting moment. Mitsuki's special quality of sound is obviously the result of having highly proficient technical skills, a good ear, much sensitivity, and a thorough knowledge of how to present the nuances and colors of sound. She realizes that sound is much like paint with varying colors, and Dazai uses her instrument as the paintbrush. The entire set is very colorful due to the sound's tone and the relationship of the notes to those around them. Successive tones in musical space stimulate imagination and create melodic illusions. Mitsuki's musical notes offer both bright and dark sounds, and her sonic colors collaborate to produce feelings and emotions. Mitsuki's touch is as delicate as an eye surgeon's, and the emotional content of her solo recording debut on koto has great sensory and emotional impact. "Autumn" Music for Solo Koto" is a joyful experience. (Joe Ross, Roots Music Report)