An article with Motoshi Kosako

Motoshi Kosako

An article with Motoshi Kosako

1)My thought as harp improvisor

 Improvisation is often considered something special, unfamiliar and/or difficult to understand by many musicians, although, upon reflection, improvisation is probably the most common activity in our daily life. We engage in many different activities everyday, from the time we get up to going to bed at night. We wash our face, take a shower, our daily cooking, driving the car, talking with others, writing emails etc. If you think of how you do these daily activities, you would notice almost all these activities have large space for improvisation. Using the example of brushing teeth, it is likely we don’t follow any fixed procedure of brushing teeth, such as number of strokes, amount of tooth paste, order of teeth to brush, amount of water to rinse mouth and so on. We brush teeth with the aim of “cleaning our teeth”, where there are general guidelines but not movement by movement detailed instruction, such as 4 circular strokes on the front left tooth in both directions. Sometimes we start from front teeth, other times from back teeth, sometimes we do a full 2 minutes, sometimes we just need to freshen up. It all depend on our feeling and necessity in that moment. Like that annoying small piece of fiber from stuck between the back teeth, you may start working on back teeth first.

 The principle of music improvisation is basically same. With knowing the final destination, we choose the way to get there depending on inspiration in that moment, the necessities and/or experience we want to have on the way there. 

 In our daily life, it is rather very rare to do things by following fixed procedure precisely, although in music it is very common to play what is already fixed as precisely as possible. In a sense, classical musicians are tackling the very difficult task of non-improvising, that we rarely practice when we are engaged in life activities. From this point of view, it is very natural reaction for unexperienced performers to struggle with fear and nervousness coming from pressure of performing difficult piece of classical music. We get nervous and frightened simply because we don’t do our daily activities in the way we play classical (non-improvisational) music.

 I discovered that I am essentially improvisor by disciplining myself as classical harpist in a past. I never got comfortable with playing non-improvisational music. Even when I got good outcome in performances, I couldn’t feel the strong sense of “ I am doing right.” 

 In 2010, I completely retired from classical (non-improvisational) music performances and I have since solely specialized in improvisational music. Personally, I feel more fulfillment playing improvisational music. 

 I have no intention to discuss which is “better” improvisational music or non-improvisational music. Each musician has natural tendency either suitable for improvisational music or non-improvisational music. Since harpist population has never been large and the tradition of harp improvisation is very limited both in time and space,  we haven’t gathered a large mass of improvisation specialization; the accumulated knowledge and experiences of improvisation on harp. Frankly speaking, the development of knowledge and skill of the harp as an improvisational instrument is still at a primitive stage compared to other instruments such as piano, guitar, sax trumpet and so on. This fact makes the path of becoming harp improvisor almost invisible and so most harpist pursue the path of becoming classical harpist no matter how suitable they are for that path or not.

 I used to be serious Jazz guitarist before starting harp at age 27, in 1999. Within a few years I, fortunately, became a professional classical harpist by teaching myself. In first 7 years I strictly played only classical music, and later started applying the knowledge and experience as Jazz musician to harp. There are many of differences between these two instruments but the principle of improvisation and playing jazz is same. In spite of widely accepted view of “harp is not suitable instrument for jazz”, I think harp is as suitable for Jazz / highly sophisticated improvisational music as any other instruments commonly used in jazz.

 My point as a jazz harpist is to be a“ jazz musician who plays harp” in stead of “harpist who plays jazz.” As Jazz musician, I believe in unlimited possibilities of harp as instrument for improvisational music. My mission is to keep a sincerely dedicate myself to the exploration of the potential of harp for improvisational music, to introduce harp to non-classical music community and share the achievement with fellow harpists.

2)How much improvisation do you have in your music?

 I think there are numerous gradients between strictly playing written music and free improvisation. I am going to discuss 4 stages of these gradients. 

Stage 1) “Strictly playing note to note as it is written”; This is how we play classical music (including written contemporary music). Within the written music there is a limited space for personal interpretation allowing us to play according to the inspiration in the moment within the notations on music. For example, you may play “Clair de lune” by Debussy slightly different tempi every time you play, or you can play dynamics differently depending on your spontaneous inspiration.

Stage 2) “Mostly playing fixed written notes with some ornaments and variations on harmony”; The typical examples of this in classical music is baroque music with figured bass. When jazz musicians play the head (theme) of tunes, we improvise to this degree. We, jazz musicians, are supposed to improvise ornaments on written melody lines and chose voicing on give chords indicated by chord symbols. If we want, we can add counter melody line that goes with the written melody. 

Stage 3) “Playing improvised melody and voicing of the given chord on written chord progression”  This is the way a jazz musician typically improvises outside of playing the theme. Beside playing melodies improvised in the moment, we have a freedom to expand chord progression using alternative chords, adding tension notes, and may even change rhythm patterns. 

Stage 4) “Playing music from no given structure”; This can be called “Instantaneous composition”, while 2) and 3) can be called “ Instantaneous arrangement”

 As mentioned earlier, there are numerous gradients between these four stages. When you try to improvise, it is helpful to understand which stage of improvisation you are pursuing, because different stages require different sets of skills and knowledge, and way of dividing attention. If the improvisation is closer to stage 1) “Strictly playing note to note as it is written”, the major focus of our attention is necessarily engaged in following the written notes by memory and/or reading music, a greater knowledge and understanding of the styles of music and notations is required and more skill on playing whatever is given to play by someone else as fluently and accurately as possible. The closer improvisation is to stage 4) “Instantaneous composition”, the more of our attention has to be focused on what is going on in the moment and what seems “right”, and being aware of how it flows through the present into the future, and more knowledge of intellectual information about harmony and scales is required, as well as  greater skill of transforming what you perceive and feel (and/or listening to inside of your head) at the moment into music.

  When I am moved by beautiful piece of music, my interest in understanding the structure and architectural aspect of the music is provoked more than the desire to be able to play the piece of music itself. Maybe for some people, the desire to play the given piece comes first. We each have our own way to relate to music depending on who we are. 

 For example, if you are most comfortable with playing written notes and have some interest to improvise, you can consider learning stage 2) improvisation “Mostly playing fixed written notes with some ornaments and variations on harmony”.  If you are interested in understanding of the process of creating music and playing written music is not your strength, it is worthy to pursue stage 3) improvisation “Playing improvised melody and voicing of the given chord on written chord progression” and stage 4) improvisation  “Instantaneous composition”. 

 By making effort to know ourselves, we can find the right balance of how to be involved in improvisation. In other words, through the efforts to find our own way to engage in music, we reveal who we really are. This aspect of “knowing ourselves”, this ultimate philosophical proposition, is one of the biggest benefit of being a sincere musician.

Born in Matsuyama City, Motoshi Kosako started his musical career playing piano and guitar with professional jazz bands in Japan. In 1997 he moved to the United States, where he is currently the principal harpist of Stockton Symphony Orchestra, and where he received the ''Best of Sacramento''-award from Sacramento Magazine, which described that “Kosako plays with a fluid, modern style that evokes Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea.”. Mr. Kosako has released six albums: ''Celestial Harp I'', ''Celestial Harp II'', ''Living Harp'', the jazz trio-album ''Naked Wonder'' with Bill Douglass (bass, Chinese bamboo flute) and Daryl van Druff (drums), the duo-album ''Place In The Heart'' with Grammy-award winning Paul McCandless (oboe, English horn, soprano sax, bass clarinet), and the current release ''On The Way Home''.

Find out more about Motoshi Kosako's work HERE