Ishigure Masayo: Bringing Traditional Japanese Music to New York

Entertainment Music

New York-based musician Ishigure Masayo has taught and performed traditional Japanese music in the United States since 1992, and provided authentic touches to John Williams’s soundtrack for Memoirs of a Geisha. She is involved in experimental music as well as traditional performances. We talked to her about her career in the United States and the changes in how traditional Japanese music is received in the country.

Ishigure Masayo

New York-based musician, specializing in traditional Japanese koto and shamisen music. Started to learn the koto at the age of five, and studied traditional Japanese music at Takasaki Art Center College. After studying with renowned koto master Sawai Tadao and his wife Kazue, in 1992 she traveled to the United States for a teaching job at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Relocated to New York City in 1996, where she still works as a performer and teaches at Columbia University.

In February 2021, Ishigure Masayo was invited to give a performance on the koto at the Japanese Consulate in New York. The event was part of the monthly Friday Night Live series held at the ambassador’s residence and broadcast online to support musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dressed in a kimono, Ishigure gave an graceful and apparently nerveless performance, the evocative twang of the traditional Japanese harp charming lovers of Japanese music and traditional culture around the world. Recalling the event now from the comfort of her New York City apartment, Ishigure confesses to a bout of nerves.

“That was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. When it was over, I slept solidly for about three days. But luckily, I was wearing a mask, so I don’t think anyone noticed how petrified I was!”

When Ishigure appears in public she is normally dressed in a kimono; today she is dressed in her ordinary everyday clothes. Her remarks come as a surprise from a musician who has performed for tens of thousands of people and provided music for Hollywood movies.

A Phone Call from Hollywood

It was a sudden call that led to her involvement in Memoirs of a Geisha. “I got a call out of the blue one day from someone at Sony Music, saying, ‘Come out to Hollywood: John Williams is looking for a koto player for a movie.’ My first reaction, I’m ashamed to say, was: ‘John Who?’ But then I started to look him up, and soon realized what a big deal he was.”

John Williams, a well-known name to movie fans, is the composer of some of the best-loved scores in cinema history, including those for Star Wars, E.T., and many others. And now his representative was on the phone with a job offer: one of those things that could only happen in America.

“I flew out with my instrument and went to his office to meet him. I think it was the first time he’d ever heard a koto played live. He seemed to really like the sound.”

For the recording, Ishigure joined an orchestra of more than 100 musicians, including international stars like the cellist Yoyo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

“They did the recording scene by scene. The filming for the movie had already been done, and we played in time to that. But John was the only one who actually watched the footage. He conducted in time with what he was watching, and the music we played ended up fitting perfectly. It made me realize what a master he is at his profession, after all those years working on so many movies.”

Ishigure became a big fan of Yoyo Ma during the recording. “He was always ready with a joke to lighten the mood—and he was always really relaxed and approachable with the other musicians.”

After the recording was finished, Ishigure was asked to stay behind with a harpist after all the other musicians left.

“At first, I didn’t know what was going on. Turned out they wanted us to play a duet together, just the two of us. In front of about 50 members of the film crew. Everyone fell totally silent. So much pressure! I just concentrated on trying to play the best I possibly could. Actually, one of the crew had handed me a copy of the score before recording started. I’d told them flat out: this is unplayable on a koto! But they decided to go ahead anyway. I can’t remember exactly how it worked out now, but I got through it somehow.”

Fifteen years later, she still cherishes the memories of an unforgettable time and a picture taken at the sessions is on proud display in her apartment.

Ishigure in Hollywood to record the score for the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. From left: John Williams, Ishigure Masayo (koto), Yoshikawa Masakazu (shakuhachi), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yoyo Ma (cello). (Courtesy Ishigure Masayo)
Ishigure in Hollywood to record the score for the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. From left: John Williams, Ishigure Masayo (koto), Yoshikawa Masakazu (shakuhachi), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yoyo Ma (cello). (Courtesy Ishigure Masayo)

Carving out a New Path in the New World

Ishigure started to learn the koto when she was five years old. Ishigure says it was something that happened naturally: her mother was an amateur musician and there was a koto at home.

For a while she studied with a teacher in her hometown of Gifu, but at the time she didn’t have any particular ambitions to become a professional musician. When she left to attend university, she chose to study in the newly established department of traditional Japanese music at Takasaki Art Center College.

Ishigure was drawn to the school by the prospect of studying under Sawai Tadao (1938–97), founder of the Sawai School, one of Japan’s most respected koto musicians and composers. His work reached a wide audience in Japan when he appeared in several successful TV commercials for Nescafé instant coffee in the 1980s.

After graduation, Ishigure spent two years living and studying with Sawai and his wife, Kazue, also a koto musician. She thought of working as a musician locally, but for a while was uncertain of the path she should take. It was Kazue who came to her rescue one day with a well-timed piece of advice.

“If you stay in Japan, there are only limited opportunities as a traditional musician. Either you’ll have to move to some remote area where they don’t have any teachers, or else marry a husband who can support you while you pursue your art. Why not try your luck overseas? You could carve out your own path and make traditional Japanese music better known at the same time.”

On Sawai’s recommendation, she got a job in 1992 teaching koto and shamisen at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Life in the United States suited her, and although she returned briefly to Japan when her visa expired in 1995, she returned the following year, this time to New York.

“A koto instructor in New York had to return to Japan for family reasons, so I ended up going as a replacement. It was a succession of lucky accidents, really.”

Helped by the reputation of her well-known mentor, Ishigure attracted a steady stream of students from her earliest days in New York.

“At first I only intended to stay for two years. But then I decided to make a real go of it in America. I vowed that from now on I would rely on my own abilities, and not depend anymore on my mentor for support.”

Respect for Traditional Japanese Arts

It is now more than quarter of a century since Ishigure moved to the United States. “The nineties, when I first came over, were a good time,” she remembers.

At the time the koto was still an exotic instrument, which meant plenty of jobs, but today Ishigure says the koto no longer has the same novelty value.

“You know what they say about New York: there’s nothing you can’t find in this city. And people are quite discerning. Nowadays, people won’t make a fuss just because you play the koto. Quite a few of my former students are now making their own way as performers in their own right.”

Ishigure answers questions from audience members after a 2018 performance. She likes to encourage audience members to take the time to see the instrument for themselves up close. (Courtesy Ishigure Masayo)
Ishigure answers questions from audience members after a 2018 performance. She likes to encourage audience members to take the time to see the instrument for themselves up close. (Courtesy Ishigure Masayo)

Ishigure says Americans tend to be respectful of Japan’s traditional arts, and quite open about expressing that admiration.

“There are basically two types of jobs you get as a performer in this country. The first is essentially pictorial: they just want someone—anyone, basically—to sit there in a kimono and look the part. The second kind is more like a normal professional musician’s job: either giving a performance or contributing to film music, or maybe taking part in used some kind of experimental music project. With this type of work, American audiences really treat the koto as art.”

Although performance opportunities in New York have declined somewhat in recent years, work in other cities has increased. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ishigure was often called on to play in places like Nebraska and Kentucky. How did people living in these regions react to the traditional Japanese music?

“Some people are hearing the sound of a koto for the first time. Others have maybe lived in Japan and come to hear the performance because they feel an association with Japanese culture. Sometimes there are people who’ve studied the shakuhachi in Japan, and come up begging me to play a favorite tune together. A lot of the people studying shakuhachi at the Tokyo University of the Arts these days are foreigners—and similarly, a lot of the people who come to my performances are young people in their twenties.”

In some areas, parts of the audience are Japanese-Americans and Japanese spouses of American GIs once stationed in Japan.

“You really feel that what you’re doing has meaning for people when you see someone in the audience with tears streaming down their cheeks. Just the other day, I was asked to give a performance at a dinner reception after the funeral of a Japanese university professor who passed away suddenly. I’ve had all kinds of experiences here that I would never have had if I had stayed in Japan.”

Although live performance gigs have decreased during the pandemic, Ishigure is still in high demand as a teacher. And young Americans make up the overwhelming bulk of her students.

For the past 10 years, for example, she has taught a weekly koto class at Colombia University’s Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies. Founded by Barbara Ruch, a former protégée of the late Donald Keene, the institute offers instruction in gagaku court music, koto, and shakuhachi as part of its program in traditional Japanese music. And these classes are not just extracurricular activities but official college courses for which students get credit toward their degrees.

After a concert at a private library in 2016, Ishigure demonstrates two different styles of musical notation: traditional koto notation and the familiar Western musical staff also used for koto music. (Courtesy Ishigure Masayo)
After a concert at a private library in 2016, Ishigure demonstrates two different styles of musical notation: traditional koto notation and the familiar Western musical staff also used for koto music. (Courtesy Ishigure Masayo)

Ishigure has also given individual lessons since she first came to America. Since switching to an online format in 2020, she has been approached by aspiring students in from as far afield as California and Virginia. Ishigure is impressed by the dedication of her students—lot not least by their readiness to commit to an outlay of around $1,800 to buy a proper instrument.

“My students tend to be young, anywhere from their early twenties to around thirty or so. A lot of them have spent time in Japan. Quite a few can speak Japanese, or have at least one Japanese parent.”

Not All Plain Sailing

Listening to Ishigure talk about the highlights of her career, it is easy to get the impression that life in New York has been all plain sailing, but of she has had her share of ups and downs, many of them involving the problems familiar to women everywhere trying to balance the competing priorities of work and family.

“After I came to America, I gave it everything I had. I got married at thirty-seven and had a child at forty. Then for a while I was undergoing fertility treatment trying for a second baby while I was bringing up my first child. But when I couldn’t get pregnant again, I became depressed. I stopped giving performances for about four years, and in that time other performers started to appear on the scene. I started to worry that people would forget about me as a performer, that I would be replaced and find it impossible to go back to where I had been before.

“These anxieties got stronger and stronger the more time went by. I lost my enthusiasm for the koto; I didn’t care about the music anymore. Then one day a student said to me: ‘There are so many people who want to study with you, so why not look on the bright side and try to move forward?’ Suddenly, my eyes were opened and I finally broke out of my depression.”

Ishigure held a special recital to mark 25 years in the United States; and in 2022 she will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of her arrival in the country. “I was trying to think of ways to mark the occasion when this whole pandemic thing started. Right now, I’m saving my energy for the coming post-COVID age and starting to think what I can do next. I’m just waiting for the right moment.”

What Does the Future Hold?

In Japan, young people in general are no longer interested in the traditional arts, and there is concern about how the traditions will be passed on to the next generation. Ishigure says traditional Japanese music faces a difficult struggle for survival in the United States as well, drawing on the example of kabuki to illustrate her point.

“Kabuki is making various efforts to broaden its appeal. They put on a kabuki version of the manga One Piece, and have held performances at the Lincoln Center here in New York. But they are able to do these things thanks to the amount of money they have at their disposal. Traditional music doesn’t have that kind of prestige or budget. Young musicians give performances in New York on the Tsugaru-jamisen or in bands using Japanese instruments, but compared to kabuki it’s like night and day in terms of scale and the numbers of people involved. And I have to admit: In traditional music, it’s not an easy life. I wouldn’t want my son to follow in my footsteps, to be honest. So, for these reasons, a lot of people are kind of resigned to the fact that the music will gradually just fade away over the next few decades.”

Despite her concerns about the future of traditional Japanese music, Ishigure hints that there may yet be hope for a way to pass the art form on into the future—and that it might come from an unexpected quarter.

“In America, lots of young people play the koto and shakuhachi as professional performers. Sometimes I think we might soon see the day when the music will be reimported into Japan from America. Here the music is free from the baggage of tradition. Young people have all kinds of ambitious and original ideas of new events. It’s more flexible, invigorated with fresh air and new ideas. Perhaps one day these young performers will take this music back to Japan and bring these traditional instruments to new audiences. And then perhaps more people in Japan will become aware of the appeal of these traditional instruments and the musical styles that go with them.”

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Koto musician Ishigure Masayo with a photo of her mentor, the late Sawai Tadao. © Abe Kasumi.)

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