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Misterioso for Koto, Cello, & Voice

  • Ashikaga Civic Center Hall, Tochigi Prefecture Tochigi Prefecture Japan (map)


The Tale of Heike, an epic medieval chronicle, was compiled from oral stories chanted by  traveling monks who sang to the accompaniment of the biwa, an instrument somewhat like the lute. Duo YUMENO (Yoko Reikano Kimura, koto; and Hikaru Tamaki, violoncello) has commissioned American composer Daron Hagen to create four large-scale works for koto and cello based on characters and stories from the great Japanese epic. The resulting collection is titled The Songs of Heike. Part One is called Appassionato; Part Two is called Cantabile; and the latest installment is called Misterioso.

It is important to note that, with each duo, the performers are requested to display greater flexibility and range of expressionas performers: progressive demands are made upon them to sing in English, Japanese, and French, to chant, to whistle, and to perform percussive sound-effects on their instruments. In the final (projected fourth) movement, they also will be required to execute choreographic movements.


The third duo tells the story of Kogō (portrayed by the koto), Takafusa, and the Emperor's man, Takakuna (both men are portrayed by the cello). Kogō was the most beautiful lady and the finest koto player in the palace. Takafusa’s love for her was deep and pure. When she was summoned to Emperor Takakura’s side upon the death of his beloved consort Aoi No Mae, she fulfilled her duty. Sadly, Takafusa was one of mankind’s saddest souls, for, as Gide observed: “Nothing thwarts happiness as much as the memory of happiness.” He could not let her go.  The work is in three movements: 1. Kogō and Takafusa, 2. Kogō Alone, 3. Kogō and Nakakuni.

Movement 1 (Kogō and Takafusa) portrays the lovers in the moonlight, illuminated by their grief. Kogō sings the words of a poem Takafusa has dared to send her, which begins:

When I think of you / There is no end to my pain

Upon her honor, she cannot finish reading the poem. She discards it and pours her feelings out in the still night playing her koto, counterpointed by the sounds of the whistling night wind, the lonesome calls of the gulls, and Takafusa's cries.  Movement 2 (Kogō Alone) portrays Kogō, who has fled the palace, living in hiding in a humble cottage near the village of Saga. The Emperor’s faithful man Nakakuni is searching for her, this poem on his mind:  

Here in the mountains / Near the village of Saga, / The fawns are crying. / A man is full of sorrow / In autumn, when night has come.  

In Movement 3 (Kogō and Nakakuni), the story of Nakakuni discovering Kogō at the Hōrin Temple is told. He hears her playing the melody (I quote a fragment of it) of Sōfuren, which tells of a wife longing for her husband. Nakakuni draws his flute from his sash and plays with her. We hear his flute, her cries of anguish, her koto, his fists banging repeatedly on the door. She tells him that she cannot return with him to the palace. Arrested, she is forced, at age 23, to become a nun, her beauty imprisoned by a black robe, living in the wilderness of Saga. The words sung during the movement are those Nakauni had in mind when he set out to find Kogō. She remembers the words of Tokuko  (“Ici, sur la montagne - / La lune que j’ai l’habitude de voir / Dans le ciel dessus le palais?”) as she thinks of their shared destinies as nuns. At the end, she is alone, praying. 


In the first duo,  the koto player chants “Hei,” an alternate reading of the first character of Taira, the name of the family that figures centrally in the story.  The core theme of the chronicle is the Buddhist law of impermanence. In The Tale of Heike, arrogance and pride of power  lead to the Taira family’s destruction. Helen Craig McCullough’s translation begins with this statement: “The proud  do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring evening; the mighty fall at last. They are as dust before the wind.”  The title Appasionato, suggested by Duo YUMENO, inspired a juxtoposition throughout of overtly emotional, dramatic  musical gestures and contemplative, static, otherworldly gestures.  Rather than attempting to craft an extra-musical narrative for the  duo, Hagen chose a single situation near the end of the  story that manifested most vividly the work’s theme. He created three movements (Before, During, After) that addressed  empress Kenreimon’s moment of truth: in the first movement, she remembers the glories of the Taira family. In the second,  she describes a dream in which she saw Taira asking her to pray for the family’s salvation. In the final movement, she  struggles to separate from this world, invoking Amida’s name, and is at last welcomed by Amida Buddha  to the Pure Land. Learn more about this work by clicking here.


For the second duo Hagen chose another key character in the story, crafting three movements (Without, Cavatina, Within) that address the historical (and literary) figure Taira no Tokuko's three states of existence. Without is a portrait of her as, in turn, daughter, consort, and mother of an emperor. Cavatina is a portrait of her years as a recluse and Buddhist nun. The final movement, Within, is a setting of the following poem, said to have been written by the great lady in her twilight:   

“Ai-je jamais rêvé
Que je contemple la Lune
Ici, sur la montagne - 
La lune que j’ai l’habitude de voir
Dans le ciel dessus le palais? 

Did I ever dream
That I would behold the moon
Here on the mountain —
The moon that I used to view
In the sky o’er the palace? ”

To learn more about the second duo, please click here.

Earlier Event: May 21
Misterioso for Koto, Cello, & Voice
Later Event: June 2
DH Conducts OSOP