The koto is the traditional 13-stringed zither of Japan. During its 1200 year long history it has been played by the Japanese Emperor at court, incorporated into rituals at Shinto shrines and more recently, in the last 400 years, developed a highly stylized artistic tradition. It is tuned by means of moveable bridges and is plucked with three plectra, worn on the right hand. I started to learn this instrument in 1986 and subsequently went to live and work in Kyoto in order to continue with Shigehiro Shimada. A 2-year Mombusho scholarship allowed me to extend my stay and after focusing on the traditional repertoire, I experimented with different tunings, extended techniques and improvisation. I regularly consider the koto a rich resource when devising music for dance, theatre or story. I also play newly commissioned works with the contemporary music group Okeanos, and have performed the works of, amongst others, Howard Skempton, Dai Fujikura and Nicola LeFanu. I also play with The Floating World Ensemble, a duo with the shakuhachi player Clive Bell.
“Melissa Holding’s koto sits at the centre of what Okeanos are doing, both literally at the front of the stage, and in the sense that her coolly poised, subtle playing underpins so much of the music. In some hands the koto can be twanging and aggressive, angrily rattling the bars of its traditional confines. But Holding’s approach goes deeper, finding a kind of ancient wisdom in this Japanese equivalent of the Western piano.”