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Sho player finds new sound for new-music repertoire

Preview Naomi Sato and Farshid Samandari When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Naomi Sato studied her roots to understand contemporary music.


Naomi Sato and Farshid Samandari

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

Where: Open Space

Admission: By donation

When musician Naomi Sato was looking for a way to add new sound to her new-music repertoire, she did the counter-intuitive thing and looked backward.

Sato began learning to play the sho — a centuries-old Japanese instrument traditionally played in high courts and religious ceremonies.

“The Japanese tradition in music is quite different, so I thought maybe if I study my roots … I might understand contemporary music,” she said.

It marked a shift for Sato, who had focused on western-style music to that point as a saxophone player in Japan. But it proved just the right sound for the contemporary music she was beginning to learn.

Sato has since risen to the rank of virtuoso sho player, according to those who’ve heard her. And part of her task when performing for new audiences — such as those attending her performance Sunday at Open Space — is introducing the instrument to the unfamiliar.

She describes it as a mouth organ traditionally used for gagaku music, or Japanese court music. Players blow through a hole, which sends air through 17 bamboo pipes to produce either a chord or single notes.

While the instrument came to Japan via China in the seventh century, the form has remained more or less consistent on the island nation, while developing into a different instrument in China.

But despite long roots in Japan, Sato said it’s still not common to see or hear. That’s partially because it was historically reserved for the upper class, she said, as well as a result of trends to popularize western music and instruments over local ones.

“Still, this is not so common — to have or even to see the performances in Japan,” she said.

The concert is the finale for Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves, a festival showcasing Japanese music in B.C. The Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra has hosted the festival through six free public events in Vancouver, Burnaby and Victoria to celebrate Asian Heritage Month.

Early in the festival, Chrysanthemums & Maple Leaves also featured a performance by Tsunao Yamai on Noh, a form of traditional Japanese theatre, at Metro Studio Theatre.

While Sato’s performance is targeted at professional musicians, it’s open to the public and anyone curious about her instrument.

Sato will perform a special piece that Vancouver-based composer Farshid Samandari has composed for her. A new piece by Victoria composer Stefan Maier will also be performed.

According to Sato, the sho has become more mainstream in contemporary music ever since composer John Cage took an interest in it in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Since then, a lot of Japanese composers were also inspired by the instrument,” she said. “And actually the western composers are quite interested in this kind of exotic instrument.”

She said it fits with the contemporary music trend of incorporating non-western instruments and sounds. But Sato is particularly excited to perform a piece written by Samandari, originally from Iran, for another cultural perspective he may bring to the instrument.

“That is a very interesting thing,” she said.