Haru no Umi (The Sea in Spring), composed by Michio Miyagi in 1929, is Miaygi’s most famous piece. It can here be heard performed by Miyagi himself, playing koto, and Reifu Hirokadu, playing shakuhachi. The Koto is a kind of zither belonging to a family of similar instruments found in China and throughout East and South East Asia. The shakuhachi is a bamboo flute, also developed out of a Chinese type of flute. In comparison to many modern recordings of this piece, this recording stands out for its subtle rhythmical variability and the beautiful rich and rough timbre of the traditional shakuhachi. Miyagi became blind as a child. It is said that in this tune, he was inspired by memories of seeing the sea as a child.
This music is less traditional than it might seem. Koto music before the end of the Edo period was different. A lot of it seems to have been lost; at least I could not yet find any recordings of this old-style music. There were systems of musical notation for different instruments from pre-Meiji-times, so probably some scores survived, but I don’t know if anybody is playing this old music. It would be interesting to hear some of it.
When Japan was opened up in the mid-19th century and the Shogunate lost its power, the musicians who had been paid by the state or by patrons from the old upper class lost their economic basis. A lot of them started changing their music to adapt it to the taste of a new audience.
As a result, the style of the music and probably also the tunings of the instruments changed. Musicians also adopted influences from European music. Many musicians started composing military music. After the end of Japanese militarism, this music virtually disappeared. So the traditional music actually suffered two disruptions reflecting the political disruptions of Japanese history between about 1850 and 1950.
Some musicians tried to modernize their music, again taking up European influences and trying to develop a more complex style. Miyagi is one of those modernizers who sought to develop Koto music further without losing its identity. It is probably no accident that this music shows some similarity to the music of European impressionistic composers, Miyagi knew such music and was probably influenced by it. So like a lot of “traditional” music around the world (and also like the older music of Japan that was influenced by China), what we are hearing here is actualy the result of the contact of cultures.