The angular harp is both elusive and extinct. Originating in Mesopotamia in about 1900 B.C., it took on aliases as it spread west to Greece, across central Asia via the Silk Road, and east to Japan. What the Japanese know as a kugo is called a chang in Farsi and a trigonon in Greek. The instrument fell out of common use more than 300 years ago. Museums with fragments of an original example shield them from the public.
However, harpist Tomoko Sugawara and music-archaeologist Bo Lawergren have brought the ancient instrument to life again. They like to call it a kugo since Sugawara grew up in Japan. She performs Thursday, February 24, at 7 p.m., in Barnes and Noble MarketFair.
In a telephone interview from New York City Sugawara and Lawergren spin an atmosphere informal enough to warrant calling them Tomoko and Bo. Bo, whose native language is Swedish, frequently fields questions in English for Tomoko, who settled in New York less than four years ago.
Tomoko knew about the kugo since the 1990s and began seriously researching the instrument during the last 10 years. Bo had published articles about the instrument in 1996 and 2001. In 2004 they met at the Shosoin Museum in Nara, Japan. Bo was attending an international conference on musical acoustics, and Tomoko was involved in a Japanese NHK television program about the kugo.
The group of visitors that included Sugawara and Lawergren was admitted to the offices of the Shosoin Museum, but not to the museum itself. Established in 756 by the wife of a Japanese emperor, the museum is the oldest in the world. It is not open to the public. Fragments of two kugos are among the Shosoin’s treasures.
After their Nara meeting Bo returned to New York and Tomoko went back to Tokyo. In 2007 Tomoko came to the United States to study with Bo.
An emeritus physics professor at Hunter College, Lawergren says, “Without guilt I can do musicological research.” His 50 some scholarly articles about music archaeology and acoustics show a meticulous critical sense. A 2000 publication, for example, is titled, “Incongruous Musical Instruments on a Beaker of Alleged Assyrian Manufacture.”
His findings about the kugo consist of disconnected clues, between which Lawergren connects the dots. He reveals that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art keeps its wooden kugo fragment in its late Egyptian collection. He knows that Paris’s Louvre Museum owns a kugo missing only its strings. He scours ancient artifacts for depictions of angular harps.
His partner, Sugawara, who trained as a harpist in Tokyo, is also a kugo sleuth. She proudly mentions a Chinese poem from the ninth century Tang dynasty that talks of red angular harp strings. She remembers a 13th-century Spanish painting showing what she thought was a kugo and then tracking down compositions written by King Alfonso X of Castile for the instrument.
Tomoko and Bo’s design for a kugo was based on shards of evidence. The instrument was built by luthiers Bill and Catherine Campbell of Port Townsend, Washington, who contributed practical knowledge for its construction. The instrument they constructed is a little more than a yard high and has 23 strings.
“I think of the kugo as a Central Asian instrument, not only as Japanese instrument,” Tomoko says. “I think of it as a Silk Road instrument.”
“Our design was drawn on a little lacquer urn that originated on the Silk Road in Central Asia,” Bo says. “It was collected by a Japanese explorer in Central Asia and is now in the Tokyo National Museum. The museum does not show the original urn but displays its replica. We learned enough to use the urn as a basis for our design.”
Developing plans for the instrument, Tomoko suggested adaptations for ease of playing, such as increasing the spacing of its parts. “We wanted a red string for the C string,” she adds. “You need some colored strings to find your way around the instrument.
“Chinese and Japanese instruments have silk strings,” she says, “but I prefer gut. Silk strings change intonation easily with changes in humidity. The sound of gut is prettier, more sensitive, and louder than silk. You can make big sounds and small sounds with gut. You can express yourself better.”
The kugo’s tuning makes programming a concert a touchy affair. Its default tuning substantially matches the white keys on a piano. It cannot play the equivalent of black keys without being retuned, and retuning cannot be done quickly. In short, the instrument must be tuned for an individual piece. “When you’re planning a program it simplifies things if two pieces in a row have the same tuning,” Tomoko says. “I bring two kugos when I perform and tune them differently.”
Tomoko was born in 1955 in Tokyo. Her father was a businessman and her mother was a housewife. Her paternal ancestry was musical, including performers on koto, the Japanese zither. “My grandfather wanted to teach my father koto, but in three days it was over,” she says, “because he was not talented. He says he was lucky.” Her father preferred literature to music. “He wrote haiku poetry, at least one poem a day. When he died at 92, I found 90 notebooks. He published only one book.”
At age 12 Tomoko started studying Irish harp. “It was convenient. A concert harp is big and expensive,” she says. Her teacher, Tsutomu Mimura, formed an ensemble of young Japanese girls who played Irish harp. When Tomoko was 15, Mimura brought the ensemble to America. “I played solo and as part of the ensemble,” she says. “We played in San Francisco, Kansas City, and Hartford, and travelled by Greyhound bus.” When she was 16 Tomoko toured Ireland and Belgium with the Mimura harp ensemble.
Tomoko turned to the concert harp at 16. It was her main instrument at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts. She performs in Asia, America, and Europe on concert harp, Irish harp, and kugo. Princeton University’s department of art and archeology brought her to campus for a performance in 2008.
She has issued three CDs: “Spring,” a solo recital; “East Meets West,” where she plays duo improvisations with a saxophonist, and “Along the Silk Road,” where she performs with drums and alto flute.
Released in April, 2010, on the Motema label, the “Silk Road” recording contains material drawn from ancient pieces by Japanese, Iranian, and American composers. Original 13th century material from Persia and Spain is also included.
Diverse as are the selections on “Silk Road,” Sugawara has stepped even beyond kugo. Only days before we spoke she visited a pub in Nyack, New York. “I have a friend who plays guitar — Gershwin and pop tunes,” she says. “We record for the same record label. He invited me. There were about 20 musicians, with fiddles, flutes, and banjos. They play Irish music every Monday night. After the Irish songs we played Japanese songs on kugo and guitar. They asked me to come back.”
Concert, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. Thursday, February 24, 7 p.m. Tomoko Sugawara presents her CD “Along the Silk Road” and performs on a kugo, an L-shaped harp originating in ancient Mesopotamia. 609-716-1570 or www.bn.com.