Musician and Mercer alumni Kento Iwasaki gave a lecture and performed music on the traditional Japanese koto instrument as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series on April 12. Iwasaki was introduced by acting dean of the Honors program, Dr. Bettina Caluori. She told the audience “This is the role reversal teachers love. He was my student, but today I’ll sit in my seat and learn from him”.
A former Honors student and member of Phi Theta Kappa, as well as reporter for the VOICE, Iwasaki attributes much of his current success to his start at Mercer, especially the first class he took here, an English 101 class with Dr. Carol Bork.
He said of it, “I will always remember that class…She said that this class informs how to be successful in other classes. That’s kind of a really big statement, but it was completely true. It has informed how I write music.” Specifically, he says it helps him switch between his “editor side and creative child side” as he applied what he learned brainstorming for English papers into working up new compositions.
Iwasaki believes the multifaceted liberal arts curriculum here helped him grow, saying “If I didn’t go to Mercer, I probably wouldn’t have become a theater composer. Mercer made me an interdisciplinary composer”.
That interdisciplinary approach has certainly taken hold on his work. As part of the duo Gemini Hasu he plays the koto alongside his partner, who plays the djembe, or African drum. The two are working on infusing their music with modern electronica and trap beats for the club scene. This fusion of music both Asian and African, modern and traditional, can really only be called interdisciplinary.
But how did Iwasaki get involved with the koto when his time at Mercer was mostly spent focusing on the piano? After he graduated from Mercer with an Associate’s in Composition he got his Bachelor’s degree from Temple University, and then his Master’s from the Manhattan School of Music. He stayed in New York City and was commissioned by Columbia University for a piece.
This led to Iwasaki pursuing the koto at Columbia, sitting in on classes they taught on it and joining the koto ensemble. He also spent a month and a half in Japan studying under a koto master. The training was intensive; he says he spent around twelve hours a day under her tutelage. He ate three meals a day with her and her apprentice, making it a personal as well as professional relationship.
The koto has a traditional Japanese sound. It looks like a massive version of the neck of a guitar and is larger than Iwasaki himself. It’s hard to imagine him carrying the massive instrument through the subways of NYC, but he just laughed off this idea saying “Believe me, I’ve seen stranger.”
Aside from his work as part of Gemini Hasu, Iwasaki has also founded The Traveling Opera Company, which performed “Beloved Prey” here at Mercer last semester, a work Iwasaki composed the music for. He is also the musical director of Opera-Tunity, which works to bring opera to children. He can be often found alongside his djembe playing partner in subway stations of NYC, or playing in locations like Central Park, filling the air with music mixing different cultures and times, much like the city itself.