Koto Artist and YIS Alum, Leo: East Meets West

Koto Artist and YIS Alum, Leo: East Meets West

by Nasci Lobo, Director of Communications and Marketing

Class of 2016 YIS alum Leo Konno is a unique and talented musician who is making waves in the world of music with his innovative blend of western music and classical koto music. Having released his sixth album from Columbia Records on March 29, he continues his exploration as an exciting young musician combining these two genres of music, and composing and working with professional musicians from around the globe. Leo’s live performances are varied, captivating an array of audiences of various styles and ages. At the age of 16, he was the youngest ever winner of the Grand Prize (Minister of Cultural Affairs Award) at the prestigious Nagatani Kengyo Memorial Kumamoto Hougaku Contest. Leo is featured prominently in the Japanese media for his innovative achievements. Especially notable are his appearances on TV programs such as the MBS documentary program 'Jounetsu Tairiku', TV Asahi's 'Untitled Concert' and 'Tetsuko's Room'. He has performed as a soloist under the direction of renowned conductors including Sebastian Weigle, Michiyoshi Inoue, Kazuyoshi Akiyama, and Nodoka Okisawa; with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kyoto Symphony Orchestra, and Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra, and at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall. He was the first koto artist to perform at The Blue Note in Tokyo and at one of Japan’s premier music festivals, SUMMER SONIC, with his performances in 2022.

Leo visited YIS in April to speak to high school music classes. We spoke with him, his first koto teacher and long-time YIS koto teacher, Curt Patterson, and our Team Leader for Performing Arts, Peter Noonan, to learn more about Leo’s work, inspirations, aspirations, and his sixth album.

Class of 2016 alum and professional koto artist, Leo, speaks to YIS Music course students.

YIS: As a professional musician, how do you spend your time?

LK: Life can be busy, but I find comfort in spending time with the koto and my two cats. I usually practice three or four hours a day at home, and perform five to six times per month. I’ve released one album per year since 2017. Recording albums takes about half a year; I then tour for the rest of the year to promote the album. I still live in Yokohama because I am fond of the city and the lifestyle it offers.

YIS: Tell us about your passion, and niche, for combining a staunchly traditional instrument with a modern international flair.

LK: Playing the koto involves not only mastering the art of music but also mastering the etiquette and culture associated with the art. A koto musician needs to know the traditions behind the instrument before they can break the mold associated with it. That discipline was difficult for me to adapt to in the rigid world of koto music because in my classes at YIS, teachers encouraged us to develop our individual strengths and to be creative. They allowed us to be ourselves and explore what we liked. I was able to try many things with the koto with my classmates and ensemble members. But knowing the traditions is part of mastering the instrument. They can’t be separated.

CP: The Sawaii School of koto is the least tied to traditions of all the koto schools. It’s very internationally minded. Tadao Sawai played jazz and Bach on koto. I like to combine that approach with the approach to teaching and learning that we have at YIS to give students more room to explore their own creative viewpoints.

LK: In high school, we listened to bands like Snarky Puppy that gave us inspiration to try new things with our music. For me, musician and DJ, Skrillex, gave me strength and energy to be more personal with my music.

PN: Listening to music may be fun, but there is more significance to the act of listening. Musicians need to be able to analyze music in order to perform, create, and communicate with other musicians. Our students don’t just play music in classes; we listen to music to learn how to play and how to analyze music.

LK: I was also able to use our classrooms and instruments freely when I was a student. Having chosen the YIS Diploma path, I had greater flexibility and was able to use my study periods to practice. I loved playing, and I had the space and freedom to do so.

PN: Leo was in my second IB Diploma Program class. I couldn’t teach him how to play the koto because he was so advanced already, but I could show him how to expand his musical interests and find his creative strengths and weaknesses. I needed to get out of his way so he could grow, yet show him options on how he could potentially grow.

Koto artist Leo performs Matsukaze from his sixth album, Grid//Off, for students in the YIS DP Music course.

YIS: You have achieved great success as a koto musician combining classical koto music and western music. What are your plans to develop that?

LK: I have been influenced by many great musicians over the years, but one of my biggest inspirations is Ryuichi Sakamoto. I admire his ability to blend various types of music and techno sounds. Coincidentally, he is a graduate of the same university I attended.

In 2021, I began working with Japanese musicians who focus on western classical music. I have so much to learn from them. I would like to collaborate with even more western instrumentalists. Armenian jazz artist Tigran Hamasyan is one modern musician who influences me deeply. All this has motivated me to go abroad to explore more sources of inspiration to play solo. I plan on going to Vietnam and Europe this year. I would like to spend time in New York because of the  mosaic of cultures and influences there. And I would love to travel through the Silk Road region because of its cultural and historical connection to the koto.

YIS: Your sixth album, Grid//Off, is an eclectic mix of pieces reflecting your perspective and interests. What is it about?

LK: I wanted to create something that was disconnected to the current music scene, something off the grid, outside the genres of music we know. I simply chose the music I loved for the album. My previous albums included classical music which could be adapted to a degree for koto, but the songs on my new album were not meant for koto. I had to put in more effort to arrange them. I guess the theme of the album is “groove”, and it’s related to the music I played at SUMMER SONIC and at The Blue Note in Tokyo.

YIS: How does it feel to see a graduate of YIS doing what Leo is doing?

CP: I love having our graduates come back to campus to speak to current students about their achievements and experiences or perform with current students. It acts as  motivation for the younger kids, and shows them that playing the koto is not just an academic subject in school - it’s a lifelong skill they are developing that opens avenues far beyond school. I keep in contact with many of my previous koto students after they have graduated, and am delighted when I can perform with them.

PN: For me, seeing students develop as musicians is one of the highlights of being a teacher. I get to play with them as they grow, and I get to speak to them as a musician, I get to perform with them as a musician in the IBDP Music course. When they come back to YIS to speak to current students and tell them about how their YIS courses helped them, we know we’ve done the right thing.

Learn more about Leo:
Website: Leo, Koto Artist
Leo’s sixth album, Grid//Off, on his Youtube channel.
Highflyers interview with Leo in Japanese.