As a freshman majoring in Asian studies and music at Augustana College, Jeff Wichmann was doubly entranced when he first saw the koto being played.
The koto, a 6-foot long, horizontal stringed instrument that sounds like something between an acoustic guitar and a harp, was being played by music faculty member Jesse Evans, who would become Wichmann’s mentor and collaborator.
His first response to the instrument? “I don’t know what that is, but I’d love to learn to play it.”
“The instrument itself drew me to the art and culture of Japan,” said Wichmann, who now lives in Chicago. “I figured that was the best way to become acclimated to and learn about Asian culture.”
The Chicago native has recorded one album with Evans, but he gets his solo debut and CD release with a concert Friday night at Rozz-Tox in Rock Island. “Ahhhhh!!!!!” is being released by Quad-City-based Future Appletree Records.
The album sounds far from traditional Asian, with touches of ambient music, folk, rock, jazz and even hip-hop, thanks to remixing. The titles are nontraditional, too, including one that zings an expletive at former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“It’s like no other CD in the koto genre. I think I’m safe in saying that,” Wichmann said with a laugh. “It’s an absurd take on the metaphor of the absurdity.”
The koto is played by plucking the strings on the right hand with three finger picks called tsume. The left hand controls additional strings, which raise and lower the pitch.
Learning to play it is easy, since the strings are tuned and ready to play, Wichmann said. The most difficult part, he added, is learning the notations in Japanese.
Wichmann, 43, also plays the trumpet, including with the Chicago band Tenki, which frequents the Quad-Cities.
That is incorporated into his music through the electronic mix.
“Those are the tools that I use to make music, so I wanted to incorporate it into koto music so it sounds original,” Wichmann said.
“As far as I know,” he added, “ it’s the only koto/trumpet CD in the world.”