The tapestry of sound

The specially developed KoTaMo, a combination of three overtone instruments,
aims at bringing about the therapeutic effects of music

A KoTaMo seen from one side. Collection, Romeo Jaeger and Regula Huggenberger, Seon, Switzerland
A KoTaMo seen from one side. Collection, Romeo Jaeger and Regula Huggenberger, Seon, Switzerland

Thus, long ago,
Ere heaving bellows
learned to blow,
While organs yet were mute,
Timotheus, to his breathing flute,
And sounding lyre,
Could swell the soul to rage,
or kindle soft desire.

— from John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast (1679)

I have remarkably little knowledge of musical instruments, and yet I was completely fascinated when, during a recent visit to the home of two friends in Switzerland — Regula Huggenberger and her husband, Romeo Jaeger — Romeo, who is by profession a piano tuner, brought out from his study a large string instrument — the like of which I had never seen before. It was very large and double-sided, meaning that it had a front and a back, or, more appropriately, a top and a bottom, both sides filled with strings. What was it, I asked? A ‘Kotamo’ was the answer.

Never having even heard the word before, I naturally asked: and what might that be? After enlightening me on how to write it — KoTaMo is evidently the correct way — Romeo went into a passionate description, for, I discovered, he had not only been associated with the inventor of the instrument, Joachim Maerz, and thus knew a lot about it, but also had made the piece that he was showing us.

The KoTaMo is a combination of three overtone instruments, he said: the Japanese koto, the Indian tanpura and the modern monochord; hence the name, which features the first two letters of each instrument. It is a specially developed instrument aimed at unifying the qualities of all three instruments.

The strings of the monochord are all tuned to exactly the same note — from my high level of ignorance in these matters, I can only cite what I was being told — and the four strings of the tanpura are tuned in the fourth, fifth and octave. The koto — Japanese zither, with its 13 strings and moveable frets — is the heart of the instrument, for it can be adjusted to various scales, while the tanpura, with its lingering sound, creates a mellow effect. The koto and tanpura are both placed on one side of the instrument, while the monochord is on the other. When the KoTaMo is stood upright, it is possible to play on both sides simultaneously. One hand passes over the monochord, the other one improvises on the strings of koto and tanpura. In the horizontal position, both hands play continuously on one side, but the KoTaMo can also be spun around.

All this was instructive. I also listened with great interest to the soothing sounds that Romeo produced for all of us, including my little grandson, on the KoTaMo. But my fascination grew when I learnt that the inventor of the instrument, Joachim Maerz — inspired by the ‘mystical mathematics’ of Pythagoras, who unlocked many of the mysteries of music a long, long time ago, and the wonderful range of our own ancient instrument, the Indian sitar — had set out to create the instrument as a therapeutic tool.

As another musician, who uses the KoTaMo in her ‘sonic massage’ therapy sessions for the emotionally disturbed, wrote: "its rich resonant body, full spherical sound spectrum and pure overtones evoke perfect simplicity, the living essence of tone".

Joachim Maerz founded in 1983 his own Naturton Music Therapy clinic in a little village of Schwaderloch in Switzerland. Believing in the fact that music being a fundamental form of non-verbal communication can impact the entire functioning of the body and the mind, he has been offering courses in music therapy to great effect. He uses the KoTaMo, of course, but has also fashioned a monochord sound table on which the patient can lie while the therapist plays upon the strings on the underside of the table. Balancing and healing the body and the mind is the aim. Receiving treatment on the monochord sound table has been likened by some to floating on an ocean of sound.

I find this impressive and, somehow, elevating. For one’s mind goes immediately towards what one has always believed in: the ability of music to move. Dryden’s famous poem, from which I cite a short passage above, was written as an Ode in Honour of St Cecilia’s Day, but it bears two titles: Alexander’s Feast, or, more tellingly, The Power of Music. The story he is telling in it is specific: it conjures up the feast that Alexander and his companions held when they won a great battle and destroyed the magnificent city of Persepolis but his description of the influence of music on minds has a universal ring to it when he speaks of it as something that "could swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire".

One knows that music can move and we can all recall, I am sure, moments in our lives when we were transported to another world, listening to a piece of music, vocal or instrumental. I certainly do recall the first time I heard Kumar Gandharva singing that Tulsidas bhajan: "Aaj mohe Raghubar ki sudh aayi". It made the hair on your body stand on end, romaharsha as they say. The sensation still lingers.

But clearly music can also heal, soothe, quieten, assuage, alleviate, becalm. In almost all cultures, it has played this role. Music therapy, currently so much spoken of, goes back a long time. One knows how passionately the great 10th century Persian polymath, al-Farabi, a musician himself, wrote on the therapeutic effects of music on the soul in his Kitab al Musiqa.

Apparently, in Europe, in the Renaissance, music was widely employed to alleviate the suffering of the ailing. There are tales everywhere of the miracles wrought by music: Swami Haridas curing one of the despairing sick wives of emperor Akbar through his music; the great Thyagaraja healing the ailing with his music; and the like. We hear of raga chikitsa — music therapy — as a developed branch of knowledge, both in music and in medicine in our own land. One reads about 72 melakarta ragas controlling the 72 important nerves in the body. And so on.

I do not know enough, but I do know that anything that helps heal and soothe — the sick, the melancholic, the disturbed, the disoriented — deserves to be viewed with respect. In my heart, therefore, the KoTaMo, which I came upon purely by chance, has a special place, and I am grateful to Romeo, a friend not only of ours but also of India, to have introduced it to me.