Artist Feature

Miya Masaoka
By Ken Waxman

As perhaps the pre-eminent innovator on the multi-string koto, Miya Masaoka is fully committed to the present and future via her compositions, performances and improvisations. But at the same time she stays in touch with her roots, often performing in traditional gagaku or court music ensembles, and took time during a recent Japanese trip to visit a shrine associated with members of the extended Masaoka family who have been priests and Shinto singers at that location since the 15th Century. Next year as well she’ll be the recipient of a Fulbright grant that will allow her to live in Japan for three months at a time, studying koto, gagaku and Noh theatre. “I hope to write a new work or series of works based on the research there,” she says.

That paradox between the new and the tradition has characterized Masaoka’s career since she began concentrating on the koto in her early twenties. Born in Washington, D.C., and brought up in California, Masaoka, 57, who studied piano in her youth (“I still play the piano, and might even take it up again someday,”), had already developed a burgeoning interest in unconventional sounds that soon led her away from the traditional koto repertoire, to the extent that she angered one koto teacher enough to expel her, forcing Masaoka to find one more open-minded.

Since that time Masaoka has used computers, lasers, live sampling, and real time processing to augment the koto’s sounds that she describes as “dynamic, timbral, very tactile and at times dissonance”. Additionally she has utilized equipment such as sensors and heart monitors to record internal body sounds and real-time bio-feedback during electro-acoustic performances. She gained notoriety by using the sounds and movements from the human body, flowering plants, live honeybees and Madagascar hissing cockroaches as initial sources during audio and video compositions. Away from the computer, but related to her Japanese-American heritage, she has performed wearing a so-called percussion dress, festooned with temple blocks and bells which she plays with mallets while moving around the stage; and at one point sewed and soldered a so-called LED Kimono, with a garment utilizing 444 individually controlled LED’s (Light Emitting Diodes) which responds to musical and physical conditions and acts as a low-resolution monitor interpreting live video. In more conventional situations she has composed symphonic and chamber works, a full-length ballet for Alonzo King's Lines Ballet plus a vocal program for the 10th anniversary of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, scored for three choirs and nine soloists.

“It’s true that I work in a wide range of genres and media including instrument design, making film shorts and composing. But for me composing an orchestral piece, creating sound files for an installation or improvising with some great minds or musicians are all parts of a many-faceted coin,” she declares. “The coin isn’t ‘heads or tails’, but more like the multi-faceted eye of a fly.”

This month in fact it’s her skills as an improviser that are in the forefront in New York. She’s playing at the Stone with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Gerry Hemingway; and in the Vision Fest as part of saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock sextet, alongside tubaist Dan Peck, electronic manipulator Sam Pluta, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. “Reggie, Gerry and I have a trio called Brew that has played sporadically since the ‘90s, so it will be a rare treat to reconvene. Early on we did pieces with melodies but for the past few years it has only been improvisation,” she explains. Other groups in which she’s involved, such as Laubrock’s involve some composition. Overall though, Masaoka, whose improvising partners have included saxophonist John Butcher and guitarist Fred Frith, or guitarist Mary Halverson and pianist Myra Melford, prefers equal collaboration and complete free improvisation. “At points though everyone thinks we’re playing compositions”, she reports.

This organic way of working was interpolated into her ballet score for King, with ideas tested out on koto and then with the dancers. In contrast, since the 2003 Yerba Buena vocal program involved 110 singers, creation was more formal and its sheer size has meant that it has yet to be revived. “In retrospect that was an incredible project but not so practical,” she admits. “I was so with the big drama and not the ‘feet on the ground’ mentality. But I can’t help myself. I love to think big and work with large forces like orchestras.”

It’s this interest in different forms that initially led her to investigate other genres while studying music formally in the early ‘90s at San Francisco State University and Mills College. Presaging her later experiments, this included immersion in analog electronics, working “with tape, razor blades and a huge analog synthesizer that took up an entire wall.” Later in the ‘90s with Tom Zimmerman, co-inventor of the Body Glove, she developed an interactive process involving the midi and the koto. She also founded the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival as well as the San Francisco Gagaku Society.

Despite these other interests however, Masaoka’s focus remains on the koto. Proficient on the 13, 17, 21 and 25-string kotos, she’s now working on studying playing methods of the ichi-genkin or one-string Japanese koto as well as the Korean zither or gayugeum. And despite her sometime radical approach to the koto elsewhere, she notes that “I still play traditional music, and until recently was a part of the Sawai school in New York, take lesson on the ichi-genkin, and will study traditional Japanese music in Japan next year.”

“Very passionate” about certain parts of the gagku tradition which have disappeared, such as the leader conducting a koto ensemble using all four limbs, contradictorily Masaoka also says that “I’ve always loved studying new notational scores, systems and musical/philosophical traditions”. This may be why she has found a niche in experimental rather than so-called traditional music. As she states: “I don’t think in terms of career but rather of strong interests, passions and life-long preoccupations. What I do are my life’s interests, passions and directions. If I thought in terms of ‘career’ that would have been foolhardy.”

Plus music in general may have been denied the exceptional and very original sounds she has created over the years.

Recommended listening

• Miya Masaoka - Compositions/improvisations (Asian Improv 1993)

• The Masaoka Orchestra What is the Difference between Stripping and Playing the Violin? (Victo 1998)

• Miya Masaoka Trio Monk's Japanese Folksong (Dizim 1998)

• John Butcher/Miya Masaoka/Gino Robair Guerrilla Mosaics (482 music 2002)

• Larry Ochs/Joan Jeanrenaud/Miya Masaoka Fly, Fly, Fly (Intakt 2004)

• Miya Masaoka and Joan Jeanrenaud For Birds, Planes & Cello (Solitary B 2005)

—For The New York City Jazz Record July 2015