Miya Masaoka

Triangle of Resistance
Innova Recordings 945.

By Ken Waxman

As much a personal as a musical challenge for kotoist/composer Miya Masaoka, the major portion of this CD is taken up by a suite interpreting the experiences of Masaoka’s mother, who at 13, along with most other Japanese Americans, was interned in detention camps for the duration of World War Two. Distinctive in this time of self-referential activities, Triangle of Resistance is also notable since the composer’s own contributions are sparse, leaving most of the heavy lifting to the other players. Additionally despite the use of some Oriental instruments the intention of the suite is innovation, not exotica.

Distinctively enough, “Survival” the final section, played only by a string quartet – violinists Jennifer Choi and Esther Noh, violist David Wallace and cellist Alex Waterman –exposes the most westernized themes. With its blend of high-pitched string chiming and low-pitched drones, the animated sequence moves quickly until it reaches a crescendo of staccato timbres that suggest hope as well as acceptance. Two earlier parts of the suite add koto, Ben Vida’s analog synthesizer and Satoshi Takeishi playing eastern and western percussion for more programmatic sounds. Mixing nasal sul ponticello and wood-rending-like sweeps plus shimmering koto arpeggios, “The Long Road” sonically suggests Japanese Americans’ dislocation to the camps. As sonically descriptive as Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Air Shaft”, “The Clattering of Life” is a nearly 20-minute partially improvised recasting of the camps’ grim, cramped conditions. With tremolo string vibrations setting up familial attempts at insulation, piercing broken-octave expressions from the other players restrict and contradict that warmth. Twitters and peeps from the synth; clatters and clangs from Takeishi’s taiko and gongs, slurred reverberations from the koto’s bass string-set and Waterman’s pseudo-Asian, sharpened pizzicato reach a polyphonic crescendo that yank the ears – and by extension the detainees’ emotions – every which way. Finally, the massed kinetic clanking gives way to calming koto strums and Buddhist singing bowl reverb to herald “Survival”.

Based on extensions created by detuned double bass strings, Masaoka’s “Four Moons of Pluto” interpreted by James Ilgenfritz rounds out the disc. With a contortionist’s ability to expand beyond conventional positions, at points lgenfritz appears to be playing several basses at once or even sounding a reed instrument, meeting the challenge with bass work as remarkable at high-pitch tessitura as at galloping drones. The composition confirms Masaoka’s range, but is a tributary to the oceanic “Triangle of Resistance”.

-For MusicWorks #127 Spring 2017