New York Press: “The Queen of the Bees”

by Sam Prestianni, The New York Press
March 4, 1998

She’s jammed with a few thousand bees and let giant cockroaches cross her naked flesh. She’s played with strippers on the street for lunchtime passersby and rocked the conservative Monterey Jazz Festival with bracing noise experiments. A forward-thinking composer-improviser with world-class skills and vision, Bay Area kotoist Miya Masaoka knows the power of provocation.

No matter how unusual or extreme, Masaoka’s performances are more than mere sensationalism. While she sometimes uses creepy crawlers or erotic confrontation to rattle b-iases and deflate the oppressive gravity of so-called high art, there’s always substance behind the razzmatazz. Masaoka concerts stem from a sound intellectual inquiry and are typically loaded with political weight as well. On “Bee Project #2,” an exceptional piece in an on-going series of surprisingly musical collaborations with live insects, the artist examines what she calls the “problematic relationships of nature, technology and the body politic.” An experimentalist accustomed to the mainstream public’s general disregard, Masaoka identifies with the marginalized creatures of society, like rats, flies, bees and cockroaches. Fascinated by “the reasons for organization in nature that can be reflected in sound,” she has discovered that, when clustered together, bees tend to synchronize their buzzing, with near-perfect stops and starts, as if collectively improvising in the meter of six — which makes sense to Masaoka, given that the little drones make their honey in hexagons.

In concert, before the bees ever hit the stage, she appears naked with massive Madagascan roaches crawling all over her body. It establishes an appropriate off-balance context for the buggy duet that follows. Amassed in large adjoining tubes, the bees crank out an hypnotic whirr, which is custom-miked and mixed live with Masaoka’s improv on 21-string koto, the traditional Japanese zither that sounds something like a harp, but with the warmth and expressive nuances of a classical guitar.

However unconventional, the unlikely combo of wings and strings is a logical extension of an overarching plan to present her instrument in rare intercultural/intermedia formats. Since her CD debut five years ago with Compositions/Improvisations, a stunning solo set on the tiny Bay Area label Asian Improv, Masaoka’s international rep in adventurous music circles has snowballed. She has since recorded with creative-jazz luminaries like M-BASE founder Steve Coleman, AACM alum George Lewis and Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Larry Ochs. She has appeared at the San Francisco Jazz Festival with free-jazz legend Cecil Taylor, gigged with Pharoah Sanders and toured Europe with Knitting Factory renegades Tom Cora and Fred Frith. After an outstanding performance with Indian violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam at Madison Square Garden for the 50th-anniversary celebration of the United Nations, she accompanied the composer for a series of shows in his native country. She’s conspired with the Berlin Opera and the Berkeley Symphony.

Ironically, Masaoka’s most ambitious venture as a leader — “What Is the Difference between Stripping and Playing the Violin?” — does not feature the koto. Her epic composition for electro-acoustic orchestra, erotic dancers and prerecorded tape (culled from a public symposium on sex industry issues) seamlessly melds a multigenre hybrid drawing from all over the map, including traditional Asian melodies, improvised jazz and speed metal. Originally showcased last summer on bustling Market St. in downtown San Francisco (and soon to be issued on disc by Canadian Victo Records), Masaoka used t’ai chi movement in lieu of a conductor’s baton to steer her 12-piece ensemble through the intricate contours of the arrangement, while a pair of scantily clad dancers gyrated to the swing, groove and abstract rhythms. The piece’s juxtaposition of “stripping” and “playing the vioin” challenged a few hundred bystanders of all ages and ethnicities to confront preconceptions of all kinds.

The idea for the project grew out of conversations with former roommate and veteran sex-worker/activist Daisy Anarchy. While swapping war stories about unjust treatment by club owners or the rude behavior of audience members, Masaoka noticed similarities between the professional lifestyles of strippers and musicians. As it turned out, the performance was on a street not far from where, just a few weeks prior, five prostitutes were murdered. That’s some synchronicity, given Masaoka’s intent “to bring out how stigmatization of the sex industry and how the kinds of middle-class, moralistic attitudes against sex work make women more vulnerable to violent attacks.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) her sometimes controversial subject matter and invariably ear-bending music, Masaoka has little trouble maintaining a rapt audience. By applying dozens of extended techniques to the koto — like rubbing or beating mallets on the wood, sawing the strings with a violin bow and fixing cymbals between the strings for a percussive “prepared” effect — the artist not only expands the instrument’s range far beyond that of classical Japanese approaches, but also adds to the spectacle of her performance. In nearly any context — from live improvisations for films like Sessue Hayakawa’s silent rarity Painted Dragon to meticulously transcribed interpretations of jazz giants like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor — Masaoka on koto is an event.

One of her latest endeavors, a peculiar acid rock/electric groove band called MDA plus DJ Mariko, pushes the Miles Davis esthetic of the late 60s and early 70s into the 21st Century. The group combines compelling Masaoka melodies, up-to-the-minute turntable riffs from DJ Mariko (apprentice to the world-renowned Invisibl Skratch Piklz) and hard-hitting rhythms from Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn and Charlie Hunter drummer Scott Amendola. Using a MIDI processor custom built by a team of technicians at STEIM (the Dutch government-funded Studio voor Elecktro-Instrumentale Muziek), the kotoist is able to drive her music to unprecedented levels.

In an almost magical merger of technology and art, the device she calls the Monster nearly functions as its own entity; drawing from a huge database of preprogrammed or randomly selected responses, it is actually capable of improvising, note for note, along with the koto. With Masaoka at the helm, the group navigates eclectic seas, from the tsunamic jams that scared the Monterey neo-cons (think post-“Bitches Brew”/“ln-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”) to tighter compositions both funky and abstract. They even manage a haunting variation on the Monk classic “’Round Midnight.”

Although remarkably evocative, the electric MDA remake of the bop pianist’s tune pales in comparison to a masterful acoustic rendering on Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim Records), the new Masaoka Trio CD with veteran bassist Reggie Workman (John Coltrane, Marilyn Crispell) and drummer Andrew Cyrille (Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton). For all their ingenuity and over-the-top appeal, the kotoist’s more eccentric concept pieces and inventive electronic embellishments aren’t in the same league as her unplugged performances. There’s nothing quite like the incisive beauty of her unaffected acoustic playing, which comes across with startling clarity on familiar Monk melodies like “Epistrophy,” “Evidence” and the previously mentioned “’Round Midnight.”

From a technical vantage point, the unwieldy koto is ilI-designed to meet the challenges of Monk’s angular phrasing, unusual intervals and dissonant chord clusters. But Masaoka succeeds in breathing life into the artist’s songbook with an extraordinary naturalness. This may stem from the kindred elements of silence and space in both Monk’s compositions and the Japanese music traditions. The kotoist exploits this connection by hinging her arrangements on the spaces between the notes. Pregnant with tension, the non-playing instants create a suspenseful moment-to-moment anticipation. Though the songs often resolve in unexpected ways, they retain their fundamental essence.

“Monk’s Mood” is especially riveting. Light-years removed from the composer’s 1947 recording, Masaoka’s translation distorts the tempo (by slowing down or speeding up unpredictably) and the harmony (by apparently giving Workman carte blanche to beef up and sweeten the bottom end). Despite its overt departure from the original, this free-feeling duet invokes the spirit of Thelonlous Monk: Workman’s sudden bolts into the upper register echo the pianist’s quirky flash; Masaoka’s impeccable timing and bent blue notes distill the deep rumination and anxious urgency rumbling beneath Monk’s funky exterior.

The uncompromising musicality and relative accessibility of this Monk project should bring the kotoist the above-ground attention her work merits, while reaffirming her status among the innovators. Like few other contemporary homages to the bebop legacy, this effort marks a major step forward in a retro-ridden jazz world. It not only extends the tradition into the here and now, but does so with imagination and individuality — the cornerstones of the art form. And that’s no frivolous provocation.

The Miya Masaoka Trio celebrates the CD release of Monk’s Japanese Folk Song on Sun., March 15, at the Knitting Factory.