SF Weekly: “Border Crossings”

by Sam Prestianni, SF Weekly
July 26, 2000

Using everything from kotos to cockroaches, synthesizers to strippers, Miya Masaoka is redefining the musician’s creative process.

To take advantage of her artist-in-residence tenure this past spring at the Headlands Center for the Arts, San Francisco kotoist Miya Masaoka had to haul her weird wired world to the beach. She moved her entire home setup — five personal computers, a pair of laser towers, a digital sampler, a CD recorder, analog foot pedals, video gear, tripods, and tools — to a roomy Army-barracks-turned-studio a brief stroll from the wind-swept Marin tide pools. This would be her woodshed from March to May, a work-conducive space where she was “forced sometimes to just sit,” as she recalls. “Sometimes no ideas would come, and other times I would have so many ideas I wouldn’t know how to organize them.” What stands out most from the experience, she says, is that “it kind of got me to really get into the sound of my acoustic instrument again, because the natural reverberations of the room were so great.” Oddly enough, she wound up channeling the inspiration from her unplugged ax into an amped-to-the-max, 21st-century application.For most musicians, putting such lateral imagining into practice is a rarity; for Masaoka, it’s a way of being. Roughly 20 years ago as a college kid, when she was already a fluent pianist from a lifetime of training, she actually “chased down [legendary bluesman] Sunnyland Slim in Chicago to give me lessons.” From there, her examination of “different [musicmaking] systems” and their “relationships to improvisation” bloomed, which inevitably led to jazz. During this productive undergrad period, Masaoka also began studying gagaku and other Japanese traditions on an instrument that would eventually contribute to her international renown in new-music circles: the 21-string, zitherlike koto.

She recorded her first album, a haunting solo meditation called Compositions and Improvisations, in 1993 while attending a graduate program at Mills College. At this point, she was innovating with dozens of personalized techniques, using bows, mallets, and cymbals on the body and strings of the koto to expand its sonic range. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, after a rousing gig with way-out guitarist Henry Kaiser and radical ruckus-maker Greg Goodman, that she began to think about her music in an even more “wild and wacky way.”

Successful, one-of-a-kind experiments with custom-built, real-time processing equipment have contributed to Masaoka’s reputation as someone who, in the words of avant-garde percussionist Gino Robair, “is serious about the research of sound.” What’s unique about her ultra-connected investigations is that the technology is merely an enabler to better realize her broad-minded vision as an artist. “I work with electronics,” explains Masaoka, “but it’s about extending the acoustic sounds and transforming them. It’s inspired from the sounds of everyday life and from the sounds of my instrument.” As a composer, the kotoist’s objective has long been what she calls “an inquiry into how to create new sounds and how to reorganize the sounds in interesting ways.” As a performer, she not only pushes the music as far as it can go, but unlike most “serious” players in the creative-music community, she also pushes the presentation — sometimes to unusual extremes.

Masaoka has staged numerous performances with live insects, including surprisingly tuneful jams with thousands of buzzing bees, and infamous collaborations with giant Madagascan cockroaches, which would creep across her bare flesh under the hot spotlight. Another notorious project — What Is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin? — examined the relationship between two marginalized subcultures: sex workers and experimental musicians. At a few well-received, free afternoon concerts at the United Nations Plaza on Market Street in 1997, she conducted a stunning, extended composition for 12-piece orchestra and a pair of erotic dancers. An excellent digital recording of Stripping was issued in 1998; a whirlwind marriage of disparate stylistic elements, from Asian folk melodies to hard-driving swing to thrash-metal riffage to collective jazz improvisation, the piece exemplifies Masaoka’s penchant for what she once called “hybridized, intercultural, intermedia investigations.” Revising her former statement, the artist now suggests, “I certainly don’t look for hybridity. But it ends up happening. I think it’s such a part of the American experience; it’s just part of contemporary life.”

Regardless of how anyone attempts to describe Masaoka’s artistry, including the artist herself, her work is clearly a phenomenon — and her Bay Area contemporaries know it. When saxophonist Dan Plonsey was called to book some dates for “Avant-Yard 2000,” a free series of Saturday afternoon concerts (running through Aug. 19) at Zeum, a youth-oriented, interactive art center in Yerba Buena Gardens, he chose the kotoist to launch the event. “To me,” says Plonsey, “she seemed to totally epitomize what Zeum wanted to do: to showcase real, vital, human art involving new technology.” Gino Robair further explains, “She stretches the language of the koto way beyond what we’re used to hearing. And her musicianship goes into her use of electronics; she uses the technology very musically, not gratuitously.”

The former Splatter Trio percussionist has performed in a number of threesomes with Masaoka since 1994, including a freaky union with “bug” and “baboon” instrument-builder Tom Nunn, documented on the otherworldly sounding Crepuscular Music. “She’s not precious about her instrument,” notes Robair. “If she needs to dig in and jam a cymbal between the strings to make the right sound, she’ll do that. … She’ll go where the music needs to go.”

This by-any-means-necessary approach toward collaborative improv has earned Masaoka the respect of adventurous forward-jazz leaders across the Atlantic as well. “After hearing Crepuscular Music,” says Robair, German bassist Peter Kowald and U.K. saxophonist Jon Butcher each requested “that we do trios” during their recent stints in San Francisco. Both sessions with the drummer, kotoist, and respective European musicians were recorded and will likely be released on Robair’s Rastascan label or another independent early next year.

Miya Masaoka’s influence also extends to an ambitious generation of up-and-coming local players, like saxophonist Jeff Chan, the co-founder of the recently launched Association for Emerging Creative Artists, who booked her to headline this Saturday’s concert at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. “Part of the idea of the AECA music series is to pair emerging artists with established artists,” says Chan. “Miya is one of the foremost creative musicians in the Bay Area. And beyond that, she has been very supportive of emerging artists like myself and pianist Vijay Iyer, going out of her way to offer us advice and encouragement, and that really means something.” Chan values the enormous breadth of her vision as well: “She works in many contexts and the level of her work is high and very consistent. She deals with the so-called “jazz tradition,’ noise, free improv, and traditional music, and she pushes the limits of the instrument itself with her MIDI experiments.”

At this weekend’s concert Masaoka will feature new solos for laser koto inspired during her residency at the Headlands. The electro-acoustic instrument is the latest version of a complex, interactive system she’s been co-developing for the past few years. The computer-based setup involves a sophisticated MIDI interface customized for koto by the Dutch government-funded Studio voor Elecktro-Instrumentale Muziek, a pair of 4-foot-high laser towers designed by Donald Swearingen and constructed from scrap metal pieces by local instrument-builder Oliver DiCicco, and Max MSP software written by Masaoka with the help of Matt Wright from UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music Technology.

By pressing any number of foot pedals wired to the software, the artist can organize and manipulate up to 200 prerecorded samples of her own instrument. She’s able to trigger single notes, phrases, or standard techniques like tremolos by passing her hands or waving her fingers through a series of laser lights that fire across her koto. And she does all this while picking or bowing or bending unsampled notes for a surreal, multilayered, super-musical effect. It’s a tricky way of performing that invariably plays tricks on the ear. “With the right balance,” explains Robair, “if you’re not watching, you can’t tell where the live sounds end and the samples begin.”

Of course, many artists have long used sampler and computer technology to add rich texture or an exciting aura of chance to their music. But there’s a significant distinction with the Masaoka system. “This is like extending this instrument to the moon,” says the kotoist. “Usually with electronic triggering devices such as samplers, it’s all about sound and timbre. It’s very difficult to get them to be flexible and relate to pitch. … More than just triggering sounds, I want to be able to trigger pitches when and where I want them.” The point, stresses Masaoka, is “to have complete control harmonically, rhythmically, and timbrally.”

In addition to presenting new works for laser koto at the AECA show, the artist will debut another innovative project: tabla duets with a twist. “It crystallized for me at the Headlands,” explains Masaoka. “What if I take the [classical Indian] language of tabla and apply each syllable to a technique on the koto that’s representative of that? What if I learn how to improvise following those rules?” Though Masaoka’s Indian experience includes a half-dozen tours in recent years with distinguished violinist and bandleader Dr. L. Subramaniam, she’s willing to admit that prior to a couple of months ago, “I had never really, really studied the music.” Now, she’s obsessed. “I’m doing this morning, noon, and night,” she says.