Wired: “Musician Plucks Sound From Lasers”

by Alexander Gelfand, Wired
November 20, 2006

Lasers are nifty things. Since their invention at Bell Labs in 1958, they’ve been used to perform eye surgery, target smart bombs and carry zillions of bytes of data along fiber-optic cables. Nonetheless, it took decades for someone to figure out that these highly focused beams of light could replace the strings on a 1,300-year-old Japanese zither.

Miya Masaoka is a composer, koto player and inventor of the Laser Koto — a tripod-mounted laser array that she plays by passing her hands through the beams, triggering a variety of sampled and processed sounds from her G4 PowerBook. Each flick of the wrist and twitch of the finger is interpreted as a stroke on the instrument’s virtual strings.

Watching Masaoka shape the air in front of her brings to mind the theremin, an early electronic instrument that one plays by waving one’s hands around two antennas. The theremin’s eerie, voicelike sound can be heard on the soundtracks of sci-fi classics like Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space, as well as on recordings by Led Zeppelin and Portishead.

The Laser Koto and the theremin differ in two important respects, however. For one, they don’t sound anything like one another: Masaoka’s repertoire of samples includes plenty of acoustic koto, along with bits and pieces of sounds that resemble breaking glass and running water, all of which are processed in a variety of ways.

For another, theremin players don’t look as if they’re being targeted by a half-dozen deer hunters equipped with laser scopes every time they go to work. Which is exactly how Masaoka appeared when she premiered a new work for Laser Koto at New York City’s Merkin Concert Hall in early October, the laser beams from her instrument dancing across her arms like brilliant red pinpoints.

The koto, a plucked zither with moveable bridges, has been a staple of traditional Japanese music since the 8th century. Masaoka first became interested in electronically enhancing it in the early 1990s. She had long used extended playing techniques to expand the tonal palette of the instrument — stroking, rubbing and scratching its strings, rather than simply plucking and bending them — and electronics seemed like a natural extension of that process.

“As someone who is creating new pieces for the instrument, I just wanted it to be able to make lots of new sounds. And extended techniques almost sound electronic anyways,” she says.

A chance encounter with Tom Zimmerman at a party in San Francisco led to Masaoka’s first electro-acoustic “proto koto.” Zimmerman, an expert in human-machine interaction, invented the first optical data glove in the early 1980s, and had long been interested in developing VR controls for musical devices.

Zimmerman outfitted Masaoka’s koto with an infrared motion sensor, and the two experimented with generating sounds based on Masaoka’s manipulation of the sensor data rather than of the instrument’s strings. Soon after, Masaoka landed a residency in Amsterdam at STEIM (the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music), a Dutch foundation dedicated to the development of new technologies for live electronic performance art.

There, she developed what ultimately became the Koto Monster, a heavily tricked-out koto equipped with motion sensors and effects pedals that were linked to a MIDI interface. Masaoka even wore “sensor rings” whose wires ran down her arms. (A fully wired Masaoka was pictured in the October 1997 issue of Wired magazine.)

Masaoka was then able to play the instrument in its natural, acoustic state, use the gestural data supplied by motion sensors to generate and process sounds electronically, or do both at the same time. Toward the end of the Monster Koto’s life cycle, Masaoka installed laser arrays above and below the instrument’s body.

The Laser Koto was born when she decided to get rid of everything but the lasers.

The Monster Koto and the Laser Koto have since evolved along different lines. Masaoka eventually stripped all the cumbersome sensors and wires off the Monster Koto, and replaced them with a wireless microphone and an Arduino USB input/output board that dumps the instrument’s analog sounds to Masaoka’s laptop.

The laptop, in turn, is loaded with more than 900 unprocessed koto samples and a number of environmental sound samples that Masaoka has recorded with her Fostex FR-2 DAT machine. “I travel a lot — I’ve been to India six times — and I just bring my recording equipment with me,” says Masaoka. She has also loaded a host of sound-processing patches developed using the Max/MSP programming environment.

The Laser Koto, meanwhile, is equipped with four separate laser beams, which Masaoka calls “metaphorical strings”; a set of light sensors that register when the beams are broken by the movements of her hands and arms; and infrared proximity sensors that determine how close she is to the posts on which the lasers are mounted. Each sensor can be independently calibrated.

Every gesture Masaoka makes triggers a sample or invokes an effect using the same sample database and Max/MSP patches as her koto-and-computer rig, but the gestural output from the Laser Koto follows its own unique logic. Watching Masaoka onstage, playing with nothing but beams of light, is altogether different than seeing her sit behind the massive wooden board of her koto, plucking and stroking its strings like a Japanese court musician.

Thanks to advances in digital technology, however, playing the high-tech Laser Koto is far simpler than outfitting a standard koto with the plethora of doodads and sensors that her sonic experiments once required.

“Sometimes,” Masaoka says, “technology makes things easier.”