The Wire: Cross Platform

by Rob Young, The Wire
February 2006

Rare are the moments when TV’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and experimental music find themselves on the same page. But Miya Masaoka’s multimedia performance piece Ritual With Giant Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches (1996) provides just such a moment: In the late 90s, the San Francisco based koto maestro and sound artist toured the work around venues in Europe, letting the enormous insects crawl over her body, their movements filmed, their stridulations amplified. It’s a logical step for someone who has also amplified the sound of 3000 bees on a glass hive. In these pieces, as well as in her more recent Pieces for Plants (2002), music becomes the sounding board for her attempts to detect the communicative aspects of flora and fauna and fuse them in a way that works as music rather than as pure data. Electrodes are attached to an interface between a philodendron plant and a laptop, which reads data in the form of micro-voltage. “When someone walks by, even across the room, the plant responds immediately. What I am looking for here is the real-time interactivity that in some way illuminates our intimate relationship to the world, to plants and to each other,” she explains. “There are possibilities of consciousness in unexpected places. Why not begin to explore this? These semi-tropical climbing plants need to make decisions in their environment to survive. Do I climb up this tree or up that stem? Some plants can even travel on the treetops across a jungle in the rainforest by uprooting its roots, relocating and growing new roots in the new location.”

Even by today’s standards, Miya Masaoka is an impressively versatile and open musical innovator and collaborator. She has held her own as an improviser on the koto with some of free jazz’s titans, including Cecil Taylor and Reggie Workman, and founded the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival in 2001. She plays the instrument in its 17-, 21- and rare 25-string incarnations, and she has invented an audacious 21st-century laser interface upgrade to take advantage of the exaggerated gestures of traditional koto playing. She has indulged in Web based networked improvisations, playing across continents with Burkhard Stangl andKlaus Filip (Vienna), and Francois Houle and Giorgio Manganesi (Vancouver) in Chironomy. “Things work better now than in the 90s, and are easier to set up,” she comments. She also runs a label, Solitary B, which has recently issued one of Masaoka’s compositions for cello and field recordings played by former Kronos Quartet member Jean Jeanrenaud.

She began working with bioacoustic sound around 1999, devising ultrasonic systems to record the sounds of the internal human body and brain. “Body activity is rhythmic, pulsating, periodic and static all at once,” Masaoka says, “and I wanted to reveal, to make visible and audible, all this activity in the body that is very mundane but essential for the business of keeping the body alive and functioning. Of course, the challenge with sonification of data is trying to make interesting music from the interpretation of the data.” She would superimpose brainwaves onto stave paper and instruct an ensemble to perform the sliding pitches, or map information to oscillators and filters via MIDI. The culmination of this work was What Is The Sound Of Ten Naked Asian Men? (2001), after tiring of being the one to strip off during her insect performances. “Why not Asian men, who are not often portrayed naked in public?” she says. “As it turned out, many Asian men really wanted to perform in this piece and begged me to do it.”

“One could say these pieces are almost like Shinto animism revealed sonically by technological means. Plants and insects become animated and exhibit deeper parts of themselves, their spirit – a kind of consciousness. We are part of our environment; our music is part of the environment. Everything is interconnected, everything is alive.”

Instruments, like plants and animals, are divinities in Shinto: as Masaoka points out, the word koto is an abbreviation of “kami no nori koto,” meaning “oracles of the gods.” The Japanese koto is an inherently conservative instrument, demanding commitment, discipline and self-denial of its practitioners, as any venerable character might feel entitled to do. Masaoka has spent years attempting to run rings around the institution of the koto, but not without fully mastering it first. “I loved learning the music, the performance practice and the accompanying comfort that tradition carries,” she says, “but along with that came some decidedly non-musical, political and hierarchical oppressive practices. One of my early koto teachers threatened to retract my learning and professional certificates if I played too many concerts without permission. It would be like a university retracting your diploma if they disagreed with the jobs that you took after graduating.”

In 1993 she founded the San Francisco Gagaku Society after finding a far more open-minded teacher, Suenobu Togi, who traces a family lineage in gagaku at the Japanese Imperial Court stretching far back to the 1000 year old Tang Dynasty. Under Togi’s tutelage, she immersed herself in the idea of “the elongated listening experience.” Pointing out that the tempi in gagaku are the slowest that exist anywhere in the world’s traditional music, she continues, “Suenobu would talk about the use of the third eye as a listening and perceiving tool. He would tell us the musical instruments were sacred things, living things.” The Gagaku Society successfully brought together progressive Asian American players including fledgling pianist Vijay Iyer.

Masaoka’s exposure to Togi’s holistic system emboldened her to look for ways of hotwiring the koto to usher it into the digital age. In the mid-90s she initiated a project at Amsterdam’s Steim Institute – with its “intellectual climate that is almost a bubble for nerding out” – to graft a virtual interface onto it. Playing the koto calls for the hand to hang in the air for several seconds after each pluck, “In a way,” she explains, “it’s a method to hold on to the sound and to the memory of the sound after it has died. So, if this idea is applied to the metaphor of the laser light as a virtual string in the air, the use of hand gestures to trigger sounds is a logical step in recreating the psychological sonification of the physical world.”

She put this laser koto to use in two pieces drawing on the harrowing experiences of her immediate family. During World War Two, her parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles on both sides – all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast at the time of Pearl Harbor – were interned in the concentration camps set up by Americans in the Utah desert for anyone who had more than a 16th Japanese blood. These family memories haunt her early pieces How To Construct A Tar Paper Barrak, for koto and electronics, and Dark Passages (1998), an oratorio for string quartet, Buddhist chanters, readers (actual camp survivors) and film and video projections. With her background rooted in such tangible display of racial segregation, her music continues to deal with issues of cultural identity. “I have to be fundamentally optimistic, otherwise there is no reason to try to effect change, whether spiritual or political.”