Los Angeles Times: “Koto tradition melds with high-tech mode”

by Josef Woodard, Los Angeles Times
January 27, 2007

Masterful and conceptually restless koto player Miya Masaoka has made it her business to usher the Japanese instrument into contemporary contexts, combining respect for tradition with new musical applications. At REDCAT on Thursday in the first of three varied evenings in the CEAIT Festival — for the CalArts Center for Experiments in Art, Information and Technology — Masaoka took the “E” of the acronym to heart, experimenting with results both evocative and provocative.

Masaoka’s koto sat untouched for much of the evening while she lavished attention on a laptop, a motion-sensitive “laser koto,” a chorus of bees and everyday houseplants, conveying the impressive range of her evolving aesthetic voice.

She triggered willfully synthetic sounds from electrode-fitted plant life in “Pieces for Plants #9.” Later, in “Things in an Open Field,” she used dance-like gestures between the sensors of the laser koto to unleash sampled and altered koto sounds.

Her interest in the lives of insects was addressed in a highly personal way in her video “Adventures of the Solitary Bee,” a play on Yoko Ono’s “Fly” (a film that follows the path of a fly on Ono’s naked body). Here, a group of bees wander on Masaoka’s unclad body as a semi-sardonic text extols the brilliance and bemoans the tragedy of a worker bee’s life, all to the tune of a buzzing bee chorus and abstract koto tones.

In the world premiere of “Things Connected to Nothing,” Masaoka did put her koto to good use, eloquently improvising while an unseen electronic partner echoed, refracted and expanded on her input.

After intermission, she was joined by a human collaborator, laptop musician Hans W. Koch, for an uncharted duet. With Koch’s sneaky abstract sound-surfing, her bank of digital colors and range of techniques and their mutual trust in improvisation, they arrived at a felicitous, expressive symbiosis.

It was a night of unsentimentally beautiful new music and experimentalism in which the sensual was not trumped by the cerebral.

The festival closes tonight with a program by techno-rebel Toshi Nakamura.