The New York Sun: Classical Creature

By Alan Lockwood, The New York Sun
January 10, 2008

Miya Masaoka may work in classical composition, but her tools are anything but classical. Bees, plants, cockroaches — these are the tricks of Ms. Masaoka’s trade. The composer and koto player has worked for two decades at expanding compositional and performance parameters, embracing jazz improvisation, ancient Japanese classical traditions, and body politics. Tonight she will play a recital, providing evidence of her explorations with her tape-and-soloist piece “For Birds, Planes and Cello” at the White Box gallery in Chelsea.

Born in Washington, D.C., Ms. Masaoka, 49, came to prominence as part of the Bay Area’s creative music scene, both as a virtuoso on the 17- and 25-string zithers and as a maven of atypical sound sources — her performance piece “Ritual” involves Madagascar hissing cockroaches placed on her skin.

These days, Ms. Masaoka finds herself seeking “different kinds of natural sources in New York City,” as she told The New York Sun. “You’re not always aware of your environment when you’re going about your daily business,” she said. Ms. Masaoka said that she’s listening “in the subways, in traffic and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, for something mundane enough that people can respond, but that reveals this other level of consciousness.”

“For Birds, Planes and Cello” was composed for the founding cellist of the Kronos Quartet, Joan Jeanrenaud. The two met when they performed and recorded “Fly, Fly, Fly” in a trio with Larry Ochs of the Rova Saxophone Quartet in 2004. The hour-long piece melds its instrumental part, which will be played at White Box by Alex Waterman, with a field recording Ms. Masaoka made with sound artist Marcos Fernandes in a canyon near San Diego at dawn, as the bird population began to wake and the day’s airplane traffic picked up. “Birds migrate there from as far away as the Arctic, and from the south, as well as the local birds,” Ms. Masaoka said. “And they’re so loud, with the resonance of the canyon walls.” The piece incorporates engine drones caroming about the canyon, throaty, clacking caws, and abrupt twitters that burst as if from underfoot. “I don’t know if they are instinctually responding to the planes or if they’re just raising their voices above the sound,” Ms. Masaoka said of the sometimes aggressive, sometimes ethereal moments of call-and-response.

When the tape was completed, Ms. Masaoka approached Ms. Jeanrenaud, who left Kronos Quartet in 1999. “She has different ways of extending her instrument and it became a collaborative effort, using her knowledge to come up with a grid of techniques, a balance relating the acoustic instrument to the field recording,” Ms. Masaoka said. “She was willing, for example, to detune her cello in an extreme way. Some of it sounds electronically manipulated,” she added, “but there’s no electronics on it.” Released on Solitary B in 2005, the cello part is as subtle as any in Ms. Jeanrenaud’s impressive discography, with high sustains and soulful bowed passages that knit looming jets and raucous birds, and several adagio-like lulls.

Ms. Masaoka’s interests span social issues. “What Is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin?” is a recording project that developed in response to crimes against sex workers in her then-neighborhood around Market Street in San Francisco. In October, she lectured at Columbia University for a Japanese-American internment oral history project.

Ms. Masaoka is currently completing a commission for the So Percussion ensemble, which will premiere next month at Cal State Fullerton. “As it stands now,” she said, “it’s a sound work that’s largely metal — cymbals, tamtam — and I’ll be playing laser koto.” She termed the new piece “collaborative,” and, judging by her past collaborators, listeners should prepare for the unexpected.

Tonight (525 W. 26th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-714-2347).