Herald-Tribune: Miya Masaoka finds new sounds in ancient instrument

by Susan Rife, Herald-Tribune
November 6, 2015

The Japanese koto is a traditional stringed instrument that, in the words of new-music composer Miya Masaoka, is “basically a hollow log with strings across it.”

But from this very traditional instrument, which has its roots in China and is cousin to similar zither-style instruments throughout Africa and Asia, Masaoka coaxes otherworldly sounds, employing laser interfaces, laptop computers, and video to create experimental music experiences.

She’s the second performer in the New Music New College season, established to present the latest thing in contemporary music on the New College of Florida campus. This week, she’ll create a sound installation on campus, speak Thursday evening at a free lecture, interact with students, and present an excerpt from a new work, A Line Becomes a Circle, along with other pieces on Saturday night.

Masaoka was exposed to traditional Japanese music within the context of Buddhist funeral ceremonies as a child, but her father had been held at Manzanar, the Japanese American internment camp in California, during World War II.

“Japanese music as well as the language did not look like the way to go in order to survive in American society,” she said. Instead, she studied classical piano.

But when she was in college at San Francisco State University, she came across the koto “and it really struck me that it was almost like an inside-out piano. The strings were exposed and the body was below the strings. It was very tactile.”

Like others of the Baby Boom generation, Masaoka also was influenced by popular music and rock ‘n roll. Spending time in France in her early 20s, she encountered electronic alternative music and “slowly became more aware of more experimental types of music.”

Her interests in music also are tied to the natural world and the sounds that insects make and plants apparently respond to.

“I’ve worked with plants on stage, mapping their response to people walking by
them, their environment and mapping that to sound,” she said in a telephone
interview from her home in New York recently. She”s fascinated by the sounds
that bees make and how bees communicate, calling it a “sophistication that we’re still finding things out about. The same is true for the plants. Scientists had recently discovered that plants can sense ultraviolet light, which is something humans can’t do.”

Her appearance at New College this week will include neither bees in glass hives nor live plants with EEG sensors, but instead a performance of a work called
Bone Music, in which she wears a percussion dress.

“I walk around on stage and I play some percussion on this dress and I go to the
koto and do different pieces on the koto,” she said. “Another piece, I’ll take a tuning fork and create this basic sound from that pitch and create a piece based on that. Different pieces that explore transformation, and some things will sound more like traditional Japanese music, some more like new music.”

Her sound sculpture installation, titled A long way to F#, will be installed in the college’s Jane Bancroft Cook Library, 5800 Bay Shore Road, and will be open during library hours Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Masaoka will set up 12 speakers that will each move through the 12 tones of the piano.

“The piece begins with all 12 notes playing at the same time, and slowly all the
notes move to F# over a 12-hour period,” she said. There will also be a 12-minute version available for listeners during certain hours each day.

“When you go and check it out, you walk in a star shape or whatever shape you
like, and you can hear individual pitches,” she said. “It’s about transformation
and temporality.”

Masaoka hopes for her audience “to be interested, inspired perhaps, curious. A
lot of the time I like to get questions from the audience. I like to have the
audience be engaged with me, not so much that they like it or don’t, but there’s
experiencing something. It’s like going with somebody on a journey.”

concert talk 7:30 p.m., concert 8 p.m. Nov. 14, Mildred Sainer Pavilion, 5313
Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Tickets $15. Artist conversation 5 p.m. Nov. 12,
Sainer Pavilion. Free. 487-4888; donate.ncf.edu/events