Downbeat: Improv Explorer

by Ted Panken, Downbeat Magazine
July 2017

Four years ago, saxophonist Anthony Braxton suggested to koto player Miya Masaoka that they improvise a concert together at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Engaging with Braxton is not an undertaking for the faint of heart, but Masaoka didn’t hesitate. “A recording date got set up and
it happened pretty quickly,” Masaoka recalled.

Their encounter, released as Duo (DCWM) 2013 (RogueArt), is a three-section, two-CD master class in the art of free improvisation. Masaoka elicits an orchestral array of sounds from her 21-string instrument —plucking to create harp-like passages, bowing to evoke an orotund cello, and sometimes evoking pianistic chords and bass lines—as she offers responses and counter-postulations to the stream of ideas that Braxton generates on alto, soprano and sopranino saxophones and SuperColliderdriven electronics. “It was stunning to hear the level of Braxton’s ideas as they emerged from his horn, so thick and rich with ideas and complexities, with simplicity and emotion emerging at different times,” said Masaoka, 58.

Recently, Masaoka brought her koto to a tabula rasa improvisation with flutist Robert Dick and bassist Ken Filiano at the East Village performance space The Stone, adding to a long list of concert collaborators that includes avant-garde titans Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, William Parker and Joe McPhee, as well as 17-string bass koto player Michiyo Yagi.

Masaoka’s discography includes a forthcoming album with pianist Myra Melford and harpist Zeena Parkins, as well as past recordings with George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Kowald, John Butcher, Gino Robair, Fred Frith, Larry Ochs and Henry Kaiser.

On March 11 at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, Masaoka led a performance of Triangle Of Resistance, a through-composed narrative suite for string quartet, percussion, analog synthesizer and koto, released last year by Innova Recordings.

Vagina Dialogues, performed at several New York venues in January, is the latest in a series of Masaoka-conceived interdisciplinary works that involve amplification and processing of sounds and signals from the bodies of humans, insects and plants. Masaoka also delivers extraordinary solo performances, in which she interfaces the koto with MIDI controllers, using light and motion sensors, pedals and ultrasound to mold the soundscape.

“It’s pretty much my life,” Masaoka said of Triangle Of Resistance. She’s a third-generation Japanese American whose family was interned and imprisoned during World War II. Raised in California, she took classical piano lessons as a child and studied koto intensively in college. By the end of the 1980s, she was performing both on koto and piano. (She took lessons from Sunnyland Slim in her early twenties, and taught blues piano during a two-year sojourn in Paris.) In the ’90s, the koto became her vehicle for expressing identity, primarily within the Bay Area’s Asian Improv aRts organization.

“It would bore me if I just did pieces about Japanese American internment, or that part of my personal history,” Masaoka said.

“At different stages, you need different mental skills, techniques and philosophical approaches to life and to your music that are helpful to survive. The longer I do improvisation, the more I realize what a special endeavor it is to be doing it.”