By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
To take advantage of her artist-in-residence tenure this past spring at the Headlands Center for the Arts, San Francisco kotoist Miya Masaoka had to haul her weird wired world to the beach. She moved her entire home setup -- five personal computers, a pair of laser towers, a digital sampler, a CD recorder, analog foot pedals, video gear, tripods, and tools -- to a roomy Army-barracks-turned-studio a brief stroll from the wind-swept Marin tide pools. This would be her woodshed from March to May, a work-conducive space where she was "forced sometimes to just sit," as she recalls. "Sometimes no ideas would come, and other times I would have so many ideas I wouldn't know how to organize them." What stands out most from the experience, she says, is that "it kind of got me to really get into the sound of my acoustic instrument again, because the natural reverberations of the room were so great." Oddly enough, she wound up channeling the inspiration from her unplugged ax into an amped-to-the-max, 21st-century application.For most musicians, putting such lateral imagining into practice is a rarity; for Masaoka, it's a way of being. Roughly 20 years ago as a college kid, when she was already a fluent pianist from a lifetime of training, she actually "chased down [legendary bluesman] Sunnyland Slim in Chicago to give me lessons." From there, her examination of "different [musicmaking] systems" and their "relationships to improvisation" bloomed, which inevitably led to jazz. During this productive undergrad period, Masaoka also began studying gagaku and other Japanese traditions on an instrument that would eventually contribute to her international renown in new-music circles: the 21-string, zitherlike koto.
She recorded her first album, a haunting solo meditation called Compositions and Improvisations, in 1993 while attending a graduate program at Mills College. At this point, she was innovating with dozens of personalized techniques, using bows, mallets, and cymbals on the body and strings of the koto to expand its sonic range. But it wasn't until a couple of years later, after a rousing gig with way-out guitarist Henry Kaiser and radical ruckus-maker Greg Goodman, that she began to think about her music in an even more "wild and wacky way."
Successful, one-of-a-kind experiments with custom-built, real-time processing equipment have contributed to Masaoka's reputation as someone who, in the words of avant-garde percussionist Gino Robair, "is serious about the research of sound." What's unique about her ultra-connected investigations is that the technology is merely an enabler to better realize her broad-minded vision as an artist. "I work with electronics," explains Masaoka, "but it's about extending the acoustic sounds and transforming them. It's inspired from the sounds of everyday life and from the sounds of my instrument." As a composer, the kotoist's objective has long been what she calls "an inquiry into how to create new sounds and how to reorganize the sounds in interesting ways." As a performer, she not only pushes the music as far as it can go, but unlike most "serious" players in the creative-music community, she also pushes the presentation -- sometimes to unusual extremes.
Masaoka has staged numerous performances with live insects, including surprisingly tuneful jams with thousands of buzzing bees, and infamous collaborations with giant Madagascan cockroaches, which would creep across her bare flesh under the hot spotlight. Another notorious project -- What Is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin? -- examined the relationship between two marginalized subcultures: sex workers and experimental musicians. At a few well-received, free afternoon concerts at the United Nations Plaza on Market Street in 1997, she conducted a stunning, extended composition for 12-piece orchestra and a pair of erotic dancers. An excellent digital recording of Stripping was issued in 1998; a whirlwind marriage of disparate stylistic elements, from Asian folk melodies to hard-driving swing to thrash-metal riffage to collective jazz improvisation, the piece exemplifies Masaoka's penchant for what she once called "hybridized, intercultural, intermedia investigations." Revising her former statement, the artist now suggests, "I certainly don't look for hybridity. But it ends up happening. I think it's such a part of the American experience; it's just part of contemporary life."
Regardless of how anyone attempts to describe Masaoka's artistry, including the artist herself, her work is clearly a phenomenon -- and her Bay Area contemporaries know it. When saxophonist Dan Plonsey was called to book some dates for "Avant-Yard 2000," a free series of Saturday afternoon concerts (running through Aug. 19) at Zeum, a youth-oriented, interactive art center in Yerba Buena Gardens, he chose the kotoist to launch the event. "To me," says Plonsey, "she seemed to totally epitomize what Zeum wanted to do: to showcase real, vital, human art involving new technology." Gino Robair further explains, "She stretches the language of the koto way beyond what we're used to hearing. And her musicianship goes into her use of electronics; she uses the technology very musically, not gratuitously."
The former Splatter Trio percussionist has performed in a number of threesomes with Masaoka since 1994, including a freaky union with "bug" and "baboon" instrument-builder Tom Nunn, documented on the otherworldly sounding Crepuscular Music. "She's not precious about her instrument," notes Robair. "If she needs to dig in and jam a cymbal between the strings to make the right sound, she'll do that. ... She'll go where the music needs to go."