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Miya Masaoka, Bay Area composer and master of the koto

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
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Miya Masaoka, Bay Area composer and master of the koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument), has earned an international rep in the past decade exploring the concept of music as a living, breathing entity with no limits. An extraordinary improviser who has collaborated with many of the world's creative-music leaders (from NYC pianist Cecil Taylor to Berlin bassist Peter Kowald), her performances draw from a wide range of sources, including gagaku (ancient melodies from the Japanese imperial courts), Thelonious Monk harmonies, and otherworldly timbral manipulations from her own bag of extended techniques. She also uses customized interactive electronics, complete with laser towers and computer networks, to extend the acoustic sound and polyrhythmic potential of her instrument into the cosmos.

Beyond pushing her music to the max, Masaoka is keenly aware of performance as a visual art to complement the aural. For the live presentation a few years back of What Is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin? she juxtaposed her post-jazz big band with a pair of erotic dancers in an effort to illustrate the bond among all who struggle to make a living on the cultural fringe. Despite its offbeat, provocative theme, What Is the Difference's few outdoor shows on Market Street drew hundreds of spectators. Similarly, her wild multimedia collaborations with insects -- a new video and numerous concerts with thousands of bees, a few shows with a half-dozen giant Madagascar cockroaches -- have been well received by both the theater- and concertgoing public. In these shows Masaoka often appears au naturel onstage with the creepy crawlers, challenging audiences to give up their prejudices and notice musical beauty in unusual places.

Masaoka's latest project, The Sound of Naked Men, delves deeper into previously unexplored aural worlds by investigating what she calls "the body as a hidden orchestra." She uses hospital-issue medical equipment to record data from her stretcher-bound subject, then translates the sounds into a real-time score on a computer screen. The kotoist interprets this composition with the powerful SF Sound Ensemble (a new combo featuring clarinetist Matt Ingalls, cellist Hugh Livingston, violinist Tom Swafford, trumpeter David Birthelle, guitarist John Shiurba, saxophonist John Ingle, and percussionist Rakesh Khanna), creating a showcase for the largely unheard music of the body. Masaoka is fascinated by her discoveries. "You can actually hear your brain thinking," she says. "It's a buzzy, complex sound. ... The hum of life."

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Sam Prestianni

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