Miya Masaoka: The Usual Turmoil - interview by Declan O'Driscoll

The koto is a visual wonder. 21 strings over two pieces of wood (shaped like a coffin); bridge like a human spine. It has presence. When it is played by Miya Masaoka (born 1958) sound and movement combine as she reaches across its length, scrapes a string, strokes its underside with a ball or bows it. A choreography that is her thought process, each sound a careful decision, each action a thought. The possibilities, already vast, are extended further by the technology created for her at STEIM in Amsterdam. Just played notes return, percussive effects created on the hollow body of the koto are sampled to build a dark, rumbling layer.

A committed political activist and resident of San Francisco, Masaoka began studying koto in her twenties, having already spent four years working in a Mack Trucks assembly plant where, apart from working on the line, she was a shop steward. After receiving a degree in music at Mills College (among her tutors were Willie Winant, Alvin Curran and David Tudor) she worked for two years as artistic director of a music workshop for homeless people. Through meetings with Henry Kaiser, Lisle Ellis and Larry Ochs she began to find her way into the San Francisco improvising community and eventually became recognised there, and beyond, as a player of great imaginative depth, with an explorer's urge to push towards new territory that would lead to her playing with, among others, Mark Dresser, Ikue Mori, Susie Ibarra, Cecil Taylor, George Lewis, Pharoah Sanders, John Zorn and Jon Rose.

How important has your training in gagaku music been to the development of your particular approach to music and to your development of a particular sound?

MM Well, I studied gagaku music and was director of the San Francisco Gagaku Society for eight years and during that time our master teacher was Togi Suenobu, who traces his lineage in gagaku music for more than one thousand years in the Japanese imperial court family. For me it's been a big source of inspiration for how to approach music and also conducting, because in gagaku conducting you use your four limbs. In gagaku there's also a lot of importance for each sound event, so if you hit a drum nothing else happens for a while, so there's lots of space and silence between events and the sense of rhythm is not typical western rhythm because it goes by so slowly. It's really the maximum amount of impact for the minimum amount of sound. There's also a very spiritual quality in gagaku where there are certain pieces that if you play 108 times your third eye opens up. There are certain mystical elements that are associated with gagaku music that for me are very intriguing and have kept me wanting to learn more.

At some point you obviously became aware of improvised music and the possibilities beyond the formal training. Were you at all daunted by the idea of improvising on the koto?

MM The prospect was daunting maybe in a couple of different ways because I started doing this almost 10 years ago and at the time I didn't know of any improvisors on the koto. My teacher almost threatened to take away some of my credentials in the traditional koto when she found out I was doing things on my own. She became very threatened and since she's older, very traditional, it was not a gracious kind of experience. It was difficult because it was just not done. Now it's very different, there are Japanese kotoists who are improvising, but before people just weren't doing it. It wasn't something that was considered good to do.

What about the musicians that you began to work with, were they accepting of the prospect of accommodating a koto player?

MM Among American musicians, one of the first that I played with was Henry Kaiser and he introduced me to a lot of musicians who were improvising. Larry Ochs was also one of the players that introduced me to lots of people. I think the improvising community really welcomed new sounds, new instruments.

In the liner notes of the CD The Usual Turmoil (Music And Arts, 1997), your duo partner George Lewis is quoted as saying that you like "to have things kind of short and really aphoristic." I wonder what you think of that comment?

MM Well, he could also take that comment back! I mean I can also play the same note over and over again for half an hour, and certainly on my first record there are pieces that last 15 minutes with really very minimal material. There is a genre where you move quickly from one sound area to another, so depending on your particular feeling at the moment you might do things very quickly and jump from certain sound areas to other sound areas, and at other times things will evolve slowly, so I think I do that as well. I'll nail him, I'll get him back!

On the score for 'Topaz Reflection', recorded on your solo CD Compositions/Improvisations (Asian Improv Arts, 1993), you have the instruction "use space throughout". I'm wondering if the use of space is an element you like to bring to improvising situations, or what do you feel you do bring?

MM Hopefully something that enhances what's happening. I personally like things to be unpredictable. I would like that my contributions be unpredictable so there's times when silence is a big part of the music and others when there is absolutely no silence and there's just sound, sound, sound - layers upon each other. So I prefer to be in flux about how to approach silence. I would say that it happens sometimes but I wouldn't want it to happen all the time.

On reading about you, it's clear that you are concerned about the situation and condition of marginalised people. Do you think music can play a role in bringing about social change?

MM I like to think so. I want to be an optimist, if anything, in society. All of my relatives were in Japanese concentration camps [in America] during the war and that had some kind of impact on our community. Also, when my parents were looking for a home to buy in the 60s they were only allowed to buy them in certain areas and couldn't buy them in areas that were just meant to be white neighbourhoods. This was not so long ago, this was the 1960s when things were supposed to be liberated. So those kind of things shape your psyche and give you more sympathy for other groups that are also marginalised. I'd like to think I'm not obsessed about race or gender or any of those things, I have enough of my own neuroses! But it's definitely a factor.

Do you think music can play a role in inducing people to think about these issues ?

MM Well probably a lot of the time it doesn't but that's the way it goes. But I think if people are able to open their minds to different kinds of music, maybe they can open their minds to different social structures and the way society is formulated, or open their minds to other ideas.

To change the subject somewhat. You've used insects in a number of projects, can you elucidate your interest in insects?

MM I've always been a sucker for powerful images and sounds, whether it's from an instrument or the environment, and I've also been influenced by butoh, the avant-garde Japanese dance form. There's a piece I've done called 'Ritual With Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches' where I lie naked on a table and giant cockroaches crawl on me freely, and I have laser beams going over me and when they trespass and break the laser beam it triggers their own sound and it's very amplified. The natural hissing of a cockroach is like sssshsks, it sounds like white noise, and when it's amplified and layered it can be very effective in terms of an electronic sound. In the background there's a large video screen of the close-up of these cockroaches. They have spiny legs and big antennae and they look very prehistoric. It's also the extension of butoh which is where the movement and the emotions are very inter-nalised. They're not readily apparent to the viewer, so I'm lying completely passive and still on a table with the cockroaches moving over me. It's a very strong image. It's really more like perfor-mance art, I would say, than an audio piece.

You've also used bees.

MM I've worked with bees for years, and this November I'm going to be working with three thousand bees on stage with a computer programme that will morph between the buzzing of the bees and different buzzing techniques that I have developed on the koto. There will be speakers around the audience so the sound of the bees will be for them a very dynamic sound.

You have composed two pieces for the Masaoka Orchestra which you conduct rather than play in. Can you explain the organisational principle behind the piece 'What's The Difference Between Stripping And Playing The Violin?' (see What's The Difference Between Stripping And Playing The Violin?, Victo 1995)

MM That piece is meant to work with different configurations within the group. It's a very large ensemble with a small contingent of Asian musicians, a quasi-string quartet, two bass players, two drummers, saxophones, an Iranian musician using different Iranian tunings and electronic musicians who are creating different sound waves. I'm doing conducting based on the gagaku conducting, but I've added different movements to symbolise ways to edit between fast edit, short edit, wave forms, volume gain, etc. So that was just experimenting with some conducting ideas and also working with modular cyclic forms.

What about the actual score that was presented to the musicians?

MM It was gigantic. It was about four feet by three feet and it had to be held up by a number of stands, and that way they would never have to do any page turns.

You've also recorded the composition '24,000 Years Is Forever' (see What's The Difference Between Stripping And Playing The Violin?).

MM 24,000 years is the time it takes plutonium to start to disintegrate and was dedicated to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My relatives are from Hiroshima. That piece is for a large ensemble but uses a more traditional score.

Are there some ongoing projects that you're involved with at the moment?

MM I'll be playing in Europe and New York in a trio with Reggie Workman and Gerry Hemingway. There's also a new configuration I've been working with, with an ambient guitarist, g e stinson from LA, and the drummer Greg Bendian, and another group Maybe Monday with Fred Frith and Larry Ochs. Fred Frith is one of my great dreams to play with. There's a CD coming out pretty soon. R


Compositions/Improvisations (solo koto) (Asian Improv Arts AIR 014 CD, 1993); Monk's Japanese Folk Song (w Reggie Workman & Andrew Cyrille) (Dizim 4104 CD); Crepuscular Music (w Tom Nunn & Gino Robair) (Rastascan BRD030 CD, 1995); What's The Difference Between Stripping & Playing The Violin? (Masaoka Orchestra) (Victo CD058 1995); The Usual Turmoil (w George Lewis) (Music And Arts CD-1023 CD, 1997)

This interview was first published in Rubberneck 30, December 1999

Text © Rubberneck; photo © Declan O'Driscoll

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