Miya Masaoka is a musician, composer and performance artist. She has created works for koto, laser interfaces, laptop and video and written scores for ensembles, chamber orchestras and mixed choirs. In her performance pieces she has investigated the sound and movement of insects, as well as the physiological responses of plants, the human brain, and her own body.
Helen Thorington: Miya, you were trained in Japanese court music as well as contemporary music and I understand have expanded on the playing techniques of the koto – first by using extended techniques, but more importantly, by building a Laser Koto. For those who don’t know, can you tell us about the koto and how you developed it? What is the Laser Koto and how does it work?
Miya Masaoka: Sometimes various events, thoughts and inspiration converge in particular ways, and evolve over a period of time, I would say this was the case for the Laser Koto. For many years I had been trying to develop ways of extending the koto electronically –and continue to do so— and along these lines I was an aritist in residence at STEIM in Amsterdam and worked with Matt Wright at CNMAT to develop ways of building an interface for real time processing and sampling using gestural controllers and other ways of capturing and modifying sound. We recorded and mapped 900 koto samples that could be accessed in various ways.
As for the array of light sensors on the Laser Koto, years before I had used an array of four infra red light beams across my body in insect performances, and also had used ultra sound beams across the length of the koto in Monster Koto to trigger and process sound. One direction this work turned, was recalling training in Gagaku, and the use of gestures in Gagaku, and how physical embodiment of sound was manifested in the movements of hands, arms and fingers, signaling the manner in which the music was to be perceived, the social class and regal nature that such gestures had the power of conveying. Eventually, the Laser Koto became the embodiment of the gestures alone. I coined the term “Japanese aural gesturalism” for the purpose of trying to describe this approach.
Donald Swearingen, a composer and instrument developer, built the array of light sensors, as well as custom faders. Oliver DiCicco built the laser mounting, both of which stand on tripods. The technology is very simple, and involves four light sensors and one infra-red sensor for continuous control. Then the hands break the beams, the samples are triggered, and the infra-red sensor, and process the samples in real time. I am currently building a new version of Laser Koto using the Arduino board, which is very inexpensive and relatively easy to use.
Helen: Your early performances like “What is the Difference between Stripping and Playing the Violin?” for electro-acoustic orchestra, erotic dancers and prerecorded tape from a symposium on the sex industry, were often controversial. What was your intent? Did the controversy help or hurt your career?
Miya: It’s hard for me to evaluate if some piece of work hurts or helps, but I must say that it isn’t something that I am concerned with, as my decisions to do a piece are not based on what helps or hurts. Perhaps I should pay attention to such things, but alas I have on blinders in that area. At the time, there was a serial killer of mostly prostitutes, and the killings were not receiving the kind of media press that there would have been if the women had been, say, middle-class women and in a different line of work. The piece strived to address these issues, and the commodification of music and sex, and to draw some parallels and trapezoids.
Helen: Your work for birds, planes and cello, where the cello plays “second fiddle” to the sound of airplanes and over 150 species of migratory and native birds makes me think that you really are interested in challenging and changing perceptions of what is, and isn’t, music. Is that your focus?
Miya: I think now there is a broader range of a listening experience, as sampling, Garage Band and YouTube, etc., are part of everyday experiences, and with the newly available technology, sound as a medium has become more accessible to everyone. In any case, there is a long history of the blurring of music and sound, from the Italian Futurists, musique concrete, to John Cage and the long tradition of walks listening to insects in Japanese culture. In “Birds, Planes and Cello“, there is a formal construct created by the flight schedule of the San Diego airport. As the planes increase their frequency from the early morning, they build up into a kind of crescendo and climax of air plane roar, which in turn the birds seem to respond to, with their bird roar as well. I would never have thought that the flight schedules would have such a compositional quality.
Helen: I have been impressed with your work with inter-species interactions. I wonder if you would tell us how you became interested in this and what made you think of other species as potential live performers?
Miya: Hmmm… I have always been interested in insects, the sounds of insects, and the hobby of having crickets as pets, and the way that social insects communicate and organize their societies in hierarchical structures. I was also thinking about the idea of the body, race and gender, and wanted to illustrate the body as a blank canvas upon which societal constructs are created and assigned. Cockroaches are social, not everyone’s favorite creature, and these from Madagascar make an incredible sound that sounds generated from a white noise filter. When I heard them, I immediately wanted to record their sounds and use them in a piece. Then I thought, why not use the actual bugs in the pieces, and have them create the composition with their movements? So when the roaches wander around on my body, while I’m lying on a table, their movements break the laser beams, and their amplified, pre-recorded sounds are heard in the space.
Helen: Sam Prestianni, writing in The New York Press, called you “The Queen of Bees”. How do you work in performance with a thousand honeybees? With Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches? With a Philodendron?
Miya: Wow, let me think about that. As for the bees, I collaborated with a bee keeper named Marc Mass who would bring his demonstration hive in an acrylic demonstration box that he brought to county fairs. We recorded the bees on my body in the studio, and had footage projected onto various walls in the space. The sound of the bees would be amplified from the acrylic hive. Occasionally, some bee would come right up to the microphone and solo really loud, and then there would be the hum of the hive. In some of these performances, I used software developed at the University of Montreal called B Software coincidentally, which was an early spatialization software. I was trying to create a hive environment where the audience was surrounded by the sounds of the bees moving around. Then I would play plucking sounds and buzzing sounds on the koto, and follow a score that included these various elements. There were many versions of the bee pieces, with many different and wonderful musicians participating as well.
Helen: Do you take a different approach with the Cockroaches than the honeybees? With the Philodendron than the Cockroaches? Tell us about the projects you’ve done with them?
Miya: Well, the Philodendron is a plant, and plant activity is more difficult to monitor, record, and make manifest to the the senses, eyes and ears than say, insect sounds and activity. But it can be done! With plants (see Pieces for Plants), and I also use many semi-tropical houseplants, the data sonification is trickier, as the plants in general tend to be more static, not as mobile, and seemingly to just be sitting there, when in fact, their physiological response to their environment is strong and immediate, approximating qualities of sentient beings. Compositionally, the challenge is to create interesting music from raw data. I tried to constantly and simultaneously alter the interactivity of the parameters of pitch, resonance, density rate of change so as to keep the sonified interactions with me and the plant dynamic and not predictable as the piece progresses. The question arises as to how much to mediate the data, and how much to keep the data close to the original output of the source, whether it’s plant, brain, or whatever else is getting monitored.
Helen:What is the audience’s reaction to your use of other species as performers?
Miya: It has varied widely. Everything from threats of a citizens’ arrest and picketing by an organized group that protested the use of “nudity and insects” at the University of Riverside, to total indifference, and everything in between.
Helen: On your website you mentioned your experience at Lincoln Center, when audience members returned again and again to be with the philodendron and talk about their experiences with plants. It made you realize that you “were brushing the surface of deeper questions — our complex role as humans in a diverse, inter-dependent biological environment, and the potential for communication with plants that has not yet been discovered.”
Do you think that your work with other species alters your audiences understanding of our relations with them? Is your interest primarily musical – in changing perceptions of what is, and isn’t, music — or are you hoping to suggest that the traditional practice of categorizing other species limits our understanding and our possible interaction with them?
Miya: Absolutely, my interest is musical first, or course, and in the course of events of pursing meaningful musical endeavors, trying to satisfy my curiosity related to sound, nature, societies, language and gesture. If there is a side effect that encourages a deeper way of thinking about ourselves as human beings and our inter-connectedness to our environment and planet, then that makes me very happy.
Helen: Do you plan to introduce another species into your music in the near future?
Miya: Not at the moment, but one never knows…
Helen: You’ve also composed works that use live and prerecorded brain waves, medical equipment including EKG, EEG, and fetal heart monitors. Tell us about the project, Naked Sounds, for instance, and how you used the body in it.
Miya: I wanted the sounds of the human body to create a hidden orchestra of sounds… I contacted hospitals for donations of medical equipment, and I received an EKG machine, and two dopplers that amplified the sound of the blood coursing through the veins. I contacted David Rosenboom, the guru of bio-feedback in music for advice on brain monitoring equipment and methods. I also experimented with amplified stethoscopes, anything I could get my hands on. We had a “medical team” that consisted of Robi Kauker, Thomas Day, Gennifer Hirano, and I hope I’m not forgetting someone…t he patient whose body we harvested the sounds from was Saiman Li. I used various strategies with the brainwaves and sounds for the piece including: Superimposing the brainwaves over a Grand Staff, and having an ensemble, the SF Sound Ensemble, perform the score… also using a midi interpretation of the waves being generated by the patient, and finally, the raw sound from the micro-volts of the brain activity amplified and processed.
helen: What are your plans for the near future?
Miya: I’ve been fabricating surface mount LED’s (smaller than a grain of rice) and am designing an LED kimono with more than a thousand LED’s that can respond to the environment, almost like an organic being, and also like a soft, low resolution video display.
Helen: Where can our readers hear your music?
Miya: There are some downloads on my website, and also CD baby, and other places as well: www.miyamasaoka.com Thank you so much, Helen Thorington, for your interest in all this!