Miya Masaoka: Social and Sonic Relationships
Whether she’s using a koto as an expressive vehicle for anything from jazz standards to electronic experimentation, writing idiosyncratic music for chorus and now orchestra, or creating music with plants and even insects crawling over her body, Miya Masaoka has been making us look and listen to the world around us in totally new ways for decades.
At the composer’s New York City apartment
May 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video recorded by Molly Sheridan
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner
Nine summers ago, there were tons of sound-producing gizmos on display during the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival’s “Homemade Instrument Day.” It was a fabulous way to introduce some really avant-garde music to a very broad audience. Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing people encountered that day was an installation by Miya Masaoka in which sound was somehow emanating from house plants. It was like some weird kind of Island of Dr. Moreau phenomenon. Yet it was also somehow both instantly engaging and musically fascinating as it unfolded over time. It involved a lot of brainy science—electroencephalography, data analysis, and computers—yet it was also extremely down to earth.
While it could have degenerated into a clever gimmick, it was much more than that because Masaoka manipulated the data from the plants to construct a very interesting sonic environment. But because it was all happening in real time, with a group of pots containing seemingly innocuous plant life, it became something much more than just a musical experience—it made the audience think about plants, and life in general, in a totally different way.
Masaoka has been making us look and listen to the world around us in totally new ways for decades. There has been a clear socio-political component to virtually everything she has done, but at the core level her work is ultimately always about finding new sounds. She first came to prominence in the Bay Area for her experiments with the koto, a multi-stringed zither which has played a prominent role in the court music of Japan for centuries. Though she was born and grew up in the United States, her Japanese family included traditionally trained musicians who were her earliest teachers on the instrument. While she initially immersed herself into gagaku and other classical Japanese repertoire, she soon found a way to make the koto a vehicle for a broad range of contemporary American music-making—bowing it, electrifying it, playing it in experimental improvisation combos, performing Thelonious Monk compositions and other jazz standards on it, etc. In so doing, she has made the instrument completely her own.
She has also done a great deal of sonic work involving the human body. She has created musical compositions using the brainwaves of audience members as well as data retrieved from participants via electrocardiograms. Her most provocative work has been a series of performance pieces involving groups of insects (bees, cockroaches) crawling over her own naked body; their motion triggering sensors attached to her which amplify the actual sounds the insects are making. Again, what could come across as gimmickry is viscerally powerful visual and sonic engagement, though admittedly probably not for the overly squeamish. (Although it isn’t to her in the slightest.) As she describes it, it is simultaneously politically charged and sound obsessed:
It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. … I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that. … Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space.
In the last decade, Masaoka has concentrated somewhat less on performing and more on creating extended musical compositions for others to perform. She acknowledged when we spoke to her last month that her seeming shift in focus was partially a function of relocating to New York City and having a young daughter, but it’s also a way to channel her experiences and creative energy into larger scale projects that she would not have been able to perform on her own. And the results have been equally stimulating: For Birds, Planes and Cello, an all-encompassing sound-scape in which cellist Joan Jeanrenaud competes against a barrage of bird calls and airplane engines; and While I was walking I heard a sound…, an extraordinary choral piece involving three choirs and nine soloists spatialized in balconies which was premiered in San Francisco by Volti, the San Francisco Choral Society, and the Ensemble of the Piedmont Choirs. Last year, inspired by kayaking on a lake near the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, she completed her first orchestral piece, Other Mountain, which was performed by the La Jolla Symphony as part of the EarShot Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Readings. But she’s still committed to performing. Earlier this season, she performed at Roulette in Triangle of Resistance, a new interdisciplinary work she co-created with filmmaker/videographer Michelle Handelman featuring a score she composed for koto, string quartet, percussion, and electronics, and in a couple of months she’ll be returning to the studio to record a new album of improvisations with Pauline Oliveros, who has been a long-time collaborator and mentor.
After spending a morning talking with her about her music and why she’s made the choices she’s made, I’m even more convinced that whatever she does will continue to push the envelope in ways that are both intellectually challenging and sonically captivating.
Frank J. Oteri: You’ve done so many different kinds of things musically, but people always want to have a tag line, a one sentence sound bite. “Oh, Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who experiments with the koto.” Or “Miya Masaoka, she’s the person who does the music with plants.” Or, “the stuff with bugs.” These projects are all so different from each other and don’t even encompass everything you’ve done. So I’m wondering in your mind if there’s any through line that connects all of these things, something that informs the choices you make and shapes your identity as a musical creator.
Miya Masaoka: Identity is kind of interesting—the relationship between the individual and whatever social context is happening, whatever interaction with the outside world. So it’s really this interior versus exterior relationship, which is something we don’t necessarily have control over. I remember when there were only a few of us calling ourselves composer-performers; it was actually before you could get degrees in such a thing. These terms are really fluid, in a sense, like gender or ethnicity. They’re really social constructs. For example, when I think about what it means to be Japanese or Japanese-American—before my relatives were sent to the Japanese American concentration camps, it was decreed that you had to have 1/16 Japanese blood. This was a definition for if you were Japanese or not, to go to the camps. And so this is what my parents had to contend with. I certainly don’t have to contend with these kinds of blood percentages to define identities, but certainly the idea of aspects of sound, and relationship to architecture, and how pieces are exhibited, or whether there are instruments involved and what the relationship is to performing on that instrument or whether you create music for other instruments—those things are also really fluid and they change from piece to piece. So for me, whatever is fascinating for me and what I am obsessed with at the moment, drives me to create the next piece. I don’t consciously shape an identity. That’s not been so conscious. I wish, in a sense, that things were more narrowed down and could be in a sound bite, because then it would be much easier to do everything in a world that’s sound-bite driven. But I can’t stop myself.
FJO: Sound bites are sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they help explain work to people in a fast, straight-forward way, which can be very useful, especially when there is so much noise out there. But in terms of wanting to create the next piece, or actually wanting to create any new work, it creates limitations if it doesn’t conform to the sound bite—you know, that doesn’t sound like what that sound bite tells me it’s supposed to sound like! So it’s a constant battle between how you establish something so people have some kind of grounding in what you’re doing and how you can grow from there.
MM: That’s true. I also like it if I can find a sound bite. That’s how we organize our minds and organize the vast amount of data that we have for so many artists out there. The next piece I’m doing is using three dimensional objects, sculptural objects, as scores. In some ways, it’s a departure from some things I’ve done, but in other ways, it’s not at all. Then I’m coming off of writing for full symphony. It’s completely different to go in towards making these objects as scores, or scores as objects.
A common thread is this idea of a sound and how to think about sound—whether it’s using forces of musicians or whether it’s thinking of sounds in more of a visual sense, whether the pieces are using kinetic motion or a physicality. Are these waves that interact with air to create a certain kineticsm that we experience as sound? How does it deflect off whichever reflective surfaces are there in terms of the architecture? That’s true whether it’s a concert hall, or whether it’s in a gallery space, or an open air situation. So I think this element of experiencing sound is probably the common thread, and how that can be conceived and perceived and achieved in different angles in different ways.
FJO: Now one of the things that’s been a very long-standing interest of yours going back to the beginnings when you first became active in the Bay Area new music scene has been working with the koto. I’m curious about how you first got involved with the koto and what attracted you to it. Obviously you come from a Japanese background, but you grew up in the United States, you were born in D.C., you spent many years in the Bay Area. There aren’t a lot of kotoists here.
MM: Well, my cousin and my aunt played koto, and one of them studied in Japan. I grew up playing piano. It was definitely coming from the Japanese American history of trying to be as American as possible because of the camps and the whole wartime experience. At the time in the Bay Area, there were different Asian American musicians like Jon Jang, Mark Izu, and Francis Wong who were keen about Asian American music and embracing these traditional instruments. So going back to these instruments was something that was a part of what was happening. I became a part of that, as well as having it in my family.
I studied traditional koto, and I also started the Gagaku Society. Gagaku is imperial court music. I did that for seven years in the Bay Area. Our master was from Japan and he was working at UCLA. So we flew him up once a month to work with us. And those concepts of structure, and how sound occurs over time, and how it unfolds and kind of builds up a propulsion and momentum were some of the most fascinating kinds of principles that I still live by.
But a turning point for me was when I was invited to play with Pharaoh Sanders for a few concerts at Yoshi’s. From playing with him and improvising with him, I also got introduced to other improvisers in the Bay area, like Larry Ochs and Henry Kaiser. So then I began collaborating with them, and that opened up this whole other door to what they would call non-idiomatic improvisation, free improvisation and that kind of thing.
FJO: There’s an interesting essay you’ve posted to your website that you wrote back in 1997 in response to Royal Hartigan’s issues about taking a traditional instrument that’s in a certain context and recontextualizing it to make it your own. There has been a lot of debate about this phenomenon. These are cultural artifacts of a specific culture which perceives of them in certain ways. So some would argue that to use them in ways that are outside of that culture are somehow disrespectful to that culture. But I find it interesting that the people who make those kinds of arguments about traditional Asian instruments, and also traditional African instruments, don’t make them for European instruments. It’s assumed that western instruments are somehow universal, that those instruments belong to everybody. You can do anything you want, say, with a piano or violin, but you can’t necessarily do anything you want with a koto, or an mbira or a ney. To exempt the West from cultural specificity seems like cultural imperialism and is really disconnected from 21st-century American cultural experience.
MM: I think some of those arguments that took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s have been really superseded by the internet—concepts of appropriation and taking these cultures from developing countries or from non-western countries and that it is somehow disrespectful or impure. Plunderphonics has come and gone, and there’s access to so many different rare cultures that it’s become a moot point to a certain extent. But I think whatever you do as an artist, whatever choices you make, there’ll always be people who will have issues with things. Especially if you’re doing something new and something slightly different, you’re going to have people who aren’t going along with it. So, that’s fine.
FJO: In the age of the internet, it does seem like everything from everywhere in every time is fair game. At this point to say that you’re continuing a tradition, it begs the question, what tradition? We have access to all the traditions, and we’re not necessarily continuing any of them, and not necessarily continuing “Western classical music.” The term seems meaningless to so much of the stuff that we’re all doing at this point.
MM: Tradition is something that people can personally embrace, whether it’s a tradition of American experimentalism, or a certain kind of tradition of minimalism, or certain kinds of traditions of time-based work, or some kind of performance, or generative electronics—modular synthesis has its own tradition. So there’re all these traditions that exist that are very historical and very meaningful, and we can embrace them in various ways, as individuals, to make them meaningful for us.
FJO: You mentioned playing with Pharoah Sanders. One thing that has certainly been a very important tradition in the trajectory of American music is the music that people call jazz. It’s a loaded word in some circles, but it is a tradition and it’s a tradition that you’ve interacted with in some of your work, though not all of your work. I love the trio recording you did with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille where you’re taking music by Thelonious Monk and completely reinventing it in a way that echoes traditional Japanese music, but that also really is jazz. It really does swing. It feels like Monk to me. So I wonder how you see your own music within the context of jazz traditions.
MM: Well, I grew up playing and listening to all different kinds of music and, of course, studying classical music, teaching myself folk music on the guitar, and studying flamenco music with a gypsy who lived in the town. Listening to rock and roll, listening to jazz—it’s really hard to escape that if you grow up in America. Jazz has this incredibly rich history of ways of being in music and ways of creating music. And I feel very lucky to have worked with some amazing jazz artists. And I continue to work with them.
I think at different times, there’s been a certain fragmentation and diffusion and at the same time a real boxing in of what jazz is into a kind of very boring and negative modality, which it certainly is not. I mean, the history is so expressive. It’s been so influential to so many parts of American culture. It’s had a rough patch, I think, and people like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor have kind of gone through and made it to the other end of that, the narrow definition of what would be swing or how to define jazz. I’m hoping that that’s going to open up again.
FJO: So taking on Monk. Monk’s compositions are iconic jazz repertoire even though he was an iconoclast. He was never conventional in what he did with rhythm. What he did with harmony was also completely unique. You hear a Monk chord, and you know instantly that it’s his. Yet those pieces have become canonic of a certain era in jazz. So to take that on and to do your own thing with it is very brave in a way because people have certain expectations about what that is.
MM: Well, Monk did an album of Japanese folk songs, so I kind of did a version of him doing a version of Japanese folk songs. And then, like you mentioned, the rhythms are asymmetrical; they’re very spiky and they’re very interesting. It’s definitely very interesting repertoire to dig into. So I thought it was challenging and would be a fun project to do. It’s funny, when I go to Japan, sometimes I still hear it in some of the jazz clubs. They play that record; it’s wormed its way in.
FJO: You did another project that is probably even more clearly jazz sounding—What is the Difference Between Stripping and Playing the Violin?—which for me is definitely coming out of big band music, but it’s also referencing a lot of other things, too.
MM: That was a long time ago. But there was some jazz in there definitely, quotations from Duke Ellington and things like that. I had a big orchestra and I was doing actually something I made up that I called tai chi conducting where I would try to get the energy from the musicians. I used some of the Butch Morris sign language. I also invented some of my own at the time. There were people in that group like Vijay Iyer and Carla Kihlstedt, tons of incredible artists who were living in the Bay Area at the time.
FJO: The more non-jazz improvisatory stuff that you’ve done also in some way connects to jazz’s greater contribution to American culture—this notion of work that’s collaborative in some way, the idea that a group of people can participate in the making of something in real time by responding to one another. It’s not just one person’s vision—I did this piece and now you peons, here are the precise rules you need to follow. Rather you have a group of people who are listening to each other, and they’re responding to each other, and the work becomes what it is because of those interactions. No one necessarily knows what’s going to happen at the end. Something can become completely different from what you had initially envisioned it being.
MM: That’s true. I mean, you know, I’d definitely been open to what kinds of things could change and how that could be meaningful. I did this piece with Joan Jeanrenaud—For Birds, Planes and Cello. Joan was playing the cello and also listening and also looking at some graphic ideas of what to play while she was listening. This was a piece with basically an uncut film recording of the planes at the San Diego airport starting out at six in the morning, and slowly there would be more and more of them. And the birds were in these natural canyons so they were in this enormous kind of sound amplifier; the birds were so loud they sounded like they were being amplified artificially. Whenever a plane went by, they would start screeching with the plane, and then as time went on, there was just more and more sound and it built up to a structural climax with the schedule of the planes kind of dictating that. So in a sense, it’s a kind of a collaboration with the earth, the birds, and the scheduling and creating and taking these kinds of environments and finding some kind of coherence and structure and meaning from them.
FJO: What I find so interesting in terms of the whole sound bite phenomenon is that collaboration has been a hallmark of your work through the last several decades, but the people you collaborate with have been extremely different from each other. So, because of that, the music that results from those collaborations is always very different. I’m thinking of the trios that you were a part of with Gino Robair which can be very frenetic versus, say, your work with Pauline Oliveros, which is often much sparer and much more introspective. I’m curious about what makes you choose a collaborator to work with because obviously those different identities are both you since you’ve done both of those things. They’re both extraordinary, but they’re very different from each other.
MM: Collaboration—whether it’s with insects or plants or people or musicians or the earth’s environmental sounds—is thinking about a sound world and how to enter somewhat of a psychological and sonic space. And a spiritual place you could even say, like with Pauline Oliveros. We’re going to be going into the studio again in a couple of months, actually. She’s an icon, and I’ve been so honored to be able to have worked with her and to work with her in the future. To answer your question about sparseness or density, those kinds of things can be preconceived or not preconceived. Things with Pauline can be sparse or not sparse, or this or not that; it’s working towards a larger whole to a certain extent. There are so many parameters that are a part of getting there.
FJO: So in terms of choosing these collaborators, how do these relationships happen? Who initiates them?
MM: It changes, and it varies. This time this one with Pauline was initiated by Issui Minegishi, a player of the traditional one-stringed koto called ichigenkin. With Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille, there was someone from Germany who said, “Who do you want to work with?” I just named these two names and he got them. It really varies. I often do a lot of just working by myself.
FJO: There is that fabulous album you did of composition and improvisation which is almost completely solo except for the last track that has flute. Once again, from track to track, the music is extremely different. One solo project of yours, although perhaps you might not think of it as solo, is the work you’ve done with bees and Madagascan cockroaches. I find it remarkable, but I have to confess that I also find it unbelievably disturbing, and I think that that disturbance might be an element of why you did it. I’ve never experienced these performances live. I’m not sure I could. I’ve watched the videos online, and I had to stop the recordings repeatedly. It got through my skin, as it were. I felt like these insects were crawling on me.
MM: Well, that piece was about the Japanese American experience. Around that time, they had just come out with some new studies of DNA and the differences with gender and race; people were something like actually 99 percent the same. And it’s really this small miniscule amount that we thought we were different. So I was going back to the 1/16th Japanese that you had to be to go to the Japanese camps. So the idea of the naked human body, as it is, without these ideas being fostered onto it… These large bugs crawling on it, kind of just discovering the terrain, as if it’s for the first time, and seeing this as a blank slate. Now we can buy that or not, you know, in terms of blank slates, but the idea was just having a very kind of cold viewpoint of the human body as the canvas—that was the idea. And then taking the sounds of the bugs, and amplifying them, and making samples of them, and having them create the structure of the piece. So I would be sending an array of lasers over my body, and they would break the beams, and that would trigger the sounds of the piece. The sound worlds are based on their movements.
FJO: So how were you able to do this?
MM: I went to this amphibian store. At the time they were legal to buy and I bought 12 of them. Later somebody took care of them for me and would send them through FedEx to the different places that I would play in Europe.
FJO: But how were you able to have bugs crawl all over you? How did it feel? You don’t move at all during the piece; how were you able to get yourself into that zone?
MM: It’s the idea of the body being this passive canvas that society pushes things upon. And you know, you just do it. I mean, it’s discipline. It’s like anything else. It’s, you know, you just do it.
FJO: What were audience reactions like to that in different venues around the world?
MM: Well, that piece became very popular. It also got picked up by some kind of syndicate in Canada and played a few times. And these Madagascar cockroaches later became much more popular in lots of popular culture. This was before that happened. But, how things get received? I don’t know. I should probably pay more attention to that. I think at the time, people weren’t used to seeing anything like that. Some people thought it was interesting, and some people thought it wasn’t, I’m sure. I can’t have my ear too much to the ground as to how things get received or not received, because it can just get me in the wrong frame of mind.
FJO: I have to confess, before I experienced it, I thought the idea was sort of gimmicky, but then after looking and listening to it, though at times I found it really disturbing, it was also viscerally powerful. But I’m curious about what it means to you as music, because a lot of it is a visual experience, including what you were saying about the body being a blank slate. But it was conceived of as a piece of music, right?
MM: Yes, as a performative semi-installation with music, because that’s my background. I did these collaborations with cockroaches, but their sound sounds like white noise. It’s the most amazing electronic kind of sound and it’s actually coming from a bug. Bees also have a very electronic sound component. But they were chosen not only for their sound abilities, [they were also chosen for] the idea of them maybe being individuals, maybe a colony. I think it’s very fascinating to have a blur of something that’s a whole. Ants are that way, too, but ants don’t have the same kind of obvious sound possibilities as these other ones. I really wanted to understand and study their social relationships to each other. So a lot of pieces from that period have to do with inquiries into the nature of society and culture and politics and sound.
FJO: Now with the bees, there’s the added layer of danger. Cockroaches tend to make people flinch, but with bees you can actually get stung and be physically injured. Is putting yourself in harm’s way part of the aesthetic here?
MM: No, not at all. And I’m not allergic to bees, so it’s okay. It was the idea of what the individual is, what our bodies are, and what the relationship is of our bodies to nature. It was searching for some kinds of clues to get closer to that.
FJO: I found it very interesting when we were talking earlier on about collaborations that you included the insects along with your collaborations with some of the most iconic human musicians. But insects, unlike people, don’t necessarily create a work of art of their own volition, so it’s a different kind of collaboration.
MM: Well, from my point of view, I really try to give the cockroaches agency by having them crawl and their movements create the sound structure for the piece. So I really try to imbue a certain agency for them.
FJO: But they’re not necessarily cognizant of their agency. Or are they?
MM: I have no idea.
FJO: But unlike collaborations with other people which are the creative work of the entire group collectively, certainly work for which you’d all share royalties, you don’t have to share your royalties with these bugs! Ultimately, it’s exclusively your work as a creator.
MM: Correct. But let me tell you about these cockroaches. I would be in the hotel room with these cockroaches night after night, travelling with them, and they were in a shoebox. I stopped taking both males and females, because the males would just attack too much, constantly going after each other and fighting each other. So I ended up with just one male cockroach, and the rest females. But I would just watch the way they interacted with each other for hours and hours in the hotel room, you know, after the performance. They did amazing things—very, very tender things with their antennas to each other, really very dramatic, very erotic things. When they would have sex, the things they would do with their antennas were fascinating. And how they would manipulate each other for food, and keep food from certain other ones. The whole thing was just fascinating. And for me, it was also part of the piece in a certain sense.
FJO: Now, to take it to plants. One could argue that even if insects may not be engaging in the same aesthetic processes that you are in the pieces that you involved them in, they certainly have will. Most people don’t think of plants as having will. I think that what you’ve done with plants is particularly fascinating, because it’s trying to address the living qualities of these life forms that we take for granted.
MM: I don’t think of plants as having will, but I will say some plants are very different from each other, even in one species. Some will be very responsive and some won’t be. I use EEG sensors on leaves, so I can monitor activity, and some plants are really responsive. You can get good readings on the sensors from the ones that are semi-tropical with very sebaceous leaves. If they’re in the jungle, they have to think which branch am I going to have to wrap myself around. Aristotle said the difference between humans and plants is plants can’t move, and human beings can. But actually these plants in the rain forest can actually go several miles by living on the treetops, and then shooting roots down. When they want to go somewhere else, they kill the nutrients off and then they move and get new roots in another location. But there are these plants, of course, like a lettuce, that just open and close; they are kind of like a toggle switch. Other plants grow quickly, and their vines shoot in directions where it’s most beneficial for them. So there’s definitely a lot of going there. These root systems can be considered somewhat like a neuron center of some sort.
FJO: So how does this all translate into music?
MM: Well, they give off mini-volts, which is one millionth of a volt. They recently discovered that plants have ultraviolet sensitivity, which is something human beings aren’t even able to discern. There’s a lot going on there. But it’s like any kind of data piece, whether you’re taking the information from earthquake activity, or wind activity. But my plant pieces were in real time. Often data pieces are not. They’re just taking a splice of something that happened and then interpreting that data. It started from my taking data from people’s brains in concerts, going from brain-activated pieces to using plants’ data. For some reason, those pieces got farther along for me than the brain pieces.
FJO: But it’s another one of these things where, if one were to hear it without knowing how those sounds came about, what would be the difference in the experience? And this begs the question of where does the music lie in this for you in all of these pieces—the plant pieces, the insect pieces. What is the musical issue that’s coming out of it for you that led you to create in this way?
MM: Well, they’re very different in a certain sense because the ones with insects are taking the actual sounds of the insects, but the ones with plants are taking their relationship to voltage output. A lot of it is negotiating what’s going to happen, whether it’s an installation, or whether it’s something that’s an eight-minute piece that goes from beginning to end. That’s a challenge for those kinds of pieces, to take the data and to make it interesting. I guess there are different ways of thinking about data, how pure this relationship is to the scientific frequencies coming out or whether that can be interpreted or manipulated for compositional purposes. I always err on the side of artistic license to really take the data and then apply it so that there is some sonic interest and development and satisfaction.
FJO: So how do you know when these pieces end? What is an ending?
MM: For long durational pieces, I think there’s the question of my own attention span and the attention span of the audience, the perceiver, the listener. I’ve been to India many times and have experienced seven-hour concerts, as well as [extended] durational concerts by different composers, like La Monte Young. There’s something very beautiful about this kind of eternity and things going on and on, but I also like something that you can kind of experience and then you have to go back to the memory. Once the piece starts, you start listening to it and then you go back to the memory of what you listened to. It’s like reflecting upon whatever just happened in a time-based way. The last event that happened that was meaningful, maybe you return to that. And then there’s a new meaningful event. And then you return to that along the timeline. And it kind of goes like that. And after a span of time happens, you reflect on the whole experience, and find what was meaningful or satisfying, or maybe what was not. For me, there’s kind of a ratio of attention span plus time plus satisfaction equals end. I just made that up right now. [laughing]
FJO: That’s good! You were talking about using raw data versus manipulating it for aesthetic ends. Even though we’re now in the 21st century, we’re still playing all these games with binaries. It’s either this or that. Either it’s about structure or it’s intuitive. One of the things I was trying to think through for what could be the sound bite to describe your music is its corporeality. At the onset of our talk you described your interest in physical moving sound. There’s a physicalness to most of your music, much more so—at least it seems—than the working out of a rigid process. You do all these experiments, but they’re really about how sound exists in the world more than how it exists in your brain. Is that fair?
MM: Anything’s fair. I think that’s an interesting way of thinking, and that sounds like an approach.
FJO: Here’s where it becomes a loaded gun thing—a lot of recent debates about aesthetics contextualize creative choices in terms of gender. The argument goes that men like to create all these rules which result in highly structured pieces, whereas women are more intuitive and they respond to things. Reality is a lot more complex than that, but this binary is something used to explain, say, why there are no 90-minute symphonies by women composers.
MM: Even 40-minute symphonies, why aren’t there those? They don’t have to be 90 minutes.
FJO: Well, I can think of at least ten 40-minute symphonies by women, but I can’t think of any 90-minutes ones. But is this related to gender and is this kind of thinking an issue for you in your own music making? When we talked about identity before, we didn’t talk so much about gender. How important are those questions for you?
MM: Those questions are very important because they have to do with how we function in our social context. So that’s very important. Some things are just done out of necessity. I would often do lots of solo things, especially in the earlier days, because I didn’t have the funding and the resources to hire people. Then whenever I did get funding, the first thing I would do was create more structured pieces to include more people and hire them. That’s always been something that I’ve done consistently. And there’ve been scores and rules for all of my pieces that have to do with larger groups because it’s too unwieldy otherwise. I think that serialism was kind of an extreme, and certainly it broke down, not just for women, but for men as well, but still there are certain things that are very interesting about serialism. For me, it’s more a question of access, being able to have musicians and being able to get your work performed. These kinds of things are more important to me than thinking that this is generalized for this gender or for that gender, which really is not very helpful for anybody.
FJO: But one thing that certainly is helpful to someone who is creative, especially during one’s formative years, is being able to have role models. While there have always been women composers, they did not really have much of an impact on the greater trajectory of music history until composers of Pauline Oliveros and Yoko Ono’s generation. Before their time, the role models were pretty much all men. I know that Pauline Oliveros is somebody who has been very important to you as a mentor. And on your website you include a fascinating talk you did with Yoko Ono, who also created work that blurs the line between sound and vision and performance.
MM: I don’t consider her a role model per se, but she’s definitely been an iconic artist.
FJO: So who are your role models?
MM: Well, Pauline Oliveros, Kaija Saariaho, Olga Neuwirth… I get very inspired by visual artists as well, like Kara Walker, and writers.
FJO: Everyone you mentioned is a woman.
MM: Well, there are men, too, but they get mentioned a lot. I like to mention people who aren’t mentioned as much.
FJO: The person you chose as your life partner, George Lewis, is also an iconic composer and musical thinker. I’m curious about how having the central person in your life also be a creator has impacted your own work. I know that the two of you have collaborated in the past.
MM: Not for a long time. We have a really separate artistic life, I’d say. We buy different pieces of equipment, even if it’s the same a lot of times, because it just makes it easier. You have your equipment, and no one’s going to mess with it. And then when you need it, it’s going to be in the exact same state in which you left it. Those kinds of things are important. And we have different places where we work. But it’s so enriching, because when we do get a chance to sit down and talk about different things, there’s always something interesting to say. So, I really appreciate that part of it.
FJO: It’s interesting. You were such an important fixture in the Bay Area new music scene, and now you’ve been in New York City for over a decade. Since so much of your music is about the physical world around you, I’m curious about how being in a different place has affected the work you’ve done since you’ve been here.
MM: The work I’ve done here in New York is focused more on composition. I just finished this string quartet. But in some ways, it all somewhat follows a life trajectory to a certain extent, since I’m not in my 20s and 30s anymore. I’ve got a small child. There are these kinds of interruptions of life to a certain extent that affect things. The Bay Area was, too, but New York is such a stimulating place to be, so I love being here every minute.
FJO: You also recently wrote your first orchestra piece.
MM: It was a piece called Other Mountain that was performed by the La Jolla Symphony last year.
FJO: Is that something you’re interested in exploring more now?
MM: Well, the large forces of a symphony are a learning experience, and it’s also a very intriguing way of thinking, how the sounds from each individual instrument work together. It’s something new for me, and it’s been endlessly fascinating. I don’t know really where the future goes with that, but it’s really an incredible thing to be able to have done.