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Creating a Buzz By Tom Tompkins

San Francisco-based improviser/composer Miya Masaoka, a one-time jazz pianist who switched to the koto, a traditional, 21-stringed Japanese zither-like instrument, has in the last year played with an array of musicians from jazz legends in small East Bay clubs, to Indian string wizards at Madison Square Garden.

Although local audiences are getting used to finding Masaoka on stage with all different kinds of musicians, she still manages to add surprises to what she does. Take last month, for instance, when she took her musical experiments to a new level by miking the hives of 3,000 bees (as part of what she calls her "Bees Project" series) and then playing a duet with them on her koto.

Masaoka, who is Japanese American, explains that her trans-cultural identity necessitates new forms of cultural expression. The "Bee" series is a look at how radical Masaoka's idea of "new" is.

"The bee gig started," she explained, "when I had this vision of me on stage with all kinds of unwanted things in cages -- flies, mice, rats, creepy crawly things -- and they would be amplified. But the rats caused problems with the health code, so I went to insects.

It turned out that bees are pretty dependable for their sound-making qualities. They vibrate their wings at a pitch of approximately middle C. So I found a bee keeper yellow pages, and went from there."

The bees went over big in their first performance, at a sold-out 300 seat auditorium in the Oakland Museum. The show was attended by a range of people from experimental music fans, families who wanted to see insects in a band and curiosity seekers. The success of the performance led to "Bees Project #2," a memorable performance that included a ritual involving Masaoka lying on her back on a table, while Madagascar cockroaches -- big, ugly, hissing bugs -- crawled upon her flesh. One assistant stood on guard, ready to snatch up any roaches trying to bolt for the exit; another chimed Indian bells. Meanwhile, a video of the performance was projected onto a screen behind Masaoka. The insects crawled, bells chimed, and the audience sat and tried to figure out exactly what was going on. Masaoka wrote in her program notes, among other things, that, "the ritual is an offering to begin to consider relationships between and the social construction of the body, race and gender in performance." After a while, Masaoka stood up, went back to her koto, turned up the bees and cut loose. The audience relaxed, and the show moved on with the improvising Masaoka creating new music moment by moment -- plucking the strings with her fingers before switching to a bow, banging her fist on the koto's body, creating swooping, graceful arching sounds that might give way in an instant to screeching, abrasive noise.

"There are many factors that influence what's being played at any one time," Masaoka says. "I just want to impact the audience in some way: they can hate it -- that's fine -- but I want it to be a force in their life while I'm playing."

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