This Is Who We Are: Miya Masaoka

Carlos Barragán
October 23, 2023

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making. Here, we talk with Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Director of Sound Art Miya Masaoka about the tension between tradition and innovation, her reasons for not referring to her students as "students," and why artists should always be on the lookout for new challenges.

Associate Professor and Director of Sound Art Miya Masaoka asked me about the sound quality of our Zoom call. “Don’t you think it is messy?” Masaoka was quick to point out the fact that three years into COVID-19, most of us have still not worked out a good sound system for the calls. But before I could tell her that I could hear her well, she launched into a description of her new exciting endeavor. “I’m working on a new project of iteration with living plants and the physiological response a plant has when someone touches the leaves and how you can measure the response in volts,” she said. “But can you hear me well?”

Masaoka is the living definition of a multidisciplinary artist. Whether recording inside a plant or the human body, within architecturally resonant spaces or outdoor canyons, her work operates at the intersection of spatialized sound, frequency, and perception. She is drawn, she said, to contradictions that feed the paradox of the contemporary condition. “I’m moved by the sounds and energy of the natural world.”

Masaoka's musical journey is deeply influenced by her background and her intricate web of cultural experiences. Born in Washington D.C., she was introduced to classical music at the age of eight, inspired by her mother who played the violin. Remarkably, her mother had studied with Japanese violin teachers while confined in a Japanese-American concentration camp during World War II. 

The multicultural essence of Masaoka's life extends beyond just music. She is fluent in six languages, and this linguistic dexterity connects with her understanding of rhythm and melody in music. “There’s a relationship between the melody and the rhythm with prepositions, verbs, and conjugation of verbs, so my interest in listening to sound is also connected to my interest in words and languages,” she said. 

In her early 20s, Masaoka moved to Paris, where she taught improvisation on the piano. She realized she wanted to study sound more closely when she came back to the US. In California, Masaoka graduated with a BA in Music, magna cum laude, from San Francisco State University. In 1994, she earned her MA in Music Composition at Mills College, where she encountered a significant influence – Alvin Curran, who had studied with the great American composer Elliott Carter. “Curran left a mark on me. He was part of a very different generation,” she said. “I learned that different eras produce distinct artists, influenced by the context in which they create. It is a basic lesson that as an artist you need to assimilate soon so you understand that you are a product of your time.”

Throughout her career, Masaoka has seamlessly blended traditional and avant-garde music. Central to her repertoire are the koto and ichigenkin, traditional Japanese string instruments. She often merges these with hybrid acoustic-electric performances. Her diverse work also involves composing new Noh music, instrument building, and wearable computing. I asked her if there was a particular moment in her life when she decided to move beyond the classical. 

“It is more of a back and forth. As an artist, you are jumping around and it is a messy line,” she said. “Probably that tension existed when I was a younger artist. At a certain point in your career, especially if you have a classical background, everything is integrated into your psyche. In the past, there was more pressure to be a traditional artist. In my career, that’s not a tension anymore. But an artist’s life consists of creating new tensions all the time.”

“I learned that different eras produce distinct artists, influenced by the context in which they create. It is a basic lesson that as an artist you need to assimilate soon so you understand that you are a product of your time.”

A notable aspect of her work is the exploration of space in a conceptual sense, a theme she delved into during her recent year at the American Academy of Rome, after she won the prestigious Rome Prize. "I was intrigued by how artists during the late Medieval and Renaissance periods conceived of sound and space," she said. "During the Renaissance, this relationship held a different significance. Piero della Francesca, a painter from the 15th century, is credited for developing the first three-dimensional background in frescoes and paintings. Leonardo da Vinci would incorporate it decades later. This was a concept that all of a sudden everybody was doing. It is useful to understand how this linear space is the invention of that period, and how we are also inventing new concepts of space all the time and how sound inhabits space.”

Building on these insights, Masaoka introduced a new composition for EMPAC’s Wave Field Synthesis array in Upstate New York last December, focusing on her studies in spatial sound. She aimed to link these ideas of space with the modern possibilities of sound in today's world. “It was a way of creating and synthesizing a new way of experiencing sound in this artificial environment, which we call a room.”

When I asked Masaoka about the Sound Art Program, where she serves as Director, her eyes lit up with evident pride. Miya explained that in Sound Art, faculty and students explore the relationship between spatial and sound dynamics. It all started when the Visual Arts Program realized how composers were increasingly leaning into installations. “From that trend emerged a Sound Art Program with more emphasis on installations that treated sound as an organic material, thinking of sound as waves," she said, "and then turning it into an art form.”

The Sound Art Program's work orbits around the rich history of sound, evolving and deepening over the two years students are in the program. Students not only navigate the discipline of sound but also exercise a considerable degree of interpretative freedom—be it in how they perceive sound or how they project it in varied spaces. In Masaoka's perspective, sound art emerges as an innovative and overlapping field. It melds with music, sculpture, and even architecture. “The beauty of the field is the lack of sharp boundaries and the adaptability and permeability characterizing it,” she said.

Discussing the future trajectory of sound art, Masaoka spoke with enthusiasm about emerging fields: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality. The best thing about sound art, Masaoka shared, is that because it is relatively new, it is not prescribed to boundaries or “canons.” 

“In the earlier days of sound art, 15 years ago, there were different sound theorists who wanted to be the gatekeepers,” she said, “saying what was sound art and what was not. 'Sound art can only be sound, it cannot be sculpture with sound'. Every point there had a kernel of legitimacy, but as the decades went by, the discipline became more fluid, allowing you to be more creative and fresh.” 

I was curious: Does guiding students with new ideas and diverse backgrounds shape her own artistic concepts? Masaoka's response was forthright. “I don’t think of my students as students. They are artists, and I call them artists,” she said. She concluded with a sentiment that sounded more like encouragement for artists everywhere: “It is important, from day one, to believe in what you are doing. The artists are always so different, which makes everything even more creative. That diversity of ideas and experiences creates an environment where everyone feeds off each other.”

Masaoka’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including the Venice Biennale, MoMA PS1, Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Masaoka has taught at New York University, Bard College (since 2003). In 2017, her installation “Vaginated Chairs” was shown as the Kunstmuseum Bonn, and in 2018 she premiered work for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Glasgow Chamber Choir. Masaoka has created a new chamber Noh opera, and is a Park Avenue Armory Studio Artist for 2019. She has a Duo CD with Anthony Braxton, a Trio with Zeena Parkins and Myra Melford.