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Remembering What Sticks

The second in the Magic Triangle Concert Series out of UMass/Amherst brought to the stage the group BREW, featuring Miya Masaoka on Japanese koto and electronics, Reggie Workman on bass, and Gerry Hemingway on percussion.

Ms. Masaoka definitely acted as the controlling mechanism for these two sets of music. Her selection of musicians to join her trio was in some ways academically arrogant. She represented contemporary creative improvised music; Workman was hand-picked to represent the epitome of jazz improvisers, given, let’s say, his connection with Coltrane; and Hemingway was chosen because his feet are placed in both contemporary and hard-bop, avantgarde arenas.

The music seemed to come across as valuable for the energy projected in its performance rather than how it actually sounded. The tolerance of the koto to speak volumes of sound was remote. And although Ms. Masaoka interspersed the koto playing with interludes of electronics via her Powerbook and a strange sound resonator that responded to her hand movements, the total impact she had on the music was out of balance with the sound from the other musicians. This trio was structured like a piano trio: that was astonishingly obvious. But the koto did not have the power that a piano would have in relation to the bass and percussion.

Workman and Hemingway had to succumb to the unchangeable range of sound that the koto could make and as a result, their artistry was squelched, their potential choked. Workman stood grandly at center stage with his uncompromising instrument. He could not show the vastness of his creativity. The same was true of Hemingway. He had to pull back to make sense of the music; he used the brushes, he tapped the snare, and rarely let fly on the drum set. He fiddled with electronics on his right. And at one point, he walked to the back of the stage and whirled around pink and blue tubes about four feet long, one in each hand, to create a whirring noise, which activity emphasized the "performance art" aspect of this concert rather its music-making purpose.

The best catch was Workman in mid-set plucking out the major line of "Round Midnight" which was quickly obfuscated in the wash. I could hear the theme once or twice from the koto and once again from the bass. In an original composition by Masaoka, two other memorable musical moments emanated from the koto & bass as they drove through an extensive array of ostinatos.

Generally, this music imitated the sea going in and out of range of interest as waves would touch the shore and recede. Masaoka only hinted at the depth of intent that is reached by female musicians like Pauline Oliveros. Masaoka’s efforts seem to lack the polish that gives her music direction and voice. I can guess that she might eventually transcend the preciousness of her own instrumental predilections and classical music background and get on with making some solid attempts at improvisation with more sensible choices about the instruments which accompany her.

I realize that Masaoka is attempting to combine Eastern and Western musical traditions. If anything, what is missing is her consideration of the fine line that would provide the fulcrum on which the success of her attempt rests.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Brew: Masaoka, Workman, Hemingway
  • Concert Date: 3/7/2002
  • Venue: Buckley Recital Hall
  • City State Country: Amherst. MA, USA
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