Miya Masaoka: For Birds, Planes & Cello
Solitary B

Miya Masaoka: While I Was Walking, I Heard A Sound...
Solitary B

Characterizing Miya Masaoka's For Birds, Planes & Cello as a “continuous field recording with cello” is apt on the one hand but slightly inadequate on the other. Yes, a major percentage of the sound totality originates from field elements—the muffled roar of overhead planes and the calls of more than 150 varieties of migratory and native birds recorded at the San Diego canyon—but the description could be interpreted to mean that the cello and field recordings exist side-by-side in the recording. In fact, the cello playing of one-time Kronos Quartet member Joan Jeanrenaud is so seamlessly woven into the dense sonic foliage that isolating it seems misrepresentative. It's a minor point, admittedly—after all, the description suffices as a harmless description that's not meant to be scrutinized obsessively—yet it's perhaps not so minor after all, given the meticulous nature of the work's design and the subtle transformations that develop during its fifty-four minutes. That Jeanrenaud's playing doesn't conform to anything soloistic in the conventional classical sense is also understandable, given that the composer asked the cellist to match the timbre and frequencies of the birds and planes in the field recording after listening to excerpts of it. In short, the “soloist” in this context is asked to function as an integral, even indistinguishable part of the totality rather than overlay it with displays of bravura virtuosity. Put simply, Masaoka flouts expectations by not placing the cello at the forefront and by not relegating the field elements to the background. At the same time, the instrument does become a dominant textural voice during some passages but so too do the birds and the planes at other moments.

For Birds, Planes & Cello is a work of sound art but critically it's a far from static one. Though shifts in emphasis occur throughout, they're executed slowly and subtly. When the bird sounds initially dominate, the mood is bucolic but it turns menacing and oppressive when the planes emerge, sometimes so dominantly they drown out the other sounds (needless to say, it's also difficult not to hear the rising roar as threatening in a way that's sadly all-too-familiar in our post 9-11 “age of anxiety”). Still, even that's an overly simplistic characterization, as some of the bird calls are so violent, the word bucolic hardly applies. Naturally, the “birds-planes” and “cello-field recording” dichotomies assert themselves, with the former introducing at least one obvious thematic conflict—the purity of nature vs. the contamination wrought by humanity's presence the most obvious—which, to Masaoka's credit, is an overtone implied by this remarkable work rather than explicitly asserted.

Masaoka's While I was walking I heard a sound ... is radically different from For Birds, Planes & Cello. Though both works obviously share an “environmental” dimension, While I was walking I heard a sound ... is an audacious four-part, thirty-one-minute vocal work scored for 120 singers: boy sopranos, male falsettos, and operatic singers constituting three choirs and nine soloists spatially dispersed in balconies. An emotive dimension is already in play whenever the human voice is involved, and especially so when it's the sole instrument, but Masaoka's writing exploits that emotive potential in the keening cries and haunting upper register wails that occasionally appear. Male and female voices are heard alone, in small groupings, and in large chromatic clusters; they alternately swell in unison, intertwine, overlap, echo one another, swell into polyphonic masses, and swoop up and down like sirens. At times Masaoka hews to a more traditional vocal presentation, as in the elegant counterpoint at the opening of Part 3, while at other moments she pushes the boundaries. Voices, whistles, and other effects simulate bird song at the start of Part 4 to such an elaborate degree a veritable nature sanctuary is suggested, and minutes later, singing suddenly morphs into laughter before the vocalists plummet en masse like waterfalls and finally expire in four exhalations. It's a fitting end, given the incredible vocal workout preceding it. Recorded in San Francisco's St. Ignatius Cathedral, While I was walking I heard a sound ... is one of those releases that begs to be heard in a surround sound context so that one can fully experience the work's spatial dimension; the immense reverberation that follows the massed exhalations in Part 3 is but one memorable moment on this exceptional recording.

October 2008