Miya Masaoka Invents The Laser Koto
Miya Masaoka, a composer, koto player and inventor, has created the Laser Koto, laser instrument that she plays by passing her hands through the beams, triggering a variety of sampled and processed sounds from a computer. Each flick of the wrist and twitch of the finger is interpreted as a stroke on the instrument’s virtual strings.
Watching Masaoka shape the air in front of her brings to mind the theremin, an early electronic instrument that one plays by waving one’s hands around two antennas. The Laser Koto and the theremin differ in two important respects, however. For one, they don’t sound anything like one another: Masaoka’s repertoire of samples includes plenty of acoustic koto, along with bits and pieces of sounds that resemble breaking glass and running water, all of which are processed in a variety of ways.
The koto, a plucked zither with moveable bridges, has been a staple of traditional Japanese music since the 8th century. Masaoka first became interested in electronically enhancing it in the early 1990s. She had long used extended playing techniques to expand the tonal palette of the instrument – stroking, rubbing and scratching its strings, rather than simply plucking and bending them – and electronics seemed like a natural extension of that process.
A chance encounter with Tom Zimmerman at a party in San Francisco led to Masaoka’s first electro-acoustic “proto koto.” Zimmerman, an expert in human-machine interaction, invented the first optical data glove in the early 1980s, and had long been interested in developing VR controls for musical devices. Zimmerman outfitted Masaoka’s koto with an infrared motion sensor, and the two experimented with generating sounds based on Masaoka’s manipulation of the sensor data rather than of the instrument’s strings. She then developed what ultimately became the Koto Monster, a heavily tricked-out koto equipped with motion sensors and effects pedals that were linked to a MIDI interface. Masaoka even wore “sensor rings” whose wires ran down her arms. The Laser Koto was born when she decided to get rid of everything but the lasers.
The Laser Koto is equipped with four separate laser beams, which Masaoka calls “metaphorical strings”; a set of light sensors that register when the beams are broken by the movements of her hands and arms; and infrared proximity sensors that determine how close she is to the posts on which the lasers are mounted. Each sensor can be independently calibrated.
Every gesture Masaoka makes triggers a sample or invokes an effect using the same sample database and Max/MSP patches as her koto-and-computer rig, but the gestural output from the Laser Koto follows its own unique logic. Watching Masaoka onstage, playing with nothing but beams of light, is altogether different than seeing her sit behind the massive wooden board of her koto, plucking and stroking its strings like a Japanese court musician.
More information on Miya Masaoka and her Laser Koto.