Improvised music finds a home in Ithaca

The rhythmic plucks of strings echo throughout the Barnes Hall auditorium at Cornell University as they bounce off of its high wooden ceilings. Just as the audience is drawn in to the sound, the music suddenly takes an unexpected turn as the strings are then played with drum-sticks followed by a violin bow and then a ceramic bowl. Miya Masaoka, composer, multimedia artist and musician, performs on the stage with only her koto and her imagination. Masaoka performs free-improvised music; a genre that has been growing in popularity due to the freedom it gives musicians.

The twenty-one-string koto is a Japanese horizontal harp on a wooden platform, which is similar in construction to a piano, Masaoka says.

“It is like an inside-out piano in a sense,” Masaoka said. “There is a real direct relationship of physicality of touching the strings that you don’t get with a piano.”

Listeners were pleasantly surprised when they heard the different permutations the music took.

“I loved the koto, I really didn’t know what it was going to be like,” said Shiela Out, Ithaca resident, in attendance of Masaoka’s show.  “I didn’t know the extent to which she was going to be playing in a totally different way from the traditional way.”

Typically, the koto is played like a harp, but Masaoka uses all parts of the koto to make many different sounds. Masaoka uses the base of the instrument to make drum and scraping sounds. She also incorporates field-recordings of water, animals and other natural sounds in her performance.


Masaoka got started, as most improvisational artists do, in classical music. She then found improvisation through her love of jazz.


“I suppose jazz is really the route for getting into improvised music,” Masaoka said.

The difference between jazz improvisation and free improvisation that Masaoka preforms is the expectation in result.

Cornell Professor and improvisational performer Trevor Pinch said jazz improvisation is constricting and the sound created is supposed to be traditional and expected.


“In jazz there is a standard way of improvising on a set pattern,” he said. “When people take a solo they know exactly what they are expected to do but this [kind of improvisation] is very different.”


Slowly but surely the free improvisation scene has been growing. Masaoka’s visit was not an isolated event; Ithaca has hosted various improvisational artists and events.


The Cornell Avant-Garde Ensemble, founded in spring 2011, is an ensemble dedicated to free-improvised music. Ithaca Underground hosts an event called Naked Noise, which is an experimental event with solely improvised music performed.


There have been four Naked Noise events, the first few only yielded a few dozen in attendance and the most recent installment had over a hundred in the audience, says Bubba Crumrine, president of the Board at Ithaca Underground, a not-for-profit organization focused on developing the underground music community in Ithaca.

“Ithaca is very open to new music,” Crumrine said. “There is a higher level of knowledge of the arts and their importance here.”


The Community School of Music and Arts, Cornell University and Ithaca College all currently offer courses and instruction in improvisation.


“This is kind of a new trend in serious music, a concert in which all the music is improvised, is very different than what is normally produced.” Cornell music department events manager, Loralyn Light said. “It is kind of a new wave and we are seeing more of it happening.”


The next day Masaoka gave a guest lecture to Cornell University students on improvised music called, “Improvisation: Slippages and Flow.”


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