Wednesday, September 1, 2010

UNDER THE PIANO: A Conversation with Motoko Honda

Hello and welcome to my new blog entitled “Stompbeast” – a combination of “Stompbox” (one of my fave words) and “Downbeast” (a shout-out to my old blog). We’re still working some of the kinks out – gee, you think 172 blogs on my blogroll is enough? – but for our first “official” post, we recently sat down for an illuminating chat with pianist/composer Motoko Honda.

Since emerging from California Institute of the Arts, Ms. Honda has developed into a quiet tempest in L.A.’s improvised music community. She has played with stalwarts like Vinny Golia, Wadada Leo Smith (who mentored her at CalArts), Mark Dresser, Jeff Gauthier, Alex Cline, Emily Hay, Steuart Liebig and Andrea Centazzo to upstarts like Ben Wendel, Sara Schoenbeck, Brad Dutz, Joe Berardi, Kris Tiner, Jessica Catron, Maggie Parkins and April Guthrie. She has collaborated with dancers (Oguri, Midori Makino), video artists (Carol Kim, Astra Price) and poets (Kamal Kozah, Nduku Makpaulu). She currently is a founding member (with Misuzu Kitazumi-Burns and Masumi Urakami) of the Los Angeles Piano Unit and the Okiro Music Ensemble, as well as an ongoing participant in the M. Rare Trio and the Love Ensemble.

Live, Ms. Honda’s mixture of classical, jazz, avant-garde and Pacific-Rim textures with 21st-century technology is a visceral and rewarding journey for the ears. Her music conjures whole movies in one’s head. Imagine Radiohead teaching Franz Lizst how to rock a KAOSS pad; or John Cage facing off with Bud Powell over prepared piano, or….well, you get the picture.

Motoko Honda with Steuart Liebig (2008)

STOMPBEAST: You grew up studying classical piano in Sendai, Japan. Tell me about your early training there.
MOTOKO: When I was eleven or twelve years old I got a chance to study with the most prominent teacher in Sendai, Tokiwa Ishibashi…The system in Japan at that point was rather strange compared to the United States. Some teachers didn’t take students but only “disciples,” like they do in the martial arts. I was her exclusive student. I obeyed everything she said!

I heard the competition in Japan is ferocious for concert pianists.
Yes! You realize you are up against people who came from families with very deep backgrounds in music. In my family, nobody is a musician or artist. So I started not sleeping so much because I thought I needed to practice more than other people because I thought I could catch up…Then I didn’t see my friends and my support system began to fall apart. And my family didn’t understand what was happening…They were supportive of me being a musician, but they didn’t understand why I had to work so hard. [laughter]

During those formative years, which composers appealed to you?
Franz Liszt. I could play Liszt’s big, difficult pieces—that became almost my specialty. His composing and writing style fit my fingers and I didn’t feel it was as difficult as people said it was. They said, ‘Ah, Liszt is too technical, it’s not interesting music.’ But with Liszt, once you get over that technical part, there is so much more to it. He has such a big vision! Some say his writing is almost religious, but it is not so much about his personal feelings or emotions—not so much about himself—but about the world and being a part of a bigger picture. He was so audacious and bold that way.

Motoko Honda live at UndergroundDNUOS (Los Angeles, 2008)

Do you have any nonmusical influences on your music?
Oh yeah, a lot. In fact, my music is mostly influenced by nonmusical things. The very first is Antoni Gaudi, the Spanish architect. I was in a bookstore paging through one of his books and I was like ‘This is it! This is my hero!’ It was the feeling his buildings gave to me—his architecture was music and it made sense to me like music…My father was an electrical engineer and he worked with big buildings and he used to take me to see them being built. I was always fascinated by these places and how they affected you inside. I think architecture it is the most practical art form and I am somehow hoping to make my music as practical.

How did you become interested in jazz and improvised music?
Jazz is popular in Japan, but it’s not taken so seriously in academic areas. I started to develop the interest in jazz when I was about thirteen because I'd seen some jazz players on TV and I was so fascinated that they improvised with great control over harmonies and with interesting rhythms. I wanted to learn more about it, but I never had time to do anything else but to survive the classical education…I decided to go to a school that allowed me to do both jazz and classical. The funny thing was that CalArts was the first college to send me a packet, and when I opened it I knew I was going there.

You are known for your numerous investigations into electronics and what’s called “prepared piano.” Where did you pick that interest up?
I knew nothing about any of that until I went to CalArts, where I studied improvisation. Prepared piano was introduced to me by Dr. Vicki Ray. I learned the practical use of it by learning the music of George Crumb. Then learned how to use prepared piano techniques by reading John Cage’s book [The Well-Prepared Piano (1973) by Richard Bunger]. I always had a fascination with pianos and was frustrated with how their pitch is very fixed. At CalArts everybody was using electronics at that time and doing all this crazy shit, especially the guitarists. I thought, “I have to do something like that with the piano.” I took a lesson with Miroslav Tadic, an Eastern European guitar player, to learn that rhythm and structure. He gave me the idea of hooking the Line 6 to the piano with a contact mike. Line 6 is the delay machine that a lot of guitarists use. Then I started to connect other things.

In building up your gadgetry, was it a matter of trial and error?
Yes, even the synthesizer. I asked for advice, but nobody gave me a direct answer, which is a very Cal Arts thing to do: “So what do want to do with it?” [laughter] “I don’t know! I never played one and I never owned one!” I didn’t even know how to use it. So I had to do my own research. Does technology free up your mind or some sort of bottled-up creativity? I think so. But technology is also a troublemaker. I am a little bit pissed off about it. I work well with electronics, but I need to upgrade my setup. With technical things, sometimes the sound doesn’t come through or you thought you were going to have a specific sound but when the time comes the devices do something different: “Grrr. Why is this happening now?!” Then I have to wiggle the cables and it takes my focus and concentration away from the music. Now I practice those routines over and over so that doesn’t happen…I think, I still get pissed off, but I learned that is the part of using technology, and as musician, I have to make the music no matter what technology gives me at these moments. Technology as an instrument I definitely approach the same way as the piano, but it took a long time for me to adjust to that, to be able to play the devices with the same focus.

[To read the rest of this interview, please go to
Ms. Honda will play this Sunday, Sept. 5 at the Folly Bowl in Altadena and Thursday, Sept. 9 at the Muddy Waters Café in Santa Barbara. More info is available on her ‘Shows’ page.]

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