Since emerging from California Institute of the Arts, Motoko 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.
You grew up studying classical piano in Sendai, a prestigious educational center of Japan that’s referred to as the “city of colleges.” Tell me about your early training there.
In Japan, to start studying piano at three or four years old is very normal. What made a big difference for me was that my teacher taught me how to transcribe music at the same time. By 6th grade I was writing down music by ear. I was serious about the piano but not serious enough to compete on the national level, but when I was twelve tears 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! [laughs] From age twelve to eighteen I studied piano very seriously. I was already way behind a lot of the other students my age, so I felt pressured to catch up. I also started having conflict with my school because I put so much energy into practicing the piano that I would be tired and sleepy for the rest of the day. I started out practicing two hours minimum, but it’s just not enough, so it became three hours, four hours, five hours. After awhile, it’s not even a matter of hours but every single minute you get. Like if I was sitting down like I am now, I would be practicing my pinky, because my pinky’s weak. If I was on the bus I would be thinking about the music I was going to play because my memory had to be perfect. It took over my entire life. And I still felt like I wasn’t good enough.
The competition in Japan must be ferocious for those wanting to be 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, because in their eyes I think they saw me working on something so hard that wasn’t necessary. They were supportive of me being a musician, but they didn’t understand why I had to work SO hard. They thought I was sacrificing too many things so they tried to help me not to do that so much, like going to school or having family time or helping around the house. [laughter] They tried to best to make me more human, but at that time I felt like everyone wanted a piece of me, and I didn’t have the time! I started thinking, ‘Yes I really like music but maybe playing piano is the problem. If I stop playing the piano I can be the person everybody wants me to be.’ At that time I thought quitting piano was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life.
Motoko Honda & Emily Hay
Live at the Boise Experimental Music Festival, 2009
During those formative years, which composers appealed to you?
Franz Liszt. I was not so sophisticated or cultured in my background, but I mastered it technically. 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 also 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 feeling 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. I loved Chopin and Bach too. I had a hard time learning Bach but when it comes to live performance I seem to have very good results playing his compositions. His combination of voices, assembling and disassembling themselves, his taking it all apart to put it back together, that’s what I loved about Bach.
The improvised musical community of L.A. really responds to composers like Bach, Liszt, Debussy. They all seem to translate well to people who play that type of music.
Yeah. Their more impressionistic ideas like Debussy’s are very similar to what we do as both musicians and visual artists.
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 picture 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. I would love to play in one of his buildings, like the Sagrada Famila in Barcelona. And like music, they actually hold the space in time, which is I why I feel connected to them. Through him I see that music is like architecture, creating space that holds time within it. 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. And that was before I became conscious of Gaudi.
You’ve actually played music in some very amazing architectural settings, especially in Italy.
I didn’t feel like I understood classical music until I played it in some of those spaces. That’s what got me back into it. It made total sense, that the music reflected those spaces as well. It took away my struggle and my misunderstanding of classical music.
Backing up a bit, what was the culture shock like when you moved from Japan to, uh, Lindsborg, Kansas to attend school there?
My culture shock there was entirely environmental. Lindsborg is very flat, and that was first time I saw 360 degrees around the horizon! I’d never seen the land that big. In Japan everything is tiny and vertical and if you see the horizon you see mountains. In Kansas, I could see the weather coming from far away. And the wind was always goes in one direction; in Japan, because of the buildings, the wind is more winding when it blows. I never felt wind like that in my entire life.
Motoko with Vinny Golia
Since you had left music, what did you intend to study there at Bethany College?
I wanted to study psychology, but I took a college-survival course where they told us, “If you want to keep your GPA up, you should not take anything involving reading for the first two years.” So I didn’t start psychology classes until my third year. In the beginning, I took a lot of math and computer and art and music courses, where you don’t have to understand anything they’re saying! [laughs] For music, I took percussion because it was as far away from piano as I could get. I was very afraid of the piano at that point. I studied drums. I sucked at it. My teacher was Dean Kranzler, and he saw I was pretty good and I learned very fast because of my background. But the problem became improvisation. I learned the fundamentals and my teacher said “Okay, now GO!” and I completely froze!
Is that why you started back on the piano?
Unfortunately when you come in the States and you can’t speak English, the only thing you have is the fact that you can play the piano, even if you don’t want to play the piano. To be accepted in school in the states, I sent a tape of that I had recorded when I was in high school. So, I’m sorry school system, I did cheat somewhat! [laughs] So when I went there teachers thought I was there for music! So I took a piano lesson. At that point I hadn’t been playing for a couple of years, but when I started playing again in Kansas, I noticed something different. In Japan when I played, I always felt so pressured, by the competition, by the self-criticism. You miss a note you are pretty much screwed. In Kansas when I played people were just happy. And I was happy to play for them. I never felt that good about playing before. I realized that I liked performing.
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. But I must say that I was very lucky because I had this chunk of time that I totally dedicated myself to one thing, and I got the world-class, best-possible classical education in Japan.
You mentioned that you played classical music when you toured Italy.
Yes, but when I came back to Kansas from the tour of Italy I decided I wanted to play the piano again but not in the same way as before. I took one jazz lesson from my friend who was three hours away from my town. I was actually in a jazz band, believe it or not. I think it was my junior or senior year. I didn’t know anything about jazz playing. I tried my best those few years but I knew I had to wait until after I graduated from a master program. When I was looking and researching for where to go, I decided to go to a school that allowed me to do both jazz and classical. Nobody knew about CalArts in Kansas, my teachers directed me toward places like the New England Conservatory or Julliard. 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. Around that time I had an injury, my muscle was damaged, so the doctor told me I couldn’t play the piano for six months, and I missed all of the auditions for the universities I was interested in. So I had to have a private audition. I visited the CalArts campus first, and I met Dr. Vicki Ray and on the spot she said, “You’re in for a scholarship!”
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. Ray. I learned the practical use of it by learning the music of George Crumb. I heard John Cage pieces but I hadn't tried them yet. I always had a fascination with pianos and 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 Miloslav 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?” [laughs] “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 on the spot 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, so I don’t get so pissed about it! 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 as the piano.
But you don’t just play the keys of the piano, but the entire instrument – whether it be running empty glass bottles down the strings or manipulating loops from banging on its surface. Do you allow for the mistakes in your improvising?
I go with it! I have to, and try to come back where I’m supposed to be. [laughs] I definitely have to embrace unpredictable things. It used to freak me out. But what else are you going to do?
The late Richard Grossman was another L.A. pianist who was known for releasing albums of compositions but preferred to exclusively improvise when he performed live. Do you need just improv or just composing?
I do enjoy just playing improvisation, but in concert I feel more of a responsibility to prepare more, whether I have written it down or not. My first CD, which is coming out soon, will be completely improv, no composition whatsoever. When I compose, I try to accomplish something, not everything. Do I want to build a big building? Or a small one? I’m very focused on what I want to accomplish in each piece. Composition in itself is sort of a focal point for me.
At CalArts, you were a pupil of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. What was it like studying with him?
Leo was funny! It takes awhile to understand what he is trying to teach you. I took one class at the beginning of my CalArts years but I didn’t get it. I enjoyed his class, but I was confused because he would say, ‘Do this for the next class’ and you would come to the next class fully prepared for what he would want you to do—and he would do something very different! It was not the Japan way or the Kansas way. So I was completely confused, but I just went with the flow, and at the end I realized what he was trying to do. The great thing about him is that he is not teaching to make you anybody, but helping you to find who you are. He taught me to find myself, musically speaking. He told me it’s okay to try to find myself though the music, to believe in what you are doing, not to be shy about it, to look at it from very different directions, upside down, inside out, that’s given me a lot of ideas to compose and improvise and be inspired. He helped me find my own voice, even though I was struggling with it.
Most improvisers I’ve talked to do not like the regimented environment of the recording studio. What are your views on recording versus live performance?
I used to hate recording at all! [laughs] I don’t like that something I have played still exists after I play it. I didn’t want to listen to myself. All I heard was flaws. When I started recording, I realized that many great players were not so great at the beginning, but by recording and going out and playing live that’s how they became great players. You have to really accept your imperfections. I feel like I couldn’t grow if I didn’t embrace those imperfections, and by showing those things to the audience. It is something that I can share. In Japan, we believe in perfection to the point that many people suffer for it. So my project has become to show the imperfections and get over with it and embrace that feeling. If it feels good, it is good; if it doesn’t, oh well…
How do you respond to the popular notion that experimental music is not accessible to audiences?
Experimental music is very basic and communicative. That’s what I am looking for. To communicate this music and its elements. When I recently played for a Japanese audience it was very interesting. They liked it! My friend said, “We’re so glad you didn’t go to a Japanese college!” [laughs] Another friend told me, “It sounds like you! I never knew you could improvise but it sounds like you!” I didn’t know what to expect but I know I didn’t expect those responses. So they heard something they never heard, or they never imagine me playing that kind of music. They were completely confused in a way, but they still liked it, and they could identify me in the music somehow. So those things have really given me hope!
What other kinds of music have you been opening yourself up since you came to the States?
I was listening to Megadeth the other day and I thought, “Wow they can do so many things with E major!” [laughs] I am not biased with music. I can’t be. When I was studying classical music, electronic music would give me a headache. CalArts helped me get over thatWhen I went dancing in Kansas I learned to embrace dance music as well, club music and especially Brazilian music. There is a large Brazilian population in Kansas and they have a big festival every year. In our college we took a four hour trip to Kansas City to attend this, and the Brazilian foreign students taught us how to dance. That was my introduction to world music! In Kansas, punk was very big. I enjoyed it a lot, especially all the dances they were doing. More recently, I made friends with Mike Watt and he taught me that punk music is not so much a style of music but from your heart. I got that energy from that music when people played it. He and I actually jammed a little bit for his radio show, just improvising music. I think learning his approach to punk will give me more ideas on how to improvise in my own music, mixing it with jazz or avant-garde or experimental. I mean, Watt is big fan of John Coltrane!
Your live performances can be quite out there. Have you ever had anyone annoyed or angered by one of them? Like, “What the hell was that?!” or “We paid good money for THIS?!”
[laughs] I wish! That would be very interesting! I haven’t provoked anything like that yet. Most of the things I do are pretty gentle. I want to make people feel good afterward—in their own way. For many years I was interested in music therapy, because I was interested in psychology too. The way music affects how you feel—it’s not like taking medicine, but something that gives you space and helps you figure out what you are going to do right now in your life…and maybe we are doing through the same things in the process and come out and the end together. I remember one time I did an experimental concert called ‘Under the Piano,’ where we put the audience under the piano so they could feel the music and let your body observe the vibrations. I used to go under the piano when I was in Japan. For me it was very comfortable, when I felt so much pressure and felt the world collapsing around me. It was a very stable place to be. I thought the piano was the only instrument in the world that understood me, so going underneath the piano was like being hugged by it. And I felt calm. So at the concert, I played as many good vibrations as possible, and there was this really old lady under the piano, close to like 90 years old. She was so happy! She was smiling! She felt good! She really liked it! I was surprised. I think I tried to play it while actually lying under it, but of course I could not do that. So years later, I did it for this old lady.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever received about music?
"You have a great potential, but no genius" My first piano teacher Ms. Akiyo Yoshida told me as I became disciple of Ms. Ishibashi. "In the world of music there are geniuses and they work tremendously hard, too!" My piano teacher Ms. Ruiko Koga told me that when I was 15.
What is the most important realization about music that you came upon by yourself?
I learned that fact you can't really change who you are and where you are from, but you can only do the best you can do and offer whatever you can offer to the world, and accept that fact. I understood that concept, but it is in recent years that I came to peace with it. I will never be a perfect pianist, but fortunately nobody can change who I am and what I can offer to the world, if I remain true to myself.
Motoko Honda, Emily Hay, Brad Dutz and special guest Wayne Peet will be performing the CD release party for Polarity Taskmasters this Wednesday night, January 19th at 9:15pm at The Blue Whale (Third floor, Weller Court, 123 Astronaut E.S. Onizuka St., Little Tokyo 90012, 213-620-0908, validated parking on 2nd Street, $10 cover)