Tradition meets the cutting edge in Honda & Vo’s soulful musical pairing

Motoko Honda (Photo by Will Cohen)
Motoko Honda (Photo by Will Cohen)

By Sheri Linden

A golf tee, a metal screw and a ruler — not the first things that come to mind when the subject is music. But each of these items had its moment in the spotlight during my recent chat with Motoko Honda, a composer/performer whose sonic improvisations have drawn ecstatic comparisons to Radiohead, John Cage and Prokofiev.

As she spoke from her home studio in Oakland on a recent Friday afternoon, the occasional digital glitches in our Skype connection did nothing to dampen Honda’s enthusiasm. Besides sharing background info on her upcoming Angel City Jazz Festival/Ford on the Road performance with Hanoi-born musician and Oscar nominee Vanessa Vo (a.k.a. Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ), Honda offered an exuberant lesson in extended technique and prepared piano after I confessed to being unfamiliar with those terms.

“I can show you!” Honda said with a beaming smile. After playing a few notes, she inserted that golf tee into the workings of her piano — transforming the instrument into a “prepared piano” — and then demonstrated how those same notes deepened and changed.

It’s one of many extended, or unconventional, techniques that Honda uses in her holistic approach to music, which combines the acoustic keyboard with a range of electronic devices that manipulate sound. She’s been hailed as a virtuoso of this hybrid strategy. But Honda wasn’t always a fan of plugged-in music. “I actually didn’t like electronic music at all when I was young,” she says.

Motoko Honda at the piano. (Photo by Charles DeGuzman)
Motoko Honda at the piano. (Photo by Charles DeGuzman)

At the same time, she felt increasingly frustrated by piano’s limitations and longed to play “between the notes.” Inspiration struck when Honda, who was born in Yokohama and raised in the northern Japanese city of Sendai, was a graduate student at CalArts. “I saw guitarists playing all sorts of things using their stomp box. They can change the texture, they can change the tone, they can bend the sound.” Maybe, she thought, she could do the same with her piano.

Further demonstrations during our conversation made clear that she could do just that. With a simple screw placed just so, she gave her piano the metallic clang of a bell. Most impressive, though, was the soul-stirring power of an excerpt from the piece she’s writing with Vo for their October 3 performance. The brief musical passage churned with suggestions of thunder and then gave way to a lyrical section evoking the rippling of water.

Water is one of the motifs that Honda and Vo explore in their first collaborative composition. “We have such a close connection to water in our countries,” Honda says, noting that California’s drought lends additional resonance to the subject. She acknowledged with a laugh that the piece was still untitled as of mid-September, two weeks before its world premiere performance at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Barnsdall Park.

Honda likens their collaboration to storytelling with a personal slant. Although they’re from different countries, she and Vo share points of reference as Asians who emigrated to the States. “We still have memories about who we were in our countries,” Honda says, adding that their joint composition expresses a sense of “reaching out,” not just in terms of the distance they traveled to the US, but a reaching out “to the audience, to ourselves, to each other.”

Oscar nominee and Emmy Award winner Vanessa Vo who collaborated with Honda for their Ford on the Road show. (Photo courtesy of Vo)
Oscar nominee and Emmy Award winner Vanessa Vo who will perform with Honda at the next Ford on the Road show. (Photo courtesy of Vo)

For Honda, that distance traveled was a bold leap: from northern Japan to central Kansas, where, with little English and no friends or family in the area, she enrolled in tiny Bethany College. Her teachers in Japan had expected her to attend a high-profile East Coast conservatory. But Honda, overwhelmed by the time-consuming nature of classical training and competition, determined to study anything but music.

“My life had disappeared into music, and I no longer existed,” Honda says. In Lindsborg, Kansas, she “learned to become a person again.” Supportive and nurturing friendships eventually brought her back to the piano, with a fresh sense of balance.

One of the things she and Vo have in common is their resolve to enjoy their careers without sacrificing their personal lives — a challenge for women in particular. “In the long run, we want to celebrate and enjoy life, and we see life as the source of music.”

Like Honda, Vo uses extended technique on acoustic instruments. Their Barnsdall performance will incorporate three traditional Vietnamese instruments: the dan tranh zither (Vo’s a national champion in Vietnam); the dan bau, a monochord, or single-string, zither that can sound like the human voice; and the dan trung, a bamboo xylophone. Vo, who often performs with the Kronos Quartet, will also sing.

For all their complex layers of sound and ideas, the two musicians aim for simplicity in execution, and an experience that’s open to listeners of all ages and musical tastes.

“It’s not about trying to play Eastern or Western music but really trying to be true to our feelings,” Honda says. “It’s almost like my identity. As a pianist, I think as a Western person, but my soul is in Japan. I don’t know which one I am, but I like both.”

Motoko Honda & Vanessa Vo perform as part of the Angel City Jazz Festival on October 3 at 8:00 PM at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. The evening will also include performances by Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue with Ambrose Akinmusire and Mat Maneri. Tickets are $15-$20.

TAIKOPROJECT + Quetzal: the new generation of LA music

Quetzal Flores (furthest left) and the band at the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Quetzal Flores (furthest left) and the band at the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

By Molly Kodros

One of the best parts of living in LA is being able to witness the intersection of different cultures and artistic movements. Sometimes, these connections are obvious, but often they’re truly unexpected. At first glance, TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal‘s upcoming Ford on the Road collaboration would seem to be the latter.

As their name implies, TAIKOPROJECT is a raucous, contemporary take on the traditional art of Japanese taiko drumming. Grammy-winning Quetzal is one of East LA’s defining Chicano rock bands. So what could TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal possibly have in common? A lot more than you might think…

For one, they both exhibit exceptional artistic ability. I watched the two groups rehearse at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo a few Saturdays ago. With their arms and sticks flying, their quick movements and their gleeful shouting, TAIKOPROJECT put a huge grin on my face and made me want to jump right in and join.

Artistic Director Masato “Maz” Baba (center) and TAIKOPROJECT.
Masato “Maz” Baba (center) and TAIKOPROJECT.

Likewise, Quetzal’s songs of longing, displacement and finding home felt quintessentially Angeleno. I really felt the songs and lyrics deep at my core, even with just my rudimentary level of Spanish. The group fuses son jarocho, ranchero, salsa, cumbia, rock and R&B, with a political vision based in social activism, feminism and the belief that there is radical potential in expressive culture.

Another thing these two groups have in common is the prominent roles they play in their LA communities and their desire to go beyond typical cultural designations. TAIKOPROJECT has been a leader in the Japanese American community since its founding in 2000. Quetzal has played an integral role in shaping the East LA music scene since 1994. Both artists wanted to experiment, to explore what happens when leaders from two different cultures join forces.

In fact, Quetzal co-founder and guitarist Quetzal Flores had the opportunity to experience different Japanese celebrations at an early age – including taiko. “TAIKOPROJECT is the new generation of LA music,” he said. “Taking chances and pushing the tradition forward.”

TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal have something potent to say about modern life and respect each other for it.  TAIKOPROJECT’s Artistic Director Masato “Maz” Baba also grew up around taiko and started playing the music at six years old. He admires Quetzal for the group’s political voice.

Quetzal and TAIKOPROJECT playing together at the preview performance I caught at JANM!
Quetzal and TAIKOPROJECT playing together at the preview performance I caught at JANM!

Maz explained to me that TAIKOPROJECT was influenced by the powerful music and message of the Civil Rights movement. Taiko was a way for Maz and company to find their voice, to “be loud and show people who we are.”

I asked Quetzal what about taiko music he most responds to. “Taiko as a community practice most attracts me to it,” he said. He explained the connection between the two groups and that they had a mutually beneficial relationship growing up so close to one another. In fact, the original drummer of Quetzal is a taiko drummer.

So, given the complexity and plurality of LA’s many cultures, it’s not really much of a leap that TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal started collaborating together. In fact, it’s actually been a long time coming.

Watching both groups perform together was thrilling. Their sets reinvent original songs from each other’s catalog, adding to them and reimagining them with a whole new musical palette.

With Quetzal’s full band on stage and TAIKOPROJECT’s slew of drums and a Zimbabwean marimba and shinobue, I felt like the collaboration was new, unprecedented and somehow always meant to be.

Quetzal + TAIKOPROJECT in Concert performs September 18 & 19 at 8:00 p.m. at Tateuchi Democracy Forum, Japanese American National Museum. Tickets are $25.