Monday, May 11, 2009

Interview with Evan Ziporyn, composer

by Jaki Levy

About Evan Ziporyn:

Evan composed the score for Zipper, one the new works from Misnomer premiering this season. Evan’s bio (pulled from : His compositions have been performed by the Kronos Quartet, Bang On A Can, Nederlands Blazer Ensemble, master p’ipaist Wu Man, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Maya Beiser and Steven Schick, Arden Trio, California EAR Unit, pianists Sarah Cahill, Christopher Oldfather, and Cristina Valdes, and Orkest de Volharding. As a bass clarinetist, he has developed a distinctive set of extended techniques which he has used in his own solo works, as well as new works by Martin Bresnick, Michael Gordon, and David Lang. His 2001 solo clarinet CD, “This is not a clarinet” (Cantaloupe) received critical acclaim on NPR’s All Thing’s Considered, PRI’s The World, and on numerous critic’s top ten lists at year’s end. He has been associated with the Bang On A Can Festival since its founding in 1987, appearing as composer, soloist, and ensemble leader. As a member of the Bang On A Can All-stars, he has toured over a two dozen countries and worked with composers such as Louis Andriessen, Iva Bittova, Glenn Branca, Don Byron, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Arnold Dreyblatt, Philip Glass, Steve Martland, Meredith Monk, Thurston Moore, Kyaw Kyaw Naing, Terry Riley, Ralph Shapey, Matthew Shipp, Tan Dun, Cecil Taylor, and Henry Threadgill. In addition to writing for the group and co-producing several of their recordings, he has arranged for the group works by Brian Eno, Conlon Nancarrow, Hermeto Pascoal, and Kurt Cobain. He also regularly performs and records as a featured soloist with Steve Reich and Musicians, and shared in their 1999 Grammy for “Music for 18 Musicians”.

JAKI: I’m curious about your own personal process. How did you begin to compose the music for Zipper? Where did you begin?

EVAN: Chris and I had corresponded for some time before we started the process, so I knew a bit about how his mind worked, and I liked his ideas a lot, but I had never seen the company. So I was sort of flying blind - I really had no idea how he’d respond or how I’d respond to his response. Another thing is that Chris’ way of working with the company is so interactive and experiential - i.e., a give and take in response to the moment. That wasn’t going to be possible with the music: we live in different cities, the live instrumentalists were only going to come in at the last minute, etc. We had to find a more modular way of collaborating - i.e., demo recordings which he could respond to, etc. This then posed other problems, because the demos are inherently artificial - computer models, fixed in time and tempo, etc. So much of Chris’ work is about feeling, and the whole thing with demo tapes is that they don’t ‘feel’ like the real thing.

These were very large hurdles to jump for both of us, and in a way finding a way to deal with them was the hardest part of the process. What I eventually did was to make a fairly large number of short pieces - I think maybe 8 or 9 - and send them all to Chris. He then chose the ones that resonated and I then developed those into larger forms. To me, some seemed to fit together and some didn’t, so I had the interesting challenge of making something coherent out of things that went together in his mind but not necessarily in mine. I wrote a couple of other things in response to his reactions, and then began searching for the connections.

The process ended up being very fascinating, actually akin to some of the interactions that go on in “Rock Paper Flock,” (which of course has nothing to do with me). My usual process is not so different from this, but normally I hold all the cards: i.e., I might make a lot of sketches, then gradually decide what to use, and then find a way to make them into a piece. Here I gave the middle part of the process over to someone else, so it was kind of like being an amnesiac, having some part of my consciousness taken away from me and then returned. I found this to be an oddly compelling situation, and tried to incorporate that feeling of absence, or absent-mindedness, into the work - so that there’s always a sense of ‘did i hear this before?’ involved.

That’s also the reason for the title of the instrumental version of the piece, which is called “Where Was I?

LISTEN to Where Was I

JAKI: The choice of instruments, percussion, and musicality are all very different from a traditional sccore. This really is New Music. Can you give us a breakdown of the instruments used? And what went into the decision to choose those particular instruments?

EVAN: It was really about the people rather than the instruments. I had wanted to work with the Real Quiet Trio, and also felt they’d work well with Chris and the company. I also felt it would create an important balance to have the music be performed by a real group rather than a pick-up ensemble, though of course it would have been simple enough to find good players in New York. But Misnomer is so connected to themselves and to Chris’ work, I felt that the music needed to be played by a group that had a similar sense of cohesion.

JAKI: I imagine the roles of a composer and performer are different. How did you ensure the piece is played as you intended, in this case by Real Quiet Ensemble?

EVAN: I’ve worked with them all as individuals for a long time, we’re all good friends as well, so I know them and they know me. Percussionist David Cossin in particular is an extremely close collaborator: we are members of Bang on a Can together, and have played together literally hundreds of times. So I knew I’d be in good hands. Of course every composer thinks their music needs to be treated in particular ways, but this score was a little unusual: the tunes and harmonies are simple on the surface, and the textures are transparent, but the timings are very subtle and particular, made more so by they way Chris choreographed to them. So I needed a group that would understand all this, and who would bring an acute awareness of sound and timbre to the music. And they really came through, I have to say.

“Stroking Piece,” written by Thurston Moore, performed by The Bang on a Can All-Stars and Thurston Moore on guitar

JAKI: How do you know when the piece is finally done? What is like to finally let go of the piece?

EVAN: Well, um, actually, I thought it was done before Chris did - in fact he made changes right on up to the dress rehearsal…

This actually turned out to be the best part of the process, because on more than one occasion he requested fairly radical changes in completed scores, often in ways that didn’t immediately make sense to me, and which I didn’t know how to accomplish. But in trying to do this, I found new aspects of the music which hadn’t been apparent to me before. It was kind of like dream therapy in this way - finding a hidden meaning and then delving deeper.

In terms of letting go, I’m not sure I’ve done that yet. New pieces are like distorted mirrors - you look in them and you can’t help but see yourself, for better or worse. In a couple of years I’ll be able to listen to it and know what it actually sounds like, but right now I have no idea…

JAKI: What’s next for you?

EVAN: I’m finishing an opera! Premieres in June in Bali and in late September in Berkeley, at least if the economy doesn’t collapse any further. It will involve my group (Bang on a Can), a full Balinese gamelan, 3 opera singers and 3 Balinese singers and dancers.

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