Evan Ziporyn is an American clarinetist/composer originally from the greater Chicago area. He started off in music at a young age with a variety of instruments such as: the violin, piano, and clarinet. He continued playing through grade school and furthered his studies - first at the Eastman School of Music - and then on to Yale. While at Yale, Evan had a part time job at a record store in New Haven Connecticut. It was there that he was first exposed to a foreign musical tradition called Gamelan. He was so interested in this musical form that he decided to travel to Bali and learn it firsthand. He stayed at a remote location there - with limited facilities - and learned the tradition from Gamelan master Made Lebah. When Evan returned to the United States, he started working with the San Francisco area group "Gamelan Sekar Jaya", which is still going strong today. In the late 80's, Evan was asked to perform in an early concert marathon with the now well known American ensemble "Bang on a Can". Also involved in this event, were famous American composers Steve Reich and John Cage. In the early 90's, Evan started a long run with the "Bang on a Can All - Stars" and toured all over the world. Throughout his career, he has continued to perform Gamelan and really enjoys to explore experimental improvisational music .Today, Evan has a very busy schedule composing and performing with various ensembles. He is a Distinguished Professor of Music at MIT, and really enjoys sharing his knowledge with the students. I recently conversed with Evan about his career.
R.V.B. - Hello Evan... this is Rob von Bernewitz, how are you today? I appreciate you taking this time with me. It looks like winter is kicking in here in the north east.
E.Z. - Yes... absolutely. It had to happen.
R.V.B. - It was so warm there. I know you're from the Boston area and I see they had the NHL Classic outdoor game there the other day at Fenway Park. It didn't seem that the Bruins made out too well. You that you were born in Chicago... did you grow up there?
E.Z. - Yes, they play there quite often. I did grow up in Chicago... in Evanston.
R.V.B. - Oh, Evan grew up in Evanston. (haha)
E.Z. - That's right. (haha) You're not the first person to have noticed that.
E.Z. - My father was a very good violinist, so it was always something that I did. I knew from about the time I was 13, that's what I was going to do with my life.
R.V.B. - Did your parents start you with the clarinet or did the school start you with it.
E.Z. - The school did. My father started us all on violin when we were toddlers. I actually learned to read music before I could read letters. Then I started playing piano... which I still play. Then I started playing the clarinet in the 4th grade. I wanted to play the trumpet... every boy wanted to play the trumpet. They had us all to see who could get a sound, and I couldn't, so I had to take my second choice.
R.V.B. - I gather that you played it all the way through high school. Was that your main instrument all the way through school?
E.Z. - Yeah. In high school, I was one of the kids who was carrying 6 instruments back and forth to school. I'd be walking in weather like this, carrying a clarinet... a bass clarinet... a bari sax... sometimes an alto sax. I was mainly playing the big horns. I played bari sax and bass clarinet in the school jazz band, and I played clarinet in the orchestra... and then Fender Rhodes in my garage band.
R.V.B. - What kind of music did your garage band play?
E.Z. - 70's prog rock.
R.V.B. - Yes... ELP... that kind of stuff?
E.Z. - We were heavily into King Crimson...Zappa...and Weather Report. We also wrote our own songs.
R.V.B. - Mahavishnu Orchestra also?
R.V.B. - I gather at this time you caught a couple of Partridge Family episodes. (haha) (discussed them in screening process)
E.Z. - (haha) I'm an American kid... Partridge Family... Brady Bunch... everybody wanted to be one of them... or we wanted to date Susan Day right?
R.V.B - I went to bed dreaming about her. (haha) So you went to Eastman School of Music... how was your experience there?
E.Z. - It wasn't really the right place for me... Eastman is an amazing school and it's changed a lot... but at that time, the first thing they did when you got there was try and put you in a box. Whether it was a composer box, or a clarinet box, or a chamber music box, or a jazz box. I felt like I was being forced to choose... when what I wanted to do, was all those things. Plus, I needed a bit more of an intellectual life than they were offering at that time. They made it difficult at that time to take classes over at the University of Rochester, which it was a part of. I only stayed there a year, but I got an incredible amount out of it... particularly from Joseph Schwantner... who was my composition teacher. I was also taking piano as my secondary instrument, so I got a lot out of that. I met a lot of great musicians... some of whom I'm still close to, and in touch with. I left there after a year and went to Yale for the rest of my undergraduate years.
E.Z. - My big influence there was a guy named Robert Moore... who was only there for a few years. He was at USC for most of his career. He was exactly what I needed because he, himself was a very good jazz bass player, but he had switched over to composition. He got me into the American experimental tradition... that really helped me understand Ives, and his followers... Cage. He was also a complete encyclopedia about jazz. I learned everything about post-war jazz from him... Charlie Parker through Ornette Coleman... Cecil Taylor... and what was going on in the Chicago scene at that time. That was great, because I could go back to Chicago in the summer's, when people like Henry Threadgill were playing there, and a lot of the great... what they used to call free jazz... musicians were still there. They hadn't all moved to New York yet. I would see them perform. That music became very important to me.
R.V.B. - Now you dabbled with playing jazz for a while. Did you have a jazz band?
E.Z. - I was in Darius Brubeck's groups for several years. I was spending a lot of time in Africa... with African jazz musicians. I was trying to master that craft and eventually I sort of felt like I had to find my own voice. Now, when I listen back to some of the recordings that we made in that period... I think I probably could've stuck to that. That ultimately wasn't my road.
R.V.B - Was Africa the first time that you traveled abroad?
E.Z. - No... Indonesia was the first place.
R.V.B. - That was in 1981.
E.Z. - Yes.
R.V.B. - What made you go there?
E.Z. - Well I fell in love with Indonesian Gamelan. I knew nothing about it and it completely blew my mind when I heard it.
R.V.B. - How did you get exposed to it at first?
E.Z. - I was first exposed to it in a used record store I was working in... in New Haven Connecticut.
E.Z. - It was called Festoons. It's no longer there. The big store there was Cutlers. Festoons was a small boutique shop up on a second floor. It was a little used record store... which in general, was hugely important to a lot of people to our generation. I was working there part time while I was a student. Things would just be put on the turntable and you would go "Wow, what's this?". I discovered a lot of music that way. The Gamelan record was "Music From the Morning of the World" on Nonesuch Records. It has been since re-released. It was put on randomly... not even by me. I was like "Wow, where have you been all my life?".
R.V.B. - So you decided to go check it out first hand.
E.Z - Yeah... I was looking to broaden my horizons. (haha) I was studying composition and that's where I thought I was heading. My hero's were Stravinsky and Bartok... that was the model in my mind. Something just didn't feel right to me about the new music scene in America at that time. It didn't feel organic... it didn't feel life affirming... I was looking for something else. I thought I'll go to Bali and check it out... learn a little bit about it. It'll be a little side adventure. Of course what happens when you get involved in music in a culture, it's an ever expanding world. Then you realize... I can dip my toes into this sure. but there's a lot more in these waters. So a lot of that decade... in the 80's... was spent studying that music. I moved out to California because there was a group out there that was really the best American group playing that music. I got very involved in that group.
R.V.B. - What was the name of that group?
E.Z. - It was called Gamelan Sekar Jaya... it's still in existence. I joined it right when it was beginning, and now it's a bay area institution. They were really the trailblazers. They were really dedicated to the traditional music and making new pieces for the Balinese composers and American composers. They really led the way. Now there's hundreds of Gamelan's in the US, and abroad. At that time there really weren't that many.
E.Z. - No... it's a completely different thing and has nothing to do with western music... different scale system... different instrument design... different repertoire. At that time, it was like discovering music from another planet. Now if you get interested in Gamelan or whatever, you just go to YouTube and you can see hundreds of hours of anything. At that time you had to go on an adventure to find out something about music that wasn't part of your own culture. It was a way to be a part of it. I had barely been out of the United States when I graduated from college. Sudden I was living in a very small village with not much electricity... not much communication with the outside world. I was sitting with these master musicians... learning note by note... this really amazing tradition. This is certainly not a unique story, a lot of musicians have done this... whether it's India or Africa... it's very common... but for me, it was my particular learning experience.
R.V.B. - You studied with Madé Lebah... who had worked with Colin McPhee.
E.Z. - Madu Lebah had taken Colin McPhee around. He was kind of his guide in Bali. I didn't know that at the time. One of the great things about Lebah was... it's hard to know how old these guys were because they didn't really keep track... he had been kind of a dashing man about town in the 1930's, so by 1980 he was an old man. He had amazing stories about his time with McPhee, and amazing stories about the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, and the early years of independence. The Dutch had brought a Balinese Gamelan to Europe in the 1930's. He had been in that group. Then he was in the group that had first toured America in the 50's.
R.V.B. - He was really a major part of the music scene there.
E.Z. - It was amazing to have that link with history.
R.V.B. - So you honed your skills in that genre, and I see that in the 90's you got involved with "Bang on a Can". How did that come about?
E.Z. - I was friends with a couple of them in my college years, and in between my time in Indonesia, I had lived in New York. When they did the first "Bang on a Can" event, which was a marathon concert in 87... they invited me to play on it. There I was suddenly in a concert with John Cage and with Steve Reich.
E.Z. - That took place in a little art gallery called "Exit Art". It was a one day marathon... put together on a shoestring. It was very gracious of them to invite me to be part of that. I saw then, that the scene in New York was changing. It was turning into a more inclusive and open ended idea of new music. they kept asking me back to do projects and put together performances as the years went by and finally in 92, they asked me to form this group that became "The Bang on a Can All-Stars". I had been thinking of myself as a composer who happened to perform. I hadn't really been thinking of myself as a performer per say. I had slowly been realizing that I was my best advocate for my own music. It seemed that I could get more exposure, and convince people more about my music, when I was out there playing it... rather than writing music and letting other people play it. They would spend a few hours on it and maybe they had a bunch of other things to do. That was only part of what I was doing. I was up here in Boston teaching at MIT. I had my own Gamelan. For a long time, I had a nice diverse set of things to do.
R.V.B. - You traveled a lot with 'Bang on a Can"... you went all over the world? Any interesting stories on your travels?
E.Z. - It's hard to know where to begin. It was nice to go to eastern Europe before eastern Europe was fully opened up. Those trips will really stay with me... like seeing the former parts of the iron curtain just as they were changing. We had a couple of great trips to Uzbekistan that were really wild. The thing about touring that I really liked was that you got a chance to work with people in other cultures... which is what I liked about going to Indonesia and Africa as well. You learn a lot about the way a culture operates.
E.Z. - MIT's reputation about the other things are so amazing. When you first think about MIT, you think about artificial intelligence, linguistics, or Nobel Prize winners in physics, and that's probably as it should be. There's been an arts scene at MIT for a long time.
R.V.B. - How do you enjoy sharing your thoughts with younger people?
E.Z. - That's why I stayed there. Working with students is constantly renewing. It's inevitable in whatever you do in your life that you become a little complacent about it. You have your job and your profession and you take it for granted. I don't think it's possible to not be that way. Audiences give you some of that back. You feel it from an audience when you're playing music for them... but with students, they're discovering these things for the first time. When you turn them on to a particular piece of music, or an artist, or an idea, or culture, or a concept, and it hits them... you're reminded of what it was like to be hit that way yourself. I mentioned when I first heard Gamelan, it blew my mind. That was a really important experience for me. It's great to be able to help students find their own mind blowing experience. It's not always going to be what rocks my world... just constantly being reminded of that level of fascination, and passion, and curiosity, is constantly inspiring.
R.V.B. - Let's talk about your own compositions. Was your first major piece "Shadowbang"?
R.V.B. - How did you come up with that?
E.Z. - When I was in Bali... dance and theater is a really important part of that culture... so you go to these things and you realize... they're amazing, but you can't figure out what's going on. (haha) They're in three different languages. The thing about Wayan Wija, who was my collaborator on "Shadowbang"... he's a puppeteer... is that when you watch puppet shows in Bali, you don't just watch them from the audience. The audience will kind of go up behind the screen and see the puppeteer at work. There's different ways to see it. It's a multi-leveled, multi-media kind of experience. I thought I want to find a way to do this, and doesn't compromise what he does, but still makes it presentable and meaningful to a western audience. The whole key was finding a way to do that... as a musician... figuring out a way for him to respond to as an artist. At the same time I had to figure out what he, as a performing artist... and kind of an improviser... what he responds to. That took some doing. It took a lot of trial and error, and watching his horrified expression, (hahaha) and really figuring out what was going to function for him. I also worked with a really wonderful director and space designer named Paul Schick. He worked with Wija to figure out a fantastic way to present him, so that we could get that same effect and see it from different angles. Sometimes you see the puppets from the screen... sometimes you see them from behind. They worked out this ingenious way of staging it?
R.V.B. - I guess your work in the 2000's culminated with the opera that you made? (House in Bali) It had a dual premiere.
E.Z. - Yeah. One in Bali and one in Berkley California. We revived it the following year, and did it in Boston and at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Culmination is actually the right way to describe that project. For that, I put together all of the important musical world that I was a part of at that time. It was Gamelan and Bang in a Can. It was western musicians and Balinese musicians. It dealt with the past and it dealt with the present. As it turned out, it was an opportunity to bring together a bunch of artists who were really important to me and make something that we can all do together.
R.V.B. - What do you got going on these days? What are you working on?
E.Z. - I'm improvising a lot. I've returned to that. I'm working with this fantastic singer Iva Bittova. I'm working a lot with my partner Christine Southworth... merging solo performances with electronics.
R.V.B - I see you also have a group called "EVIYAN". How do you guys get together and write material?
E.Z. - We are all composer/improvisers and we all walk in with sketches, and then we take it from there. That's actually for me a return from what I was talking about before... with my interest in the Chicago improvisers. We're working in a way where somehow it's in between composition and improvisation. The audience isn't necessarily sure whether it's composed or improvised material. I'm liking that open-endedness. Composers are all kind of control freaks, and we live in a world now that increasingly values the fixed over the spontaneous. As a result, I think I'm kind of sliding over into the more spontaneous. At the moment, I'm very happy to be doing things that are smaller and more malleable... where one can get in touch with one's immediacy.
R.V.B. - That's great. It sounds like you have a very creative career going on... touching in a lot of different area's... big... little...teaching. Keep up the good work. Thank you for taking this time with me... I appreciate it.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information on Evan Ziporyn visit his website www.ziporyn.com
Photo credits, Standa Merhout, M.I.T.
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