Evan Ziporyn, composer and clarinetist, known mostly for his great work and his co-founding of the ensemble Bang On a Can All-Stars has just made the announcement that he’s leaving the group. I had the great fortune of interviewing him a while back and it was quite a blessing to hear about the history he has had with both the collective and the ensemble.
CM: Can you talk about your new CD Big Grenadilla/Mumbai?
EZ: The big piece on it is Mumbai, which is a concerto I wrote for Sandeep Das, the great tabla player who I met through Silk Road Ensemble, which he’s a major part of. I have to say that his performance – in a world of astonishing perfomances – is mind-boggling! That’s a 35-minute piece, and there’s this concerto called Big Grenadilla, a bass clarinet concerto that I wrote for myself.
As a whole it’s a sequel to Frog’s Eye, which was also my orchestral music. I’m excited about it! I like the cover! [laughs]
I know CDs are dying, but I still am of the generation that feels CDs are our statements to the world. They’re a way of summing up where you’re at musically in a particular moment, revealing it to people.
CM: How did the All-Stars start? Who brought the group together and how did it transpire?
EZ: We were brought together by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. The six members all sort of knew each other. But I go back with Michael to 1980, and with David and Julia not so long after that. We were kicking around, and Michael and I had had groups together, and I had done concerts with all 3 of them, and when Bang On a Can started, they invited me to do a solo on the first marathon, which was a huge deal for me. I don’t know why it was such a big deal for me because there was no reason to think it was anything other than a one shot. But I recently found a letter I wrote to my parents from that period telling them I was going to go do this, and just being on the same program with the people that were at that first marathon was huge for me at that time, because I wasn’t anybody. And when it continued in subsequent years, they’d call me up, and they’d ask me for a piece, and then they’d start asking me to put together groups to do pieces that they wanted performed. I think something similar was going on with the members of what turned out to be the original All-Stars–Maya Beiser, Steve Schick, Robert Black, etc. Then a time came in the early ’90′s when they felt like they wanted a house band, they called us each up and said “Do you guys want to do this?”. We all did it because it was another thing to do, and it was always great to have somebody call you and say “Okay here’s a gig, here’s a project”, but we didn’t know each other then, and I think we all assumed “Okay, this will be great, we’ll get a few concerts this year, a few more next year, maybe one or two the year after that, and maybe it will end!”. [laughs]
A number of things happened, both from external forces and internal forces. The external thing is that it was one of these strange periods where the record companies decided that there might be a market for this. Now this turned out to be wrong, but it was right on the heels of the success of the Górecki 3rd Symphony, and, there were these periods that happened, they may not happen again because the record companies are dying, but when record labels go “There’s got to be something here we can market!”. So Sony had these very ambitious plans to put together a new music division, and we were one of their first signings for that, so suddenly we had this contract with Sony! It was kind of unbelievable! [laughs]
More importantly, what happened was, it turned out the 6 of us had quite a lot to say to each other musically, a lot to learn from each other, a lot of chemistry. There was just a really good vibe in the band. It turned out to be a very potent combination, both because it was this very powerful combination of classical and rock elements in the instrumentation, but more because of the players. Putting somebody like Steve Schick together with somebody like Mark Stewart turned out to be a really, really good idea. All of us walked into the room feeling ourselves to be complete musicians, and finding out that we had tons of things to learn from each other, whether it was about certain things in our playing, approaches to music, or different aesthetics. Those first 5 years was this really wonderful period of exploration for the group, and I don’t think anyone anticipated that. I don’t think anyone thought it would take a life of its own, but that’s what happened.
CM: The upcoming concert at Alice Tully Hall has the All-Stars performing the US premiere of Field Recordings–that’s a David Lang thing, but you and several other composers have contributed to it.
EZ: It’s one-ninth a David Lang thing! [laughs] It’s a collaboration among all of us, there’s nine composers involved, and the six players, and there’s no single author. So, the drill was to make a short piece that’s based on a found sound, and the found sound can be a pre-existing recording, or a recording that we made, and that could be other music, or it could be a sound from the environment, or whatever we wanted. But the piece would involve pre-recorded material of some kind. Beyond that, we were let loose to do what we wanted, so obviously Michael, David and Julia did one each, I did one, Nick Zammuto–you know the names. It turned out it to be exactly what we hoped for in the sense that nobody really had to say “okay, you write a fast one and you write a slow one–You write a happy one, you write a sad one”, because a project like this–Music For Airports was a similar thing with just the 4 of us–Michael, David, Julia and myself. These projects become a Rorschach test for composers. If you know these composers’ music, you could listen to this program with your eyes closed, and you know who did each piece. You know Julia’s piece sounds like Julia, my piece sounds like me, Ty Braxton‘s piece sounds like him. So you get this great variety/slide show of a certain area of music today, but it’s held together because everybody’s responding to something that they’ve found. That’s the project. Fom the players’ point of view, it’s been really interesting to fit this jigsaw puzzle together. We have these 9 pieces, and we have to put them together to make them into a complete picture, and we’re not even sure what that picture is.
CM: Is there going to eventually be a recording of Field Recordings?
EZ: I would assume so. It’s ready now, we did it up here in Cambridge, and we did it at the Barbican a couple of weeks ago, and it’s ripened, and it’s ready for New York. We like to have things really be inside of us before we record them.
CM: At the same concert, you’re performing with Gamelan Galak Tika as well?
EZ: Yes, we’re doing my piece Tire Fire, which we just performed up here [in Cambridge] last night, so it’s on my mind. It’s a very important piece for me personally, but it’s also become something woven into the history of Bang On a Can. It’s been performed at two marathons, including the first Tully Marathon in ’95, so we felt like it would be a good thing to present for the anniversary at Lincoln Center. And for me personally it’s an important piece, because in terms of my work with Gamelan and bringing it together–before it I had led something of a double life, musically, for a long time. When I was studying gamelan in the ’80′s, I was spending a lot of time going over to Bali, studying there, and working with my gamelan on the West Coast, Sekar Jaya. And then Bang On a Can was starting, and I was trying to make my way in the compositional scene, and I didn’t really bring them all together until around 1990, when I started composing for gamelan. But even then, I wasn’t really sure how to do it, or what it would mean. And then with this piece, this was the piece where I figured a lot of things out, and felt like I was bringing all of what I knew about all music. I wasn’t leaving anything at the door anymore–I wasn’t softening what I knew about gamelan in order to make it work for guitars, and I wasn’t softening the way I felt my own music should go to make it work with the gamelan. It has a certain place for me personally. I’ve got to say, and I hope this doesn’t sound egotistical, it’s a pretty kickass piece! [both laugh]
CM: There you go!
EZ: I love Galak Tika, not just because I started it, but for the reason I started it. My motivation was incredibly simple. I moved to the East Coast, and then I kept going back to the West Coast doing projects with Sekar Jaya, and at a certain point I thought “My life would be so much better if I had a gamelan in it. I need to have a gamelan in my life, and if I need to have gamelan in my life, I am willing to bet that there are other people that need to have a gamelan in their lives.” And that was it–I just wanted to create the exact type of musical situation that I myself would want, in the hopes that other people would want that musical situation too. And what it’s turned into is this great meeting ground for musicians that want to do weird cool things! The Gamelan is great! It’s amazing for me as a composer. When I compose for them, I have a 25-person group who will rehearse endlessly to do this music. There’s nobody saying “Okay, well, can we do this in 2 rehearsals?” or “When is the concert?”, I mean, 25 people that will do whatever it takes to play this music.
And this is true for everybody in the group. If you’re in the group, you get that same privilege, and so we’ve generated tons of really interesting new work, by Dewa Alit, and by Christine Southworth, and by people that aren’t necessarily as well known as those guys. Just last night, we premiered a new piece by a member named Andrew Alden, who’s a student at Berklee, and who basically just showed up one day and just started coming to rehearsals for a while, joined the group, and one day he just said “Hey, is it okay if I write something?”, made this really interesting weird piece for gamelan, laptop, guitars and EWI–this makes me very happy. When we do Tire Fire, I just look around and I see two-dozen people engaged in this very singular music, and it’s a nice feeling to feel like you’ve created this kind of environment.
CM: It’s always great to see the group because of the ethnic maroon-colored costume the musicians wear–You were wearing this the first time I saw you at the BOAC marathon 2 years ago.
EZ: We have some surprises for people for this one, but I’m not going to say anything more about that.
CM: I was at the merch table at the marathon for 2010 and 2011, and just to be at the marathon itself is really exciting, and it’s great to see all of these different people enjoying the music, and some of these people aren’t so sure about it, and they ask us questions, even though we can do very little about it one way or another, but we do have the CDs on the table, and people want to be able to buy the music of the composers too–It’s quite a treat!
EZ: It’s always been that way, and that’s kind of indicative the way that Bang On a Can has evolved, and the way that new music has evolved. The whole scheme of the marathon concert is that some of it’s going to be familiar, some of it’s going to be unfamiliar, some of it’s going to blow you away, some of it’s going to completely baffle or offend you, but that’s all good!
CM: It’s polarizing!
EZ: Well, yeah, but at the same time, there’s nothing to fear. So you hear a piece you don’t like. That’s okay, because someone else likes it, or you hear a piece that you don’t expect to like, and then you do. It’s all about the encounter, and it’s all about opening up, or maybe you hear something you don’t like, and then 2 years later you think about it and then go “Actually, if I hear that now, I might feel differently”.
CM: Yeah! Exactly! Exactly, and people want to come back to it, because that’s happened to me.
EZ: The other side of it is that when the marathon started–Everybody’s thinking about it now because it’s been 25 years, but if you go over to Exit Art, which is where the very first marathon was, it was not a large room. The early marathons–One of them was at The Kitchen. What does The Kitchen seat? The Kitchen seats a few hundred people, if that!
Still, it felt incredibly important, even with a small crowd, and to those of us who were there that were part of it, it was. It was often quite literally life-changing because you heard something–I can think almost from every year, of hearing something that just completely blew me away. I remember hearing Mieczyslaw Litwinski at one of the first marathons, and he just completely blew my mind. But it was kind of a insider’s club. You went because you knew something about new music, or were interested in it.
Moving the marathon to Tully, we were severely criticized for that because it felt like we were abandoning our base, and we were, but it wasn’t because we wanted to lose our base, it’s because we wanted to open it up to other people. Same as when we moved it to BAM, and then the big shift over to the World Financial Center, where it just became more “We want to put this in front of the public, and we want to open it up to not just interesting things in a self-defined new music community, but also to a larger music scene in New York, and the country”. Which means–obviously it’s great to have so many people there, but it’s not really about the quantity per se, it’s about being not just willing to put it in front of a larger public, but feeling that that’s a necessary and desirable thing, that you want the music to be in the public conversation. And this is the big shift. This was not what Schoenberg wanted when he started the Society for Private Musical Performances, and this is not what Babbitt wanted when he said “Who cares if you listen?”. This is the exact opposite of that attitude of “This is elite music for an elite audience and we don’t care what people think”. This is more “We want to be part of the public dialogue. We want to say what we have to say in the public space”. Does that change things to a certain extent? Yes, there are certain things you can’t do at the WFC, not because you’re not willing to put them on there, but because certain things work better in a very small hall and certain things don’t.
CM: So when was your arrangement of Nirvana’s “Lithium” performed?
EZ: I did it very early, I think we used it as an encore for the first performance up at Walter Reade in the early 90s–after that it became our standard encore for several years. Then we put it aside, and only revived it for a program John [Schaefer] did at Merkin a few years back, something about classical musicians playing rock tunes, and we did a bunch of stuff including that. But otherwise we haven’t done it in a long time – haven’t yet done it with the new members, for example. As I say, I did it when the All-Stars moved to Lincoln Center, which was like 1993–At that time it felt like a statement, but now everybody does stuff like that, so it’s not really a big deal.
CM: The thing is, I listen to new music, and it sounds, at least to my ears, still very radical to hear classical-trained concert musicians suddenly turn around and play rock songs. I watched TwoSense playing a song by Cream a few months ago…
EZ: Right, Martin Bresnick’s arrangement!
CM: And that was really, really good! There was nothing pretentious about that whatsoever. I would have assumed that that could have been an original piece if I hadn’t heard the Cream version.
EZ: Yeah, I think it should be normal, and in the history of music, I think it’s generally been normal! [laughs] I think there was this very small window where I was studying and starting out, where these boundaries were considered so sacrosanct, but if you take the bigger picture, it doesn’t matter where you look, it’s everywhere. Bartok’s Romanian Dances, or Mozart quoting popular tunes, or Machaut writing a mass. It all comes down to the same thing. Everybody has their ears open, unless they’re told to close them.
CM: Yeah, and for them that was popular music, but in our mind, or at least in my mind, folk music of that time along with classical music of that time just seems like it could have come from the same people anyway, whereas now, somebody does an arrangement of a song by Nirvana, you would never guess that that happens.
EZ: Yeah, that’s the irony of it is that in the end, we all are of our time, and we all end up either being remembered or being forgotten more or less due to that. “This is just an example of the kind of thing people were doing then.” And you could be talking about Boulez and The Beatles – just two examples of things that were happened to be happening in the 1960s.
Brian Eno: Music For Airports (excerpt; w/the All-Stars; performed live at Dusseldorf Airport–part of the Alstadherbst Festival, 9/18/11)