Evan Ziporyn introduces a new composition for the Arden
By ADAM TANOUS
Express Arts Editor
The Arden Trio has long been a favorite
among residents of the Wood River Valley. On Wednesday, Jan. 10., the Trio
will return to the Sun Valley Center for the Arts for a week-long
This time around they will introduce a new
composition by Evan Ziporyn entitled, Typical Music. Ziporyn will
be present for both the Wednesday performance and a second performance at
the Boiler Room in Sun Valley on Sunday, Jan. 14. Both concerts will begin
at 7 p.m. and are free to the public.
Ziporyn is an expert in Balinese gamelan.
He also creates compositions that incorporate both gamelan and Western
instruments. Ziporyn was educated at Yale University and the University of
California at Berkeley, and is currently a professor of music at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He recently discussed with me his
compositions and music, in general, via e-mail.
IME: I doubt
many people know what Balinese gamelan music is. Could you explain it?
Also, what about it has intrigued you over the years?
The word itself means "hammering"—it refers to the tuned
percussion orchestras that are found throughout Java and Bali, and which
are the mainstay of musical culture there. The ensembles vary in numerous
ways, but they all consist of vibraphone-like instruments, tuned gongs,
and drums. The music is completely unlike our own: different scales,
different rhythms, different ways of putting the music together. In Bali,
gamelan is used for every type of social occasion, secular and sacred, and
is very much part of village life.
My own interest in the music initially came
from its sounds and its explosive, syncopated rhythms, which also inspired
Britten, Cage, and Steve Reich, as well as rock musicians such as Peter
Gabriel and Paul Simon. As I got to know the music, I became very
interested in its organization, both musically and socially. The rhythms
are interlocking, the music is transmitted by ear, and as a result, it
requires a cohesion and togetherness that is very inspiring—something
I've tried to emulate in my own music.
Different cultures seem to generate different musical sounds. What factors
do you think determine the sounds that emerge from a given culture?
Ziporyn: I think
the sound itself is a historical accident—materials that are available,
innovative individuals that happen to be born in the right place at the
right time. There's also no question that all cultures borrow from one
another, so proximity is also a factor. Bali's music stems from the same
root that produced most southeast Asian music, but because Bali was
isolated for many hundreds of years, it took its own unique direction. I
think what shaped it was the communality of Balinese life on the one hand,
combined with their own version of Hindu cosmology, which is rooted in
life cycles. To me, that's what the music is—a series of intricate
cycles performed communally.
your experience with the bass clarinet relate at all to gamelan? If so,
My whole quest as a musician is to try to put things together, make the
various strands of my musical life relate to and inform one another. Being
aware of music from other cultures makes me much more aware of the
possibilities and choices - the sense that things don't have to be the way
you're taught. So I keep my ears open. I've
also always been interested in what happens when you take a melody from
one tradition and put it somewhere else—so my bass clarinet playing
includes transcriptions not just from Bali but from Georgia, Japan, and
East Africa. This in turns makes me figure out new ways to do things: new
tunings, new fingerings, etc. Finally, as a performer working in the
Western tradition, I try to bring the lessons I've learned from Balinese
music—ways of working together—to the table, even when I'm performing
with Chamber Music at Lincoln Center.
IME: How do
you go about creating a composition? My only real experience with creating
has been in creative writing. Often that process begins with an image in
one's mind or a phrase uttered by a character. The story spirals out from
there. Is there an analogous situation in composing music?
Ziporyn: I can
explain the craft but the inspiration itself is a bit of a mystery to me.
I think there is an analogy in that I do start with some kind of image,
but it's not necessarily a very concrete one—it often has to do with
visualizing the players playing, thinking about what kind of energy I
think would work for them. Music to me primarily is about flow, and I
always want my compositions to feel fresh and spontaneous, dream-like.
Often I tape long improvisations on the piano or clarinet, then listen to
them and search for the good parts—after which comes a long process of
piecing it all together, trying to figure out what the essence of the
music is and how to make it apparent to someone other than me...
there ideas at the core of music? Or is a composition pure sound and
beauty of music is that it allows you to express ideas and emotions that
can't be expressed in words. So I concentrate on the sounds and let the
ideas speak for themselves. I do want my music to move people, but my goal
is not to dictate to them—I want the music to stimulate feelings and
thoughts in such a way that the listener can do what they like with them.
IME: I assume
the title of the composition is ironic. Care to expound on it?
thinking about the history of the piano trio, I noticed that most
composers tended to write "absolute music" for the ensemble—even
very programmatic composers like Schumann and Ravel—when it came time to
write a Piano Trio, they'd just call it "Piano Trio" and leave
it at that. I wanted to continue this tradition but in my
own way, to put all the pieces of my own personal tradition together into
one cohesive piece. Meanwhile, I had recently attended a performance of
Burmese music and dance—during which the hostess very earnestly
apologized for the one number that had no dancer and no singer, saying
simply, 'it's just a piece of typical music.'