MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences soundings
Fall 2003 [ Previous issues ]
Music and Theater Arts head Evan Ziporyn finds that working with MIT students adds freshness and excitement to his work as a performer and composer. 'When you're dealing with 19-year-olds, they're always excited about music. They're discovering it for the first time.  I'm constantly rediscovering the thing I'm teaching through what the students are getting from it.'

Composer, clarinetist and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music Evan Ziporyn contributes to a broad variety of musical forms. His compositions, performed by the Kronos Quartet, master pipa virtuoso Wu Man, pianist Sarah Cahill and others, are featured on many recordings, including Shadow Bang (2003) and this is not a clarinet (2001). Since taking his Fulbright Fellowship in Indonesia in 1987, he has been involved with Balinese gamelan (Asian percussion orchestral music); in 1993 he founded Gamelan Galak Tika at MIT. He has collaborated as a composer and soloist with Bang On A Can since 1987 and as a performer with Paul Simon and Steve Reich, among others. He arrived at MIT as assistant professor in 1990 and became head of the Music & Theater Arts Section earlier this year. He has taught also at University of California, Berkeley (1988–1990) and the Yale School of Music (1997–99). In this conversation with soundings contributing editor Orna Feldman, he discusses his musical proclivities.

Your music covers a lot of bases: classical, hard rock, alternative, ensemble. Do you have a philosophy that embraces this diversity?

When I was a teenager, I discovered weird music, like The Rite of Spring, Bartok's string quartets, John Coltrane, Charles Ives. This was the music that really got to me. When I decided to be a composer, I wasn't really thinking about what kind of music it should be. But when I went to conservatory to officially become a composer, I was immediately told I had to divest myself of the things I found interesting, that I should only listen to mainstream, post-World War II, academic concert music. And I got very unhappy. It took me a long time to climb out of that completely. Finally I just broke down the boundaries in my mind, and as soon as I did that, my music became a lot freer and more my own.

What does that breaking down of categories consist of?

Western music is a dominant culture music and it swallows things up. Liszt can write a Hungarian fantasy and Beethoven can use instruments that at that time were considered Turkish military instruments (like cymbals), but it always gets subsumed into an understood aesthetic. Before I made a breakthrough in my personal language, I would use elements from different types of music, but they'd always have quotation marks around them. Eventually I decided to take the quotation marks off. For example, if things were going to have a groove, they should have a really good groove, and not just a classically acceptable groove.

What does it mean to put quotation marks in the music?

If you compare, say, Scheherazade to actual Middle Eastern music, there's no question which is which. But in my new record, Shadow Bang, I have a Balinese singer singing in Balinese scales, along with Western instruments. It's not prioritizing one over the other. It's letting the musical elements be what they are and finding a way for them to blend into something altogether new. In another of my CDs, American Works for Balinese Gamelan Orchestra, the Balinese instruments are not tuned like Western instruments; together they play very strange chords. I'm not doing that to make a statement to Westerners about their chords, or to make a statement to the Balinese about their chords. I'm just trying to create a new sonic language that can be heard one way by Western audiences and another by Balinese audiences.

"Art is a medium between yourself and the world, and finding a way to make sense of that world means bringing it out in a way the world can hear it."

Art is a medium between yourself and the world, and finding a way to make sense of that world means bringing it out in a way the world can hear it.

Your music is played at Carnegie Hall, at airports, at Balinese temples. How would you characterize your audience?

What I'm trying to do with the gamelan here and with Bang on a Can in New York is recapture the type of people who go to see alternative, "arty" movies or occasionally think about visual art. Contemporary music used to be something the intelligentsia thought about. The Rite of Spring caused a riot—people actually cared enough! Then jazz and pop music became the meaningful music to most people. Even with my students who are classical musicians, the music that's meaningful to them is Radiohead. I have no problem with that. But it's clear the concert music scene is no longer the repository of large cultural meaning in the way rock is.

What's your take on that?

It's inevitable, but at the same time, music is my calling, and I feel it's a loss for people and the culture not to look to larger musical forms for the really meaningful moments in life. There's something about large musical statements—the spurring of the imagination and the concentration it takes to delve into a larger piece of music: that's what I'm trying to recapture. People I would consider to be like-minded, except they aren't musicians, had given up on serious music. It was academic, viscerally unsatisfying, used atonal chords and didn't have a beat. It didn't speak in anything approaching the vernacular musical language. It's like the connection between conversation and Jane Austen, as opposed to conversation and James Joyce. You can think Finnegan's Wake is a great book, but you don't read it. What I'm saying has something to do with a closer connection to the materials of the everyday, the rhythms of the street, the sounds of popular music, melodies you hear. When any art form becomes too removed from people's normal experience, it doesn't speak to them anymore.

Do you care if you have a large or small audience?

No, because it's so clear to me that nothing I'm doing is going to be a big commercial success. On the other hand, I want to be respectful of who the music is actually intended for, that I speak to them. When I started going to Europe to do concerts in my late 20s and early 30s, I'd go to a place like Holland, which subsidizes its artists extremely well. What struck me is that composers and musicians there really didn't have to think about whether anybody got the music or liked it. And it actually did change the music they wrote, but in a way I couldn't relate to. I felt there was something really important about having to think about your audience. Art is a medium between yourself and the world, and finding a way to make sense of that world means bringing it out in a way the world can hear it.

That relates to the gamelan and Indonesian segment of your life. What made you do your Fulbright in Bali?

It's one of these strange turns life takes. I happened to hear this particular music at a particular time and it really got to me. It happened to come at a time when I was looking for a lot of things and it ful.lled them. On a musical level, it's unique and extraordinary music, very rhythmic and groovy, but very complex. But when I heard it, at 19 or 20, I was close to despair about the new music in this country. It seemed awful. Composers were desperately trying to get performers to play their music, performers didn't want to play the music because they didn't like it; they wanted to play Brahms. And the audience was pissed off to have to be there. And then I got into Balinese music. It's a village music, embedded in the culture. It's really intricate but you don't have to even read music to play it. You're making music that literally entwines you with other people, through the nature of the rhythms or the nature of the learning process. It seemed too good to be true.

Let's segue to MIT. What attracts you to teaching?

When you become adept at your profession, you lose a little of the excitement you felt about it before. But when you're dealing with 19-year-olds, they're always excited about music. They're discovering it for the first time. I'm constantly rediscovering the thing I'm teaching through what the students are getting from it.

How do you think music should be taught?

I'm now mainly teaching non-Western music, gamelan and Indonesian music, and computer music. I like courses where the students do things. In the Indonesian music course, they do ethnomusicology, but mainly it's about learning music, playing it, and composing it. Even if it's a traditional theory class, they're writing pieces in the style and learning the style from the inside. That's how I teach every one of my classes, because music is a practice, not a theoretical thing. Even as a listener, it's a practice. You know, the most common thing non-musicians say to a musician is, "I don't really know anything about music, but. . . ." The goal is to get rid of the first clause, to get people to feel like they're entitled to their reactions to music. And that comes from a combination of heart and mind, using whatever knowledge of a genre you might have, to listen both openly and deeply. Wherever you're coming from, you can listen to anything, anywhere, any time, and find something of value in it.

Is it hard for you as a musician to be in the highly analytical environment of MIT?

Ironically, it makes it easier, because I can't compete with the MIT mind. People here are incredibly brilliant. I think of myself as reasonably smart and reasonably analytical, but I can't hold a candle to them. So I don't have to try. The computer music class, for example: It would be ridiculous for me to try to teach these students something about computers. What I can teach them is how to use a computer to be musically creative. In a way, it actually helps me get to the essence of things. And I hope that approach is a healthy counterbalance for them: somebody doing heavy engineering or computer processing needs fewer rules and prescriptions, and to rely more on different ways of thinking. At the same time, because they have this incredible energy and drive, they really want to understand things. So once they decide, "Oh, this can't be understood, but I really want to get the way in which it can't be understood"—they get into things really deeply.



Message from Dean Khoury


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A new sonic language

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