Composer / Clarinetist  Evan  Ziporyn

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Hailing from Chicago, clarinetist Evan Ziporyn makes music at the crossroads between genres and cultures, east and west. He studied at Eastman, Yale & UC Berkeley with Joseph Schwantner, Martin Bresnick, & Gerard Grisey. He first traveled to Bali in 1981, studying with Madé Lebah, Colin McPhee's 1930s musical informant. He returned on a Fulbright in 1987.  Evan recorded the definitive version of Steve Reich's multi-clarinet NY Counterpoint in 1996, sharing in that ensemble's Grammy in 1998. Evan is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music at MIT. He also serves as Head of Music and Theater Arts, and was appointed Inaugural Director of MIT's new Center for Art Science and Technology.

==  From the Silk Road website  

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Evan Ziporyn (December 14, 1959 -  ), Head of Music and Theater Arts, is a composer/clarinetist who has forged an international reputation through his genre-defying, cross-cultural works and performances.  At MIT he is Inaugural Director of the Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST), founder and Artistic Director of Gamelan Galak Tika, and curator of the MIT Sounding performance series.

His music has been commissioned and performed by Yo-yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider, Maya Beiser, Roomful of Teeth, Bang on a Can, Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, the American Composers Orchestra, Sentieri Selvaggi, the American Repertory Theater, Steven Schick, So Percussion, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Sarah Cahill, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  They have been presented at international venues including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, London’s Barbican Center, the Holland Festival, the Singapore Festival, the Sydney Olympics, and the Bali International Arts Festival.  His opera A House in Bali (directed by MIT colleague Jay Scheib) was featured at BAM Next Wave in 2010; that same fall his works were featured at a Carnegie Hall Zankel Making Music composer’s portrait concert.  

Ziporyn tours and records regularly as a soloist and as a member of Eviyan (with Iva Bittova and Gyan Riley).  From 1992-2012 he was a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-stars (Musical America’s 2005 Ensemble of the Air), finishing his tenure with the group with an appearance on an episode of PBS’ Arthur.  His long-time work with the Steve Reich Ensemble led to sharing a 1999 Grammy for Best Chamber Performance for their recording of Music for 18 Musicians.  He is also the featured multi-tracked soloist on Reich’s Nonesuch recording of New York Counterpoint.  Other awards include a 2012 Massachusetts Arts Council Fellowship, the 2007 USArtists Walker Award and the 2004 American Academy of Arts and Letters Goddard Lieberson Fellowship.  

His puppet opera Shadow Bang, a collaboration with master Balinese dalang Wayan Wija, was premiered at MassMOCA, and was the centerpiece of the 2006 Amsterdam GrachtenFest.  Recordings of his works have been released on Sony Classical, Cantaloupe Music, New Albion, New World Records, Koch, Innova, Victo, Animal Music,  and CRI. He has collaborated with some of the world’s most creative and vital living musicians, including Brian Eno, Paul Simon, Ornette Coleman, Thurston Moore, Meredith Monk, Bryce Dessner, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Louis Andriessen, Shara Worden, Sandeep Das, Kelley Deal, Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Wu Man, Matthew Shipp, Wayan Wija, Kyaw Kyaw Naing, and Ethel.

Recent projects include In My Mind & In My Car (w/Christine Southworth), an hour-length work for bass clarinet and electronics, which he has performed at festivals in the US, Canada, Belgium, Poland, and Indonesia; compositions and arrangements for Ken Burns’ upcoming Vietnam documentary, arrangements for Silkroad Ensemble’s most recent CD, Sing Me Home.  Recently he released a new Eviyan CD, as well as CDs of collaborations with DuoJalal, Czech composer Beata Hlavenkova, and Polish jazz masters Waclaw Zimpel and Hubert Zempel.  Additionally, his performance with the MIT Wind Ensemble of Don Byron’s Clarinet Concerto, commissioned by MIT, and released on Sunnyside Records, received a 5-star Downbeat review. 

==  From the MIT website  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


It is often interesting (and usually enlightening) to see the early ideas and development of artists we know from later achievements.  Some fizzle out, while a few continue to grow and make significant careers.  One such solid composer/performer is Evan Ziporyn.

Today, a leading figure of the new-music scene, his music took root early, and headed upward in a steady trajectory.  Now, in the year 2020, this page looks back more than thirty years to those beginnings.  At this moment he is just past sixty, so the first of my two interviews with him leaps over half his life.  The second conversation, also on this webpage, took place five years later.

We met initially in mid-August of 1989, and since his birthday was four months away, I was able to present a program on WNIB with some of his music and portions of this interview . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re about to turn thirty.  Have you accomplished what you wanted to accomplish, or are you now where you want to be in your career?

Evan Ziporyn:   It’s important for me, and for any composer of my age, to not think too much about other composers, and what they’ve done at our age, specifically
Schubert and Mozart, for examplebut just consider what I have done up till of now as a beginning of things to come.  I’m pleased with most of the music I’ve written, at least in the past seven or eight years, and some of it I can consider a completion of ideas, and paths I’ve been following.  Other things are what I consider as laying groundwork for things yet to come.

BD:   You mentioned Schubert and Mozart.  Do you feel that you are part of a lineage of composers?

Ziporyn:   Personally, the tradition I feel closest to is a Twentieth century tradition that’s been building out of the West Coast for the past forty or fifty years.  This has to do with composers like John Cage, or Lou Harrison, who looked at Asia and the rest of the world for inspiration.  In various ways, they tried to write music that combined their own kind of Western tradition with music they heard coming out of Japan, or Indonesia, and in particular, India.

ziporyn BD:   Have you made a specific study of Indonesian music?

Ziporyn:   Yes, I’ve been actively involved with Balinese music in particular for the past ten years, and at the moment I’m very active in a Balinese gamelan that works out of San Francisco called Gamelan Sekar Jaya.  [Sekar Jaya has been called
the finest Balinese gamelan ensemble outside of Indonesia by Indonesia’s Tempo Magazine.]

BD:   What is it about Balinese music that just grabbed you?

Ziporyn:   The rhythm, which is its most viscerally exciting element.  I still remember the first record I heard of Balinese music, and just being astounded by the quick rhythm that changes in a way that seemed to happen so precisely.  The precision I can understand, but it was a type of language both familiar and very strange, and exhilarating to me.

BD:   Did it exhilarate your Eastern outlook, or did it exhilarate your Western consciousness?

Ziporyn:   At first it was impossible to look at it except as a Western composer.  For example, if I heard a great piece of gamelan music, and wondered if it had been written by a Western composer, I would think of it as the greatest masterpiece I had ever heard.  Then to think that there are hundreds and hundreds of these pieces, as I began to study it and look at it more carefully, it began to take on a quality of its own.  I began to understand the language it was speaking, and its own rhetoric, and the aesthetics that it embodies.

BD:   Is it requisite that people who listen to a piece of music understand it more deeply than just the audio wash that comes over them?

Ziporyn:   I wouldn’t think so.  It’s certainly different.  Speaking from my own personal experience, it’s a very different thing.  The type of understanding that you bring to a piece that you know nothing about its form or its intellectual background, still can be enjoyable or meaningful... and I say this having spent a lot of time listening to music that I really know nothing about, and music from cultures that I haven’t studied.  You bring your own set of understanding, your own values of the music, and understand it through that grid.  As you get to know a particular tradition, or a particular composer, you begin to understand their point of view, and your way of looking at that music changes considerably.

BD:   Does all of this that you’re learning about these other kinds of music, filter into your own compositional style?

Ziporyn:   Sometimes explicitly, and sometimes I just have a mind-set.  The piece I’ve working on now is my first attempt to explicitly try to make a mediation point between Balinese music and my own.  It’s a piece that I’m writing for a Toronto chamber group called Sound Pressure.  What I’m trying to attempt is a musical translation, where I take a piece of Balinese music that I know very well, which is the Pemungkah of the Gendér Wayang.  What that means is the Overture to the Shadow Play, which is a very long and very beautiful piece, played by four Gendérs, which are sort of ten-stringed xylophones, which play this contrapuntal music.  The music is sort of two-part inventions played by four instruments, and what I’m trying to do is rewrite that piece for Western instruments, but not in the sense of setting the melodies, or setting the rhythms, but taking how that piece works for me, what it’s structure is as I understand it, and translating that into terms that I hope Western listeners can understand in a similar way.

BD:   So, it’s not a transcription but a free adaptation?

Ziporyn:   Yes.

BD:   Is it working the way you expected?

Ziporyn:   I’m happy with it.  The proof is always in the pudding, and it should be performed next May.  So, I’ll find out then during the rehearsal process.  It took me a long time to gather the courage to write this piece, and to actually embrace that music, rather than just thinking of it as something I studied, and that if it came in through the back door into my own music, that was okay.  But to actually say what this music means to me, and how do I hear this music, and how would I say the same thing, has been very exciting, and a different way of composing than my usual procedure, which is more of an internal excavation.

BD:   Is this really a new departure for you, or is it just an experiment on the side, and you’ll come back to your own style?

Ziporyn:   It has to be considered a new departure.  I’m just setting the first quarter of this piece right now for this group, and it’s going to be a twenty-minute piece.  So, by the time I’ve finished with the whole cycle, it’s going to be probably an hour and a half’s worth of music.  It will take me a couple of years to get it done, so that’s more than a side road.  I hope so!  I’ve just been finding it so interesting to do, much more than I thought it would be.  It’s taken on a life of its own, because at certain points you come up against problems, such as reconciling the idea that it is your piece.  In the end, even though in my mind it’s a way of paying homage, or paying my debt to Balinese music, I still have to make it actually work.  To try to reconcile transitions that might work in a Balinese context won’t work in my context, or for my purposes, and I need to figure out what to do about that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’ve been looking at a piece that you’ve got going into the future.  Let’s talk about a few things that have already been accomplished.  You’ve had several pieces written and performed.  Have you basically been pleased with how they sound, and have they sounded the way you thought they would?

ziporyn Ziporyn:   Those are two separate questions.  With a couple of notable exceptions, by the time a piece gets around to a performance, I’m usually very happy about it.  But that’s because I insist a lot on often reworking things during rehearsals when they don’t come out as I expected them to, for various foreseen or unforeseen reasons.  These can range from expediency, to having performers who can accomplish the technical demands.

BD:   Do you demand too much of the performers?

Ziporyn:   Sometimes I demand things that aren’t too much on a virtuosic level, but may be a certain type of extended technique that might be a lot to ask for.  One thing I’ve found that may be a bit unusual, is that some of the music that I write now has rhythms are very ‘motorific’.  Sometimes a musician who can play extremely difficult types of rhythms
having to do with subdivisions that you might find in post-serial-type piecescan facilitate those perfectly, but has a lot of trouble with music that just requires keeping a groove or a steady beat, say a 12/8 groove that maybe derived from African music.  Or vice-versathat being able to do one doesn’t mean you can necessarily do the other.  This is something I say not only from seeing my own pieces go through rehearsals, but also from studying Ghanaian music, and watching very good musicians have trouble doing very simple drum patters that any six-year-old in a Ghanaian village could do.

BD:   It’s just what they’re brought up to?

Ziporyn:   Right, right.

BD:   Should we try to change the way youngsters
or oldsters(!) — in this country are brought up to music?

Ziporyn:   There’s so many ways people are brought up to music that I hate to make a blanket statement.  But a lot more emphasis on complex rhythmic training would be well rewarded.

BD:   For the performer, obviously, but also for the listener?

Ziporyn:   Oh, sure.  To a certain extent, this is happening because of the infusion of World Music into our music diet these days.  People are used to a lot more things.  But there’s a whole level of understanding that can come through rhythm that is taking hold in our society.  Think of Indian musicians being able to play subdivisions of 21/2, or things that just seem completely impossible to us, which are commonplace in that music.

BD:   They just rattle them off.

Ziporyn:   Yes.  You really feel it’s a lost art, but it’s just a part of our music that we haven’t developed yet.

BD:   On the other hand, there are things in Western music that the practiced musician can do that the Indian musician would look at in a bewildered way.

Ziporyn:   Right, like harmony, for example.  [Laughs]  It would be nice if eventually we could strive for a time where musicians could do more things.  It wouldn’t be a matter of choosing to develop one or the other.

BD:   Every musician should do everything???

Ziporyn:   Not everything, as in the sense of there being a lot of traditions, but it would be nice if people could be open to all sorts of different things, and not necessarily expect music to go one particular way, or to fulfill one particular emotional or intellectual need.  It would be nice if music could express whole worlds of feeling and ideas.

BD:   The big philosophical question, then.  What do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

Ziporyn:   Hmmmm...  That’s a big question.  This is a little bit of a complicated answer, but I’ll try to tell you what I really think.  The beauty of music is that it can express.  In general, we’re used to expressing how we think and how we feel through words, and there are a lot of things that we think about, and that we do, and that we feel, that don’t have anything to do with words.  They have to do with abstract emotions that you can’t put your finger on, and music approaches those parts of our experience.  The function of music
whether it’s particular use be a concert hall, or a radio, or a trance-dance in a village, or really anythingis a way for us to express those parts of our personalities, and those parts of our lives that we can’t express through words.

BD:   Do you feel you’re helping to push all of this forward with your music?

Ziporyn:   I hope so.  Just trying to put out my view of things maybe will resonate with somebody else.  It’s very gratifying when somebody really is moved by your music, or says that it really speaks to them and they really understand it.  Hopefully, that can help them to develop their thinking about things they might otherwise not think about.  That, to me, is much more important than having somebody say that something is really beautiful.  I’d much rather have somebody just say they really understand where I was coming from, that somehow I’d spoken to them.

BD:   Do you want them to understand where it’s coming from, or where it is heading?

ziporyn Ziporyn:   [Laughs]  If they know where it’s heading, I wish they’d tell me!  [Much laughter]  Then we could get there sooner!

BD:   This kind of composition is not going to bring you a lot of income at the moment.  Are you doing something else to provide bread and butter?

Ziporyn:   At the moment I’m teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.

BD:   Teaching what?

Ziporyn:   I’m teaching harmony there, part time.  I also have private students.

BD:   In composition?

Ziporyn:   Yes.

BD:   Is compositional really something that can be taught?

Ziporyn:   On two levels I think that it can.  On the first level, there’s craft, and that really can be taught.  This is both the craft of putting down what you hear, and being able to translate sounds that you hear in your head to the paper.  Another part of the craft is figuring out what to do with those things once you have them on the paper, which in a sense, is a class in imagination.  There are both traditional and non-traditional ways of doing that.  You can look at older pieces and see how this composer developed his ideas.  He took an idea and he did this with it.  You can look at Beethoven, or Stravinsky, or Schoenberg, and there’s the level of orchestration and notation.

BD:   You say to look at Beethoven, or Stravinsky, or Schoenberg, rather than looking Balinese music, or Sitar music?

Ziporyn:   I make my students listen to all the things you mentioned, and responses range from quizzical looks to great interest.  If somebody brings me a piece that reminds me of some kind of music that I’m aware of from another part of the world, I want them to hear it.  I want them to think about how, say, a Pygmy chorus treats polyphony, as well as how Bach does, and see what they make of it.  You never know where a young composer is going to draw inspiration.  One of my students this summer studied Messiaen, and Stravinsky
s Symphony of Winds, and Pygmy music.  It ended up that the most radical idea he got from the whole summer was listening to the development of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.  This was not in terms of any of the things you might study in a harmony class, but just in terms of texture, and how things change over time, regardless of harmony or melody.  So, you never know...

BD:   Are you pleased with where these students are going?

Ziporyn:   Sometimes.

BD:   Do you learn as much from the students as they learn from you?

Ziporyn:   I learn a lot from the students, yes, but it depends on the students.  I learn mostly about the student
how the student thinks, and what the student’s going for.  How people learn is the most interesting thingwhat it takes for something to sink in, or how things sink in, or what things sink in.  In this case, I definitely learned something about the Beethoven Sixth Symphony that I hadn’t thought of before.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re trying to make it in the world as a composer, and you must be aware that there are so many, many others who are also trying to make it.  Do you have any real feeling that your music is either different, or more important, or more significant than others... or is that too early to really tell that?

Ziporyn:   That’s the question one has to ask oneself all the time, justifying doing it.  I always had an internal sense that it was something I had to do as soon as I started doing it.  The struggle was to find the justification for that, to find what it was that I did best to play to my strong suit, to realize the things which were different about what I did, and to try to bring those out
not just to be different, but on the assumption that if there was a reason to be a composer, it would be to bring out those idiosyncrasies of my own musical thought, and try to express them as clearly as I could.  As you start getting pieces performed, and as people start asking you for pieces, you get reactions that can come from the outside world, and that helps a lot.  When you get positive response, that’s really important.

BD:   Do you then tailor any pieces towards getting positive response, or do you still write what you have to write?

Ziporyn:   That’s a deep question, because you can never really know what’s going on way deep down inside of you, but sometimes it’s important to actually go for the opposite.  If you’re finding that your pieces are too likable, or that certain people, certain types of musicians like your pieces too much, sometimes it’s important to figure out what those elements are, and maybe try to do without them for a little bit.  One of the nicest surprises that I found happening over the past five years or so, is finding a community of kindred spirits
other young composers in particular whose music I wasn’t aware of, whose music I have discovered through my own, and who have heard my music, and to be able to make connections and learn from them, and have them learn from me, as well.  That’s been one of the nicest things.

ziporyn BD:   Have most of your pieces been played on new-music concerts?

Ziporyn:   Yes.

BD:   Would it be better to put your pieces on a more standard concert?

Ziporyn:   I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way, but in a certain sense the new-music community has a bit of a ghetto mentality to it, and that’s certainly unfortunate.  I used to be a jazz musician, and had the same feeling of it being a very closed circle.  This year, when I had pieces played in New York on the Bang on a Can Festival
all of which were very well attended, and responded toI realized that even with crowds that I considered large for new music, which would be about 500 people, most of them were other composers, or musicians, because that’s their community in New York.  The same concert in San Francisco would have about 100 people, and they would also be mostly composers or specialists one way or another.

BD:   It sounds rather incestuous.

Ziporyn:   Yes, and I don’t really know what to do about that.  Only a few composers working today have managed to break out of that, and still maintain their integrity.  Someone like Steve Reich certainly has.  You can’t accuse Steve Reich of selling out, and yet his pieces get played not just on new-music concerts.  I can gauge this from my students.  There are certain composers that students in my classes already know about, and have reached the popular concerts.

BD:   Recordings have a lot to do with the distribution of music.  You put it on a recording, and it gets worldwide circulation
at least for the few who want to buy the record and explore it.  Is it a good thing to have some of these pieces getting so much recognition?

Ziporyn:   Sure!  It’s better than none of them getting recognition.  In a more perfect world there’d be a better way of doing it, but you can’t force people to listen to things.  You can’t force people to change what they want in their music.  People want music for different things, and it might not necessarily be a sign of a recording society.  It might not be what the composer has in mind at all.

BD:   If someone asked you to write a piece that would be specifically for a record, would it take a different track in your mind?

Ziporyn:   In my case, yes, definitely, because most of my pieces have some kind of theatrical element to them, and that would be a consideration.  Listening to music on a record is very different from hearing it live, regardless of any theatricality, because you’re watching the musician.  Especially with computer music, that’s something that has to be thought about a lot.  Virtuosity for its own sake becomes a very different issue when you know that you can synthesize something using a sequence, or using a computer.  Instruments can do things that would have been impossible even twenty years ago, and somehow it seems like it should be less impressive, but, at the same time, if you actually go and watch a violinist play Paganini Études, it’s still can mind-blowing.  There’s a human element that’s not as important on a recording as it is when you see something live.

BD:   Is that the point
to blow someone’s mind when they go to a concert?

Ziporyn:   [Laughs]  Not the point, but a point.  It could be, yes, sure!  I don’t think that’s an invalid criterion, either, because you’re laying things open.  You’re expressing experiences that might not be there otherwise.

BD:   Are you expressing yourself naked then in front of everyone?

Ziporyn:   That’s the terrifying thing.  I do solo pieces, and when I do a solo clarinet piece, I often feel that way.  It’s a little bit too personal.  It’s really saying things, and sometimes it’s embarrassing to let somebody know how you really feel.  Luckily, people might not necessarily know that’s what they’re hearing, so you can get away with it.

BD:   Even when removed from the performance, when you do a recording so you’re not seen?

Ziporyn:   Yes.  A lot of what I’m talking about, in terms of the live thing, has to do with more mundane issues, such as how clear is the beat when you have a conductor, as opposed to when you don’t.  I’m thinking of a piece by a friend of mine, David Lang, who’s a young New York composer.  He has a piece called Frag which, if you just hear a recording of it, you’d have no idea.  It’s a very abstract and beautiful piece, which takes on a very different meaning when it’s conducted because it’s all notated in a very fast 3/4, which is completely inaudible.  But as you see a conductor conducting this very fast 3/4, you hear the music inside of that meter, but when you hear a tape or record of it, it’s a completely different experience.  It’s a completely different piece.

BD:   As a composer, what do you think?

Ziporyn:   It’s hard to say, because things are mediated so much, that by the time you get around to actually saying what part of you it is, sometimes you don’t really know.  My bass clarinet and marimba piece was written as a showcase for a cellist, and because I saw that somebody else was doing it, I felt free to bring out certain lyrical sides, and certain virtuosic sides that I might have been embarrassed to write had I thought of it as being a showcase for me.  Then, after the piece was completed, I decided I wanted to play it myself on the bass clarinet, and I do feel like it’s a very personal statement.  But at the time that I was writing it, I had removed myself from the process, and was thinking about what ‘she’ would sound good playing.

BD:   Is there a balance between whatever artistic achievement there is in the piece, and an entertainment value for the audience?

Ziporyn:   Entertainment seems to imply some kind of unthoughtful response of just pleasure, which is fine.  It’s important that there can be more to it than that, which is to say that one hopes people are entertained.  But one also hopes that they bring something a little bit more resonant out of the experience than that.  I can be entertained immensely by going to a very popular movie, but the next day it’s completely gone, and I don’t think about it.  All it was, was something very visceral.  I was there, and I enjoyed it, and then it’s over.

BD:   So you want your music to last in the minds of the hearers?

Ziporyn:   Yes.  I want them to think about why it was the way it was, and to consider some possibilities.

BD:   That’s not expecting too much on the part of the hearer?

Ziporyn:   I wouldn’t think so.  Why are they there if not for that?  Nobody’s forcing them to listen to it.

*     *     *     *     *

ziporyn BD:   [Looking over some material destined for use on the radio]  Let’s talk a little bit about the orchestral piece.

Ziporyn:   There are two of those, and they were both written for the university orchestra at UC Berkeley.  They are very different types of pieces, because the first one was written as an outsider, and the second one was written as an insider.  The first one, which is called Pleasureville, Pain City was just written as a lark.  I had an opportunity to write an orchestra piece, so I did, and it was more concerned with the traditional concerns of just writing something that I wanted to sound good.  But working with the orchestra on that piece, and then becoming the assistant conductor of that orchestra for a couple of years, I got to thinking about what an orchestra was, what an orchestra did and how it operated, and what was this group of eighty people that came together to let this one person tell them what to do and mindlessly follow?

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Mindlessly???

Ziporyn:   Well, yes, in a sense because theirs is not to reason why.  You play in the orchestra, and you do what you’re told.

BD:   Are they really doing what the conductor says, or are they doing what the composer has said the conductor should interpret?

Ziporyn:   They’re doing what the conductor says!  [Much laughter]  When I would conduct pieces that were written by living composers that I was in contact with, I could talk to the composer till I was blue in the face, and know exactly what they wanted.  But when I went out there as a conductor, I had to do what I had to do to get the piece to sound, and I had to somehow make it my own.  With Filling Station, which was the second piece, I composed it for an orchestra that I knew very well, and I had worked with intimately.  I knew I was going to be conducting, so that piece was a portrait of that relationship, or perhaps my version of what the relationship might be, what an orchestra could do in my mind, or at least what that orchestra could do.

BD:   Are you are really the ideal interpreter of your music, or should you hand it over to someone else?

Ziporyn:   What happens is that I always think I’m the best interpreter, and then when I manage to let go enough to let somebody else take over, the results can be very pleasantly surprising.  They can also be unpleasantly surprising...  [Laughs]

BD:   Hopefully there are more pleasant than unpleasant experiences.

Ziporyn:   Yes, and I’ll give you an example of this.  In the piano piece which is called The Water’s Fine
which is a very long, almost half-hour piano piece that I wrote in 1983there’s a section in the middle where the pianist has to begin to sing, and sings for several minutes.  At the time I wrote the piece, I thought of this as a very exhibitionist gesture. and the idea of it was just that the force of the music was such that the musician’s whole being was taken over, and he just had to start singing along.  Just playing the piano wasn’t enough, so I saw this a very broad, loud, show-offy bravado gesture.  I had an excellent piano player, Michael Orlandwho does exclusively new music out on the west coast.  When he learned this piece and performed it, I basically let him have it on his own.  I gave him the piece and talked him through it, and then didn’t meet with him until he had already learned it.  This was at his insistence.  When he got to those sections, he was singing in this very quiet, meditative, reverential way, because he had seen it in a completely different way than I did.  It was stunning to me, and I liked it much better, because, instead of it being a ringing-out gesture, it became a very internal, personal thing that demanded that the listener look at something very private and personal.  Talking about being naked in front of an audience, as we were before, instead of ripping your clothes off, and dancing around in front of the audience, it was more as if somehow a listener had stumbled into a very private situation, and that was a lot more intimate, and beautiful to my ears.

BD:   It reached the listeners on a different level than you anticipated?

Ziporyn:   Yes, but I would have never thought to do it that way on my own.

BD:   You were talking about conductor.  Are you a better conductor because you’re also a composer?

Ziporyn:   I don’t think so.  I don’t think they necessarily have anything to do with each other.  In fact, conducting my own music, I find I have to separate myself from it and just be a conductor, as if I was conducting somebody else’s piece.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Are you a better composer because you’re also a conductor?

Ziporyn:   I think so because it’s important to remember, when you are sitting there with these staff lines and these notes that are flying around on the page, that you’re actually giving instructions to an actual human being.  When you’re a conductor, that’s what you really know, that the score is a set of instructions to a bunch of people.  When you’re a composer, it’s easy to forget that.

BD:   [Surprised]  How can you forget that it’s a ‘How-to’ book???  As what do you see the notes?

ziporyn Ziporyn:   Oh, just as the sounds.  But they’re not sound.  They’re going to be made sounds by the people who do it.

BD:   So a composer really is never doing it?  It’s the interpreter that is actually doing the production of the sounds?

Ziporyn:   Yes, on a material level, and I really do think it makes a difference.  That’s something which has really become clear to me, working so intensively with the gamelan, where the music is composed but it’s not written down.  Your teacher just gives it to you, plays it for you, and you play it back.  Then you really know you’re dealing with a human interaction, because it doesn’t exist on any other plane.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Ziporyn:   It can be.  It can also be really hard work.  There are certain aspects of composing which will never be fun... like writing out parts, for example.  [Laughs]  Composing is the ‘fun-est’ thing that I know, but it can also be the most anxiety-ridden thing because you’re dealing with putting things out there.  You’re dealing with deadlines, and facing approval and disapproval, and wondering if this piece is going to be any good, or if anybody going to like this piece.  Is this going to work?  Is anybody going to be able to play this?  These things can start to take over, and make you forget that you’re involved in this really almost whimsical process of being able to decide any sound that you can think of, and getting it to actually happen.  That’s very fun.

BD:   I hope lots of your sounds happen.  Does that surprise you that your music will be played on your thirtieth birthday?

Ziporyn:   I always hoped it would be played somewhere on my thirtieth birthday, and on birthdays to come.  It would be very depressing, having worked at it for as long as I have, if still it was getting nowhere.  Being a composer can be very frustrating.  You could work so hard at writing these pieces, and getting people interested in them, and work so hard at these performances, and forty people show up to the concert.

BD:   What advice do you have for other composers?

Ziporyn:   I may not be the right person to ask for advice.  However, the main advice I have is to write for people you respect and who you want to work with, and make it as a vocation.  Make it one in which situations that are interesting to you happen, be that your teaching situations or your writing situations.  For me, the most rewarding part is the process of getting the piece to performance, meaning the rehearsal process with the musicians that I work with.  What I learn from them and what they hopefully learn from me keeps it enjoyable and interesting on that level.  That’s the only advice I have, because in terms of worldly success, I don’t think I’m much of a model as yet.  I’m scraping by, and getting my pieces played, but they’re not rushing up the charts.  In that sense, maybe there are better people to ask for advice.  But I will say that I never regret having chosen this strange way to lead my life, and that’s because it’s always challenging, and always an education.  If I let it, it’s always enjoyable.

BD:   That’s the best way to look at it.  I wish you lots of continued success.

Ziporyn:   Thanks.

Five years later, in September of 1994, we met again and had another conversation . . . . .

Ziporyn:   I have two groups that are on Sony now.  One is Bang on a Can, and the other is a group that I’ve been co-leading with my collaborator, Michael Gordon, called The Philharmonic, of which half are his compositions and half are mine.  Bang on a Can is just like the festival, with a variety of composers.

BD:   Why did you call it ‘The Philharmonic’?

Ziporyn:   That was Michael’s name. 
Philharmonic, as you know, means love of music, so it’s actually a great name for a group.  It sort of resembles an orchestra in miniature, because it’s strings and winds and percussion.  But there are only five of us all told.


BD:   So it is your love of small music?

Ziporyn:   [Laughs]  Correct, not a small love of music.

BD:   When you say ‘love of music’, how are you defining

Ziporyn:   Varèse said he didn’t want to be called a composer.  He wanted to be called
somebody who organizes sound.  I don’t go that far, but music is different things to different people.  That is in the obvious truism, but in a sense, music is the same to everybody because we all have different uses for these kinds of abstract combinations of rhythm and sound.  There are these slots that you can use it for.  Some are religious rapture or entertainment, or to move your body, or to think about things.  It used to be that it was fairly easy to categorize where you get these things.  You get sacred music in church, and you dance to music in other places.  Now everybody constructs that on their own.  You do that by flipping the radio dial, or by what you listen to with certain friends and what you listen to with other friends, or what you listen to when you are in a certain mood.  We are a consumerist society.  We have our home stereos, and we decide what we’re going to use for what occasions, but the basic impulses are the same, and the basic need is the same.

BD:   Consuming means to use up.  Do we actually use up the music each time, or does it continue to exist?

ruggles Ziporyn:   Maybe it’s like Heraclitus’s river, so it’s never the same twice.  [Both laugh]  There is music that’s more easily used up than others to begin with, and sometimes in my own work I am very conscious of making it rich enough to survive enough feedings by putting enough in it so that, as time goes by, maybe you hear different things in it.  I find this even from my own point of view.  Since I’m doing so much more performing now, I’m really conscious of making music that’s going to hold my interest as a player the tenth time around, or the twentieth time around, and not just have it feel good on a surface or visceral level... although I want it to do that too.

BD:   Is there a way of writing this depth into a piece of music?

Ziporyn:   Yes and no.  You roll the dice and hope for the best.  A lot of it just has to do with certain technical things, such as the level of the counterpoint.  More and more I’m trying to have more and more things going on in the music, but it also has to do with the same thing that Carl Ruggles [caricature at right] was thinking about when Henry Cowell was banging on his door.  There’s a story of Cowell coming to visit Ruggles and hearing Ruggles banging the same chord over and over and over again so loudly that Ruggles didn’t hear Cowell knocking on the door.  Finally Cowell got in and said,
What are you doing?  Ruggles replied, I’m giving it the test of time!  [Both laugh]  He wanted to see how its aspects change as he heard it.  [See my interview with Marilyn J. Ziffrin, the biographer of Ruggles.]

BD:   Is any of the music that you write something that should be listened to over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again?

Ziporyn:   [Thinks a moment]  Maybe not by listeners as much as it is by me in my working process.  The playwright Harold Pinter described his working process as listening to his characters, and I feel the same way about the music that I come up with, by whatever means of inspiration, or sweat, or contrivance.  However it gets there, I literally listen to it, although it’s easier and easier to do that when you’re working with computers and tape recorders.  But in some sense, just being with it and listening in your head to what it’s doing, and what it seems to imply, and where it seems to be going tells me where to go next with it.  Later, though, I don’t really listen to my own works.  Once they’re done, and the rehearsals are over, and once I get a satisfactory performance by editing for a recording, or getting it ready for a concert, I have to admit that I very seldom can bear to listen to my own music.

BD:   This is in short run.  What about, say, four or five years down the line?  Do you like coming back to it then?

Ziporyn:   Oh yes, then it’s far enough removed so I can look at it and go,
Hmm... that was kind of interesting.  I guess that worked out adequately!

BD:    When you come back to it four or five years down the line, has it grown?

Ziporyn:   [Laughs]  It’s changed.  It depends on the piece.  There are successes and failures, and sometimes I’m not even sure which are which at the time.  But in the pieces that stick to my ribs, later I find things in them that I didn’t know were there.  A lot of times that has to do with looking at it as a performer, and thinking that maybe I would do this differently.  Just to take an example, maybe I heard a section as having a certain kind of frenetic energy, and then I heard it again four years later, and actually there was something lyrical about it, and if I did it now, I might want to bring that out more.  Maybe that’s where I am at as a person.  It doesn’t necessarily oscillate between those two emotions or states.

BD:   Is it the music that has grown, or is it you that has grown?

Ziporyn:   Hopefully me, because the music’s not going anywhere.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really??? Your music isn’t going anywhere?  What a dangerous thing to say.

Ziporyn:   It
s just yellowing on the page.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, or preparing a recording, are you conscious of all the ears that will be listening in their homes, and on their radios?

ziporyn Ziporyn:   Oh, absolutely.  Since the last time we really had a conversation, I’ve been involved more and more with preparing performances for people in far-flung places.  I did Aneh Tapi Nyata, for gamelan and Western instruments [recording shown at right], that was designed to be played at the Bali Arts Festival for an audience of Balinese.  Now I’m working on a piece for a Dutch brass orchestra, the Orkest de Volharding [Perseverance Orchestra], and in both of those cases, the whole underlying notion of the pieces is who these people are who are going to be listening to it, and what my relationship is to them.  What do I understand about them as coming to a concert thinking about the world, thinking about music, or thinking about American music, and what is it I want them to know, or what is it I want them to think about, or what is it I want to confront them with in some way?  That’s implicitly, or explicitly, something every composer who writes for different audiences, has to think about.  I’ve been talking to other composers about this, and it seems to be something that I’m not alone in thinking about.  But in the case of the Indonesian piece, I had to think a lot about what the average Balinese person know about Western music.  They thought that Western music was people playing with a conductor.  This is on a very surfaced level, but it also goes into the actual nature of the music.  In that case, it was certain ideas about what Western musicians could do and couldn’t do.  They had to have a conductor, or they had to play with the printed music, or they couldn’t interlock in the way Balinese instruments could.  I wanted to explode those notions, and so the piece was designed around finding things that they’d be able to grab onto, as people not understanding harmony, or Western notions of melody.  So, there were a lot of effects that the Western instruments were required to do that this audience could understand, such as tremolos and pizzicatos, and just the idea that would find more of the meaning of the music, and the surface than the harmonic textures.

BD:   What about the Dutch work?

Ziporyn:   The one I was just finishing for the Dutch orchestra is a group that got their start doing street music in the
70s.  They were a very self-consciously political group, and I came to their attention because my own music was so influenced by Balinese music and by jazz.  The connection there is that the Dutch colonized Indonesia, so I wanted to write a piece that examined that relationship between the Dutch and the Indonesians, and in some obscure way, brought jazz into it as well.  I found this obscure historical incident where the one of the first Dutch trading ships to comes to Bali, which was part of the Spice Islands and then became the Dutch East Indies.  They got to Bali, and when they docked in this northern harbor, the entire crew jumped ship, and it took several months for the captain to round them up and get them out of there.  So the piece is called Houtmans Men in Buleleng, which is the harbor they were in, and it’s a fantasy about that encounter.

BD:   It’s your speculation about their emotions?

Ziporyn:   Right.  So, the material combines early Seventeenth century Dutch maritime music, or my version of that, with Balinese music, and with jazz in a somewhat crazed, hallucinogenic way.  [They laugh]

BD:   The term ‘World Music’ as been thrown around a lot, and even attached to some of your music.  Is this a good idea, and how does it work for your music?

Ziporyn:   With World Music, I often wonder what other kinds of music there are.  [Both laugh]

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  As opposed, perhaps, to intergalactic music?

Ziporyn:   That’s right.  We’re waiting for that.  [Laughs]  It’s a good term and a bad term.  What it’s mainly used for is pop music that features rhythms and textures from music of other cultures, and is often of extremely varied quality.  What I’m doing, with my interest in music of many cultures, is to try for it to be very informed.  This is not to say that I have to know an incredible amount about every type of music that I hear and that I like.  I am a fan of a lot of African music that I don’t know that much about, and a lot of Asian music that I’ve studied only cursorily.  But in the pieces which I’m engaged in for that process, I’m trying to make the relationship between the materials an interesting one, and a thought provoking one, as well as a musically whole one.  In that sense, it’s a little different than a lot of World Music, which is really a very commercial thing.  It’s not only a very positive thing that we have all this availability.  I can listen to renditions of Thirteenth century Sephardic music from Turkey, or the latest hit from Madagascar, and that’s great.  But going back to what I was saying about the uses of music, that has always been the case.  The more I study the musicology, the more I look into the way music is transmitted by people hearing what the next village was doing, or what the other tribe was doing, or what the next country was doing, and taking it in and refracting it in their own ways.

BD:   This has now been completely globalized by the use of recordings.  You don’t have to worry about listening to the next village.  You can just get the record from any village around the world, and listen to that.

Ziporyn:   Right, and it makes it a lot more confusing as a result.  Plus, there’s a lot wider range of things you can do with it.

BD:   At what point does it become simply too much?

Ziporyn:   Probably around now!  [Both laugh]  It’s really difficult to keep up with it, or make sense of it, or to exercise the kind of quality control you want to, and as a result, everybody puts some blinders on.  You draw limits somewhere.  Even though you know you’re doing that, if you can somehow keep your ears open, and not worry so much about whether you’re getting it altogether, you can learn what you can from what you’re hearing.

BD:   Don’t worry about getting the whole thing, just get what you can out of it, and then the next time you listen to it, you get a little more, or a little different?

Ziporyn:   Sure.

*     *     *     *     *

ziporyn BD:   You’re teaching at MIT.  Do you get enough time to compose and perform?

Ziporyn:   You’re asking me this with classes starting tomorrow???  [Much laughter]  When the semesters are going, often I really feel like a headless chicken because I’m just going back and forth between so many things.  Even with MIT being very generous and flexible about my own activities, it’s still a matter of budgeting time, and always feeling that if I only had enough time to really concentrate on this or that, it would be much better.  Then the summer rolls around, and it’s this gift.  It seems really miraculous to actually to be able to spend whole days working on my own projects.  But on the other hand, I get a lot from the students, and I feel there’s a way in which composers can be hermetically sealed off from the world.

BD:   And that’s not good?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Gunther Schuller.]

Ziporyn:   Not as an ongoing thing.  There are definitely times when you’ve just got to hunker down and get the piece written, or where you just need that time away from other people to get the work done.  But I feel for college students, and everything they’re going through.  They are really engaged with the world, and are really ready, and are looking for things to love and things to be passionate about.  I catch some of that coming back from them.  I could easily see getting very cynical about things, when you feel you’ve heard it all, or you’ve done it all, and,
“Oh, great, another masterpiece by so and so to flog through.  [Much laughter]  Even with things that you know well, it’s amazing when you meet a budding young composer who’s never heard The Rite of Spring, or who’s never head Bartók’s Fifth Quartet, or who’s never heard Balinese music, or who’s never heard Beethoven’s Third.  It’s not so much the being able to bring it to that person, but just seeing how they react, and remembering that at one point this was new to you, and really inspired you, and was what made you want to do it in the first place.  It keeps that flame lit.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of music performance, and music composition?

Ziporyn:   Yes.  Performance, both from my own point of view, and from looking around in terms of contemporary music.  It’s just amazing what’s been going on.  The level of performance for pieces that were previously considered impossible, or just had to be approximated is amazing.  Now you have performers that can play Xenakis perfectly, and by memory.  Also, just in terms of the relationship between the performer and the audience there’s been a lot of progress made in the last few years with the ghettoized formality of new-music concerts being a bit broken down.  Bang on a Can, which I’ve been involved with, has had a lot to do with that, but you see it all over.  There are a lot of groups that actually have audiences that want to go to the concerts, and are involved in doing music that engages people without condescending to them.  So, I’m very happy about that.

BD:   Do you feel that after the antagonistic way that the composers treated the audiences in the
60s and 70s, we’re coming back to where we’re rebuilding audiences now in the 90s?

Ziporyn:   I hope so.  Some of us are.  There’s still a lot of that going around, and you find a lot of it still in universities and around the country.  Not to name any names, but there’s still vestiges of that mentality, that this music is too elite, or too complex for most people to understand.  That probably will continue to be the case, but there are more and more composers who are thinking an audience is not something that has to be insulted or disdained.

BD:   Which classes are you teaching at MIT?

Ziporyn:   I teach harmony classes, and all the non-Western music classes.  I also teach a general introduction to non-Western music, and I recently bought a complete Balinese gamelan.  I have an ensemble there, a twenty-five-member ensemble.  They rehearse twice a week, and I have a class in the music of Indonesia.  Then I also have private composition students.

BD:   What are you naming this gamelan?

Ziporyn:   Gamelans are traditionally named after old Javanese honorifics, but thinking of what we were talking about, with World Music and connecting things, actually you said maybe we need intergalactic music.  Well, the name of this gamelan is Gamelan Galak Tika [shown below] which, if you say it fast enough, becomes Gemelan Galactica.  [Both laugh]  It does traditional Balinese music, and is also working on pieces by myself and other American and Balinese composers.  So, it’s a living experiment in cross-culturalism.


BD:   Do you look forward to exploring the music that is being created on other planets?

Ziporyn:   [Laughs]  Why not?  Yes, sure, though probably not in our lifetime.

BD:   [Sardonically]  Oh, why not???  It’ll come by a quasar!  [The term
quasar originated as a contraction of quasi-stellar [star-like] radio source, because quasars were first identified during the 1950s as sources of radio-wave emission of unknown physical origin, and when identified in photographic images at visible wavelengths they resembled faint star-like points of light.]

ziporyn Ziporyn:   [With a broad smile]  Even now, when I sometimes feel I’ve heard it all, you can come across music which seems quite ‘Martian’, and really extraordinary.  It can either be from some guy living down the block, or music being made in Hanoi, but it does make me feel like there’s still a lot of ways of thinking about things, and putting things together that are there to be discovered or created.  There’s more than enough of that left to find inside myself, and all over the world, and maybe on other planets to keep me busy.

BD:   Do you really feel that music does transcend all of the political garbage that is going on between countries and systems?

Ziporyn:   Yes, I do, because ultimately music comes from the body, and it comes from a form of expressing really elemental ways of interacting with the world.  Music comes from breathing in and out.  Music comes from the heart beat.  Music comes from attempting to touch things that are around you, and it all gets channeled through all sorts of things, and takes on all sorts of significances and meanings.  But ultimately, when it touches you in that really physical way.  It can be Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, or jùjú
music from Nigeria, or Peter Maxwell Davies, it doesn’t matter.  If it touches you, it is not because of what the name of the piece is, or who it’s supposed to glorify.  It touches you in that really primal way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned earlier that you’re trying to bring American music to the Balinese audience.  Is your music really American, or because you’ve expanded your mind to cover the world, is it really just music?

Ziporyn:   I never really understood what it meant to be writing American music.  Copland meant that in a certain way, at a certain period in his life, and I meant it in another way.  There’s an American kind of optimism that comes through people like Ives.  It’s the thing that connects Ives and Cage, for example, even though their music doesn’t sound anything alike.  There is an openness to experience, and an ability and willingness to find it all in there, and to reach out and grab for whatever’s available that I find very inspiring.  I try to emulate that, and you see it in American composers of all different stripes.  I don’t think you see it European composers, necessarily, even in Europeans composers whose music I really like.  You see it in Steve Reich, and you definitely see it in someone like Lou Harrison on the West Coast.  You see it in Conlon Nancarrow.  Even if the work is very focused, or the path seems somewhat single-minded, there’s this
going for the gusto in this music that is very American.  When I’m incorporating African music, or Balinese music, or whatever, overtly or covertly, I think that I’m really giving it an American accent to it to begin with.  I don’t think it would fool any Balinese person.  So far it hasn’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like it.  I don’t want them to think that I’m trying to create Balinese music.  I want to say that I’m hearing something in this that’s a little different than what you’re hearing in it.  Then people can do with that what they like.

BD:   Do you ever do anything with electronics?

Ziporyn:   I use synthesizers, and I keep trying the next thing on my list, but I never really did anything other than that.  When I was a student, I did pieces in the electronic studios, but that’s not really my focus, because I really like working with instrumentalists.  I’m really old-fashioned in where the focus is.  Although I’m very aware of and conscious of timbre, and things like that, I’m really thinking about pitches and rhythms, just like the old-fashioned way.

BD:   You think of pitches and rhythms, and not oscillators and sine waves?

Ziporyn:   Correct.

BD:   Does that have a place for itself in music, or is it just something that you let go, and expect other people do it?

Ziporyn:   It has a place.  It’s possibly a fly in my own development that I don’t think consciously about those kinds of issues as I do about other things.  But I can’t do everything.  [Laughs]

BD:   Have you have expanded the use of each instrument with multiphonics?

Ziporyn:   Yes.  The way my mind works is that I have to have some concrete limits.  Here’s a guy, and he’s holding a violin.  What can he do with that thing?  That stimulates me quite a lot when I’m left with the potential for any possible sound, which is what, at least in theory, you have with electronic or computer music.  I’m lost in the possibilities.

BD:   But you have asked them to do thing that they really have not been trained to do?

ziporyn Ziporyn:   Oh yes.  All multi-phonics grow out of extended techniques to expand the physical limitations of the instrument.  That’s true with electronic music, too.  Those are instruments with physical limitations, but there’s some relation to the physicality of the sound.  When I write music for the clarinet that calls for a multiphonic, it’s a multiphonic that’s found in the clarinet.  It’s a product of what a clarinet can do.

BD:   Is it something that you have discovered by playing the clarinet, or something that you have consciously tried to create on the clarinet?

Ziporyn:   I don’t know.  I’m not sure I know what the difference is, because on the clarinet there’s what I have discovered, and a lot of times these are things that I simply know how to do.  I’ll meet student-based clarinetists and they’ll ask how I do that sound that I get with my tonguing at a certain point, and I’ll have no idea.  Maybe I can figure it out, and maybe I can’t.  When I am writing a lot of times whether it be for the clarinet or something else, there’s a sound there, and there’s an effect there, and you’re not really sure how to do it, but you know it’s there.  Then you find it.  So, I’m not sure if that’s discovering it or looking for something that you already want.  It’s a combination of the two, I guess.  The more I know about an instrument, the more able I am to do that, so there’s more of those things.  The unfortunate clarinetists and saxophonists have a lot more of those things to contend with.  [Laughs]

BD:   Might that get them to shy away from your music?

Ziporyn:   Well, that’s their decision.

BD:   Let me hit it from the other direction.  You are both a composer and performer.  When you are performing music of someone else, do you try to incorporate these ideas, and bring even more to their music than is there on the page?

Ziporyn:   I’ve been commissioning a lot of pieces, and a lot of times, knowing that they’ve written it for me, and knowing that the composers know my work, I feel like I can go for it.  This is not breaking the intent of the composers, but I figure if they write an accent at a certain point, they know what I’m going with it, and unless told otherwise, I will.  But the great thing about commissioning pieces is that they really push you.  Most of the time you get things that represent a certain mountain that you hadn’t thought to climb, and it’s fun to see if you can climb it.  So I want to keep doing that.  That’s definitely a way to find out more about your own playing.  To go through this process is not so much me imposing myself on them, as them showing me things that I hadn’t come to.

BD:   Going the other direction, when you write a piece and someone else, who is a particularly fantastic player, plays it, do you allow for that performer’s ideas to creep into your music?

Ziporyn:   Sure!  I fight it every step of the way but I
m usually happier when I let them win.  I hope that keeps going.  I tend to have very exact ideas about how I want the details in my piece, and I can be very stubborn about that.  But a lot of times when I’ve been forced to let go, I’ve ended up being very pleased.  A good performer will find things that a composer doesn’t know are there.

BD:   That’s why you hunt for the good performers?

Ziporyn:   Sure.

BD:   Is music fun?

Ziporyn:   Oh, yes.  [Laughs]  It’s the funest thing if you let it be.  It can also drive you to be institutionalized.  You have to almost make a conscious decision to make it fun.  You have to.  It’s hard because it’s a job.  You want it to be a job, and then you’re lucky enough that it is a job.  Then it’s stops being fun because you have deadlines, and you have anxiety about maintaining your reputation, or building your reputation, or all those issues that can really just completely take over your mind, even when you’re just sitting there in the privacy of your own home writing.  You’re just thinking about details, and imagining that this is too simple, or this is too complicated, or this is too clever, or this isn’t as good, or I’ve really lost it, and I’ve got to get it done by next Friday.  The impulse that is making you do it
which is just really some kind of delight with the possibility of being able to combine all these thingscan ruin it.  How come I’m not Mozart?  How come I’m not Beethoven?  How come I’m not at least Hummel?  [Both laugh]  At least for me, if I can find that point when I can force myself to calm down, and just push all that stuff aside, and it’s just me and the music, I don’t care if it’s going to come out great or terrible.  I don’t care if I’m going to meet the deadline or not.  I don’t care about any of that.  It’s just being engaged with this material, and then it’s completely fun.

BD:   You’re about to hit thirty-five.  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Ziporyn:   That’s a dangerous question.  I’m very happy with the work I’m doing, and I’m happy that I’m having the chance to do it.  I like the musicians that I’m working with, and I like the fact that I’m able to work on a bunch of different projects that are all very stimulating.  In that sense, I couldn’t ask for anything more.  It always feels just like I wished for when I was a little.  It could be a little easier, or come a little faster, or that one’s deficiencies
that one’s only too aware ofwere gone.  The bottom line is that there are moments when I am working on something, or when I’m having a piece played, or when I’m playing somebody else’s music, when I just can’t believe I get paid to do this.  That’s probably all one can ask for, ultimately.

BD:   I hope it continues.

Ziporyn:   Thanks.

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© 1989 & 1994 Bruce Duffie

These conversations was recorded in Chicago on August 18, 1989, and September 5, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989, 1994, 1998, and 1999; and on WNUR in 2004, with a podcast available in 2010.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website om 2020.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.