Back to Home Page

Local Links
Sun Valley Guide
Hemingway in Sun Valley
Real Estate

Arts & Entertainment
For the week of January 3 through January 9, 2001

Ziporyn speaks 
(via e-mail)

Evan Ziporyn introduces a new composition for the Arden Trio

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 residency program.

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?

Ziporyn: 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.

IME: 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.

IME: Does your experience with the bass clarinet relate at all to gamelan? If so, how?

Ziporyn: 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...

IME: Are there ideas at the core of music? Or is a composition pure sound and rhythm?

Ziporyn: The 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?

Ziporyn: In 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.'


Back to Front Page
Copyright © 2000 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.