Evan Ziporyn’s concert next Tuesday at MIT celebrates his “20,000th day on earth.” At first glance you might think that Ziporyn, a musically omnivorous composer, clarinetist, and gamelanist, is trying to jump the bandwagon of the similarly titled Nick Cave pseudo-documentary, which opens three days after the concert.
In fact, he got the idea from his wife’s parents. Back in January, Ziporyn watched his father-in-law surprise his mother-in-law with a cake to celebrate 13,500 days of marriage. Having always been wary of the “big composer birthday” template — John Zorn at 60! Steve Reich at 75! — he began playing with the numbers, and realized that the 20K mark loomed close at hand. (It also sounded better than “54 years and change.”)
“The decade birthdays are never unambiguous, as you get older,” Ziporyn said during a recent phone conversation. “This one, I’m very comfortably ensconced in my 50s, so it doesn’t inject any life crisis.” Nor, he added, does it seem like a nostalgic look back at a body of work nearing completion. “I feel good about the work I’m doing, and I’m right in the middle of it. It’s a good time to present it.”
When we spoke, Ziporyn was in Toronto for a performance of “In My Mind and In My Car,” a multimedia collaboration with his wife, Christine Southworth, a composer and graphic designer. The US premiere of the piece will be the main attraction at Tuesday’s concert. The title is an obvious reference to the Buggles’ iconic 1979 song “Video Killed the Radio Star,” though the two pieces have no other connection.
The title also arose from how he and Southworth collaborate, often by hatching ideas during their many travels. Referencing another song from the same year — Talking Heads’ “Cities” — Ziporyn said that the titular locations are simply “good places to get some thinking done.”
“In My Mind and In My Car” represents a kind of unplanned synthesis of separate projects that Ziporyn and Southworth were working on independently. The 10-movement, 50-minute work draws together samples, generated electronics, and Ziporyn’s own clarinet playing, a mix of notated and improvised music. The video component, which Southworth created, is also an amalgam — of footage they’d both shot, found material, and what Ziporyn called “good old Final Cut Pro manipulation.”
The resulting piece, he said, is “kind of an autobiographical narrative of some kind of journey, even though there’s no story line, no program per se.” The mixture of concrete and aleatoric elements is a recurring feature of Ziporyn’s music, particular in the trio EVIYAN, which he formed with guitarist Gyan Riley and singer-violinist Iva Bittová.
“In this piece, what interests me is that the fixed media, whether it’s the music or the video, gives me a kind of stage set, but it’s an animate stage set, and I get to respond to it,” he said. “So what happens over the course of playing it is that I can really take it in a lot of different directions.”
“In My Mind and In My Car” was premiered in August at the OFF Festival, an alternative-music gathering in Katowice, Poland. Ziporyn said that audiences tend to go into something of a trance when taking in audiovisual pieces, a “going-to-the-movies mode that’s a lot more passive and less responsive,” he said. So it was refreshing to have the first performance at a large outdoor festival, “because it’s a crowd that’s used to being very vocal. It was fun, because there were a lot of people and they were doing things people do at rock concerts. Which was great for contemporary-music types like me.”
At MIT, where he’s been on the faculty since 1990, Ziporyn recently unveiled a new concert series called Sounding. It’s intended to reflect the unconventional aesthetic of the Center for Art, Science & Technology, which he directs. While MIT’s musical community isn’t drawn exclusively to technologically advanced art, “there is a lot of art there in the cracks that eludes genre or pushes the envelope in one way or another,” he said. “Or is just dealing with music in a way that seems like something new and important.”
Bookending the series are concerts devoted largely to two minimalist pioneers: Alvin Lucier (Sept. 27) and Terry Riley (April 18). “These are both people who reset the boundaries of what music and music-making could be in an era — the ’60s and ’70s — when a lot of us were told that music was at a dead end, there was no way to go except into more abstract, more abstruse directions. And I feel like, both in very different ways, they’ve extended what it means to do music, what it means to be a performer.”
One more recent Ziporyn project is “Uncovered,” a new solo recording by cellist Maya Beiser, Ziporyn’s longtime friend and former bandmate in the Bang on a Can All-Stars. The CD consists of Ziporyn’s arrangements of classic rock songs, with a couple of blues numbers by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf thrown in. Ziporyn knows exactly how the idea of the record is likely to strike people: as some ham-handed attempt by classical music at “relevance.”
In fact, the process of overturning those preconceptions made the project even more rewarding than he expected. “The fact of the matter is that people — including people we know and love, friends and colleagues and collaborators — were gonna view this project very skeptically,” he explained. “They were going to come into it with a lot of assumptions about what it was and what you could do with it. And the fun was being aware of that reality, and that people were going to be really surprised by the way this came out.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly listed the date of the Terry Riley concert at MIT. It will be held on April 18.