Evan Ziporyn – Photo by Andy Ryan

5 questions to Evan Ziporyn (composer, clarinetist, member of Bang on a Can All-Stars)

With the 25th Bang on a Can (BOAC) Marathon taking place at the end of the week (Sunday, June 17) we thought that Evan Ziporyn would be a great candidate for a 5-question interview. He kindly took the time to answer them and shared much more than we could have hoped…

You’ve been part of the BOAC Marathon since its first installment in 1987, in the Exit Art Gallery in Soho. How did you end up playing this gig at the time and how was it?

I’d been working with Michael Gordon since 1980, we met backstage at a new music concert at Yale, where we had a ‘where have you been all my life’ moment after hearing each other’s music for the first time. And I’d done numerous projects with all of them throughout the 80s, including the pre-Bang “Composers Banging on Cans” concert at Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 1986. By then I had moved to the west coast but had kept in close contact with them all, I’d fly back to play with Michael’s band, etc. This wasn’t hard because we only had about 3 concerts a year…

Also, as you probably know, the idea of the marathon came from Martin Bresnick’s Sheep’s Clothing ensemble at Yale, which did an annual all-night concert in the late 70s and early 80s. Martin went on leave in 1980, I ran the group in his absence, and Michael came to all the concerts – after that David [Lang] arrived in New Haven and also became very active in that group – so we all were aware of the benefits of marathon concerts.

Still, that first Bang marathon was memorable to me for a number of reasons – a lot of my heroes were there, Reich & Cage & Milton Babbitt – it was amazing to me to be in the same room with them, let alone on a program with them. I met Robert Black there, he performed immediately before me, and of course I’m still working with him in the All-stars now. And I’ll always remember Babbitt speaking before his piece, saying “I’m sorry I got here late, but I got lost – I’ve never been this far downtown before!”

Evan Ziporyn - Photo by Andy Ryan

Evan Ziporyn – Photo by Andy Ryan

Could you have foreseen what BOAC became? What does this 25th anniversary represent for you?

I was 27 years old at the time, so the idea of anything lasting 25 years was inconceivable to me. 25 years before that was the Kennedy administration…at that time we were all just looking to get anything going at all – if your band got a second gig or your piece a second performance, that seemed like longevity.

On the other hand, as mentioned, from the beginning I had felt a deep kinship with Michael Gordon, later with David [Lang] and Julie [Wolfe], a shared sensibility and a complete trust. To me it was more about that, not that we always agreed but that somehow we were on the same wavelength, had the same basic idea about where our music should and could go. With the All-stars, which started in 1992, there’s something similar – I learned so much from them all, it’s a cliché but I feel like we’ve all been on a shared journey together – a tribe of hunter-gatherers or something… there is safety in numbers…

As both a composer and a performer, how would you say the BOAC Marathon appeals to you/inspires you/challenges you?

As a performer it’s easier than the average concert, as you’re only responsible for a small portion of it; as a composer that sense of proximity still thrills me. In 1987 I was blown away to be on the same program as Steve Reich and John Cage; in 2011 I was sandwiched between the Sun Ra Arkestra and Glenn Branca – in both cases I couldn’t ask for better company.

The biggest appeal to be honest is as a listener…something about the marathon format allows one to relax and open up, inevitably every year I’ll hear some things I’m not crazy about, but I’ll figure – hey, it’s only a small portion of a long day, no problem…and equally inevitably I’ll hear something that will surprise me, something I’ve never heard of or which I expected not to like, and it’ll thrill me in an unexpected way.

David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe - Photo by Peter Serling

David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe – Photo by Peter Serling

If you were to share your best memory of the past 24 marathons, what would it be?

“Best” would be impossible to say, we’re talking about hundreds of hours of music, for almost half my life. And actually some of the best moments take place before or after, in the hangs with musicians or composers off-stage or in following days. Aside from some of the things mentioned above, there were my first encounters with Branca, Icebreaker, Arnold Dreyblatt, Mieczyslaw Litwinski, Iva Bittova, etc. – all life-changing for me in their way.

From a personal point some of my favorite moments came in year 3, during that year the marathon had become a true ‘festival’ – with several satellite concerts in addition to the marathon itself. One of those was a double bill, Fredric Rzewski playing The People United on the first half; Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus on the other. Somehow I got drafted to turn pages for Fredric, this was daunting enough but even more so when I realized he wasn’t playing what was written but rather improvising freely – and brilliantly – around it. So turning the pages was a pretty wild ride. Then I got to play Hoketus with the legendary Paul Koek – of the original Hoketus Ensemble – leading the way. The first measure has an open repeat – it was so savage and so powerful that we stayed on that single bar for 15 or 20 minutes, or so it seemed. Talk about capturing a moment…

The original spirit of the marathon was to “break down the barriers that separate musical communities.” Do you think that such barriers still exist in 2012?

They exist but luckily not for as many people…or they’ve been replaced by new barriers, new issues, new challenges. When the marathon started there was no such thing as ‘electronica’, no ‘indie rock’…let alone crossover between these genres. Even within ‘contemporary classical’ music (or whatever it’s called now), the level of alienation was very real – I’m still not sure Babbitt was joking at that first marathon. As Eve Beglarian told Kyle Gann, “it was easier to come out to my parents than to tell my Columbia professors I was a ‘downtown’ composer.”

This attitude is not necessarily dead – it may seem to be in New York, but go out into the great heartland, there are still many pockets of survivalists out there, at many distinguished universities. You’d be surprised. Luckily, though, it’s not operative among young musicians, at least the ones I come across. To them, the uptown/downtown ‘war’ seems as distant as the Kchruschev-Nixon Kitchen Debate was to us, and that’s a great thing. New players see no contradiction in putting Babbitt and Reich on the same program, having a DJ remix that in real time, or following it up by playing in a backing band for the Roots. This is what we were dreaming of, but I can’t even say we were hoping it would happen – it seemed too impossible. I’m happy to witness it, and if Bang was part of something larger that helped make that happen, I’m happy for that too.

For more information about Evan Ziporyn, visit http://www.ziporyn.com and check out his latest release: Big Grenadilla/Mumbai on Cantaloupe.