Evan Ziporyn – Photo by Standa Merhout

5 Questions to Evan Ziporyn about MIT’s Bowie Tribute Concert

Two weeks ago, the music world was devastated by the sudden news of David Bowie’s death from cancer at age 69. His final album, Blackstar, had been released three days prior, with no outward signs that anything was wrong. It seemed that the dazzling, genre-smashing musician would never stop exploring and changing, but death is the one change that is impossible to rewrite.

The world immediately responded with tributes and memorials, including a concert of Bowie’s music at Carnegie Hall and a constellation shaped like the lightning bolt on the cover of Aladdin Sane. On January 29, MIT Professor of Music and composer Evan Ziporyn will conduct an all-volunteer orchestra in Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 1 and 4, which are based on songs from two of Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” albums, Low and Heroes. The concert, at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, is already sold out, and proceeds from the tickets will go to the MIT Cancer Research Fund.

How did you first encounter David Bowie? Did he influence you as a person or musician at all?

It seems like I always knew about David Bowie, because everyone did.  That being said, I wasn’t nearly cool enough in the 70s to be into first generation glam rock, or to even understand what that was all about.  Bowie was a truly transformational figure for a lot of teenagers, and rightfully so, but I wasn’t one of them: my interests were much more music-nerd oriented.  But in high school I did work in my father’s record store, that was where I really got my education in popular music, where I began to understand its role.  I first really paid attention to Bowie during that time, Young Americans/Station to Station period, actually one of his larger and more controversial shifts, in sound and persona.  I was also heavily into Eno, and as a result, I remember buying Low the day it came out in early 1977 – I was a senior in high school at the time.  It and its follow ups (Heroes, Lodger, i.e., the so-called “Berlin Trilogy”) were in that category of music we all listened to and talked about in college, that is, on our own time but not in the classroom – the things even our hippest and most beloved professors didn’t really know about or get.  That probably gave them added value actually, but in any case those particular records were very important to me, I still think they’re masterful, and I still listen to them a lot.  Fantastic Voyage gets me every time.

Here’s what it was: Eno made us aware of expanded possibilities within the short form of the pop song, of the idea that production itself – the sound and feel of a particular track – could not only be the artistic focus but could shift from track to track within a single album.  (He had precursors of course, most obviously the Beatles, but that was in the past, whereas this was all happening as we discovered it, these new miraculously interesting records appearing season by season, just as we were figuring out who we were and what our music was going to be.)  Bowie (also influenced by John & Paul in particular, but really upping the ante) added the actual persona of the voice to the mix, and this took it to another level.  If you listen to some of the Low tracks in this way – Sound & Vision, Always Crashing in the Same Car – you’ll hear what I’m talking about.  Just a huge range of vocal reference points, and moving between them effortlessly, shamelessly, from the music hall to the brooding rocker, from barbershop quartets (the cheery ‘bout sound and vision’) to heavy metal screamer, jazz crooner, soul stylist, quasi-operatic bel canto, you name it, all somehow tied together as a single voice, and balanced on this razor thin point between irony and utter sincerity.  Borrowing voraciously – Dylan, Iggy, Bing, Lotte Lenya – but without it ever feeling like parody or a rip-off.

And this continued right up until the end – you can hear it – and see it literally before your eyes – in the Blackstar video.

This is by nature inimitable, but I was deeply inspired by it, as a performer and a composer – just the idea that the texture of one’s sound could continually be called into play, and could have that much resonance – I can only aspire to it, but I’d say between him, Miles Davis and Meredith Monk – a lifetime of lessons on timbre and expressivity there.

What were your first thoughts and reactions when you heard about Bowie’s death?

I literally thought it was a dream.  I had woken up in the middle of the night and saw a news alert on the lock screen of my phone.  This was already odd but was made more strange because Christine [Southworth] and I had been in the midst of a very short-term, localized Bowie-mania in our immediate surroundings, which happened to be the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida.  This was all of course part of Bowie’s brilliant last piece of public art, the staging of his own death, but still…

Our next door neighbor there (the writer Jonathan Garfinkel) had been listening to Blackstar more or less continuously for about three days.  We’d all been kidding him about this, in fact I had been playing along with the record through the walls of the house.  But I was listening to it too, and thinking about it a lot. In fact on the day before his death I almost tweeted something along the lines of ‘nice to have Bowie back’ – but I didn’t get around to it.

I’m not the type to get caught up in the death of public figures, but in the days that followed I slowly realized that I was in mourning – things felt foggy, out-of-kilter, just off.  I went into town, got my head shaved and the barber had left it as a mohawk, just to goof on me, and I almost kept it that way; meanwhile Christine had spontaneously painted a lightning bolt across her face with eye shadow while in a Public supermarket.  Which is to say we were both going a little crazy.

So I started calling old friends, from different parts of my life, and everyone seemed to be experiencing the same thing, just disoriented by how big it all felt.  I wouldn’t have guessed I would have felt this way about anyone other than close relative or dear friend.  So it seemed like something larger was going on.

Philip Glass

Philip Glass

Tell me a bit about how this concert came together so quickly. Who are the members of this last minute orchestra, and how are you preparing?

It was one of the above-mentioned conversations, with Richard Guerin, who runs Philip Glass’ record label.  He said “I wish someone would program these Symphonies – it’s at least something classical musicians could do.”   I just blurted out, “OK, but I want to conduct” – and then immediately began emailing.  I felt strongly that it should be a benefit for cancer research, that this would give us all a chance to do something positive with these feelings, channel the grief into something of value, even if only on a small scale.

You normally can’t put something like this together in that amount of time, but for me it was about doing something while in the midst of these feelings – the larger gestures can come later.  But to be honest I assumed some kind of roadblock would appear – no hall availability, not being able to get the music in time, or not enough musicians having time or being available.  But between Richard, the MIT Concert Office, and the overwhelmingly positive response from Boston-area musicians, it all fell into place.  I started by contacting the best musicians I know, people I had worked with or simply knew about, they started telling their friends, and pretty soon we had to start turning players away.  So the orchestra is mainly made up of really first-rate free lance musicians, many of the same people you’d hear at a BMOP concert, kick-ass conservatory students (of which Boston has plenty), etc.  It’s all very moving actually – not only because of Bowie or cancer research, but because it feels genuinely collective and empowering – something we are all doing together.

Don’t get me wrong, this is only possible because MIT – a large and supportive institution – is watching my back, in an amazing way.  But everyone got on board – not just the musicians, but also Campus Activities, copy services, the MIT Police, the parking office, you name it…so I’m grateful for that too.

All that aside, just a simple matter of learning two giant scores in a couple of days, scheduling rehearsals, and now playing the music…business as usual!

Are there any special challenges that the Bowie-influenced Glass symphonies present?

Very similar to those found in all middle and late period Glass, projection and conservation of energy, the flow of his phrases, groove, etc.  The connection to the classical tradition is pretty interesting: Glass has his own set of references which he’s taking us through, so it’s interesting to discover those.

The main challenge for me is to make a pick-up orchestra (even of this caliber) sound cohesive in a very short amount of time. So we’ll see if I’m up to that – the players certainly are!

In your opinion, what is the most important legacy Bowie left behind?

He kept creating to the very end, kept exploring and reinventing, kept trying.  He never went on auto-pilot, never phoned it in.  He believed in the power of art, believed he could make all us feel that power.  The last line on the last song on Blackstar is “I can’t give everything away” – but in fact he did, it’s all this amazing gift of creativity and life affirmation.