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In fourth grade at Evanston Lab School, Evan Ziporyn “really wanted to play the trumpet. That was what all the boys wanted to do. But my lungs weren’t strong enough, so I settled for the clarinet.”
In high school his mentors introduced him to the music of Steve Reich, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Iannis Xenakis, and “tons of Ives.” He developed a strong interest in jazz, and sang in the Jewish People’s Choral Society, a Yiddish chorale founded by his grandmother. “I was in all sorts of bizarre combinations: a Dixieland-and-rock band, a jazz sextet, the school choir.” At home he performed classical piano trios with his sister on cello and his father on violin. He also started toying with composing.
But it wasn’t until he was an undergrad at Yale that he heard gamelan music for the first time. The gamelan is a southeast Asian orchestra of mostly percussion instruments–gongs, chimes, drums–that emphasizes seamless teamwork among the players. “I was impressed right away by the rhythms, by how the ensembles work, very organic and cyclic, and by how people can play together in a village way.”
Listening to gamelan inspired all-night music-making marathons among Ziporyn and some of his fellow students. After he graduated in 1980, he moved to Bali to study gamelan up close. He brought his clarinet along and riffed on Charlie Parker transcriptions from his porch at night. For the next decade he commuted between Bali and the Bay Area while working on his doctoral thesis–a concerto for bass clarinet and electronics–at the University of California at Berkeley and directing a gamelan ensemble in San Francisco. He also started finding ways of using his clarinet to echo gamelan’s intricate rhythms.
In 1987 Ziporyn made a trip to New York to perform in a concert of experimental music organized by three of his friends from Yale. The 12-hour event–titled “Bang on a Can”–immediately earned the group renown, and by 1989 had grown into a full-fledged new-music festival. In 1990, eager to be “back where the action was”–that is, near his fellow Bangers–Ziporyn accepted a teaching job at MIT. Two years later he became one of the six Bang on a Can All-Stars, whose 30 concerts a year across the country feature brand-new compositions, including Ziporyn’s own technically tricky, folk-inflected ones.
Given his schedule–he now directs a 25-member gamelan orchestra in Cambridge and recently made an extensive tour as part of Paul Simon’s backup band–Ziporyn seldom has time to play solo. But he’ll be in town next week to teach a couple of workshops at Columbia College, and while he’s here he’ll spend one evening performing selections from his much-lauded 2001 CD, This Is Not a Clarinet, whose title reflects how subtly and playfully he translates one type of sound into another. “Through the clarinet,” he says, “I’m playing all these other instruments as well.”
Ziporyn’s solo recital starts at 6:15 PM Thursday, March 7, at the Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario. Admission is $10, $8 for students. Call 312-787-3997 for more info. His workshop on Balinese monkey chant–a vocal imitation of the gamelan used in rituals–at Columbia is open to the public; it runs 10 AM to 1 PM on Saturday, March 9. Call 312-344-7270 to register.