Michael Zerang plays Queequeg's Coffin at the 30th-anniversary gala for Experimental Sound Studio in July 2016. Credit: Jason P. Holmes

When Queequeg, the tattooed cannibal harpoonist in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, comes down with a fever, he asks the Pequod‘s carpenter to build him a floating coffin. But once the illness passes and he regains his strength, the crew repurposes the carpenter’s handiwork as a life buoy, which after the wreck of the ship saves the novel’s narrator, Ishmael. In 2016, when percussionist Michael Zerang performed in Blair Thomas’s staging of Moby-Dick (a story the puppeteer had been staging and restaging since 1990), one of his duties was to crank out musical drones on a prop called Queequeg’s Coffin. After the play was done, Zerang took the instrument home—and in a corresponding act of creative recycling, this Saturday in May Chapel at Rosehill Cemetery he’ll present his own concert-length composition built around it.

Zerang is a first-generation Chicagoan, born to Assyrian immigrant parents in 1958. As a musician he’s developed long-running relationships with improvisers such as Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and Hamid Drake, and more recently he’s gotten involved with psychedelic spellcasters Spires That in the Sunset Rise and the duo of guitarists Ryley Walker and Bill MacKay. He’s also written music for theater, winning three Jeff Awards for work on productions by Redmoon Theater, which Thomas cofounded. The 48-minute composition he’ll present on Saturday, Follow the Light, will use an unconventional string quartet to extend and complicate the drones of Queequeg’s Coffin. Zerang spoke to the Reader about the process of turning the Coffin from a prop into an instrument.

Michael Zerang: Queequeg’s Coffin is a droning stringed instrument that I created for Blair Thomas and company’s theatrical version of Moby-Dick in early 2016. It was designed and fabricated by Erik Newman. The instrument has the scale length of a full-size cello, with four strings that are vibrated by a circular, wooden wheel—the same mechanism that sounds a hurdy-gurdy.

I used it for the play, more prominently as a sound source, but then when I got the thing home I started to work on it. I wrote three studies to basically learn how to play it and make an exploration of all the potential techniques and learn how to do them myself. I did the studies, and they manifested themselves as solo performances that I did over the course of about a year and a half. Then I sat in with this instrument in a couple of different improvised-music settings. But for the most part the focus was on these three studies—and now, for the first time, a composition for other musicians in an ensemble in which this instrument is featured.

For this composition, which is called Follow the Light, I’m writing for four string players—two violas and two contrabasses, played by Johanna Brock, Julie Pomerleau, Anton Hatwich, and Jason Roebke. We’re going to turn it into a band called Silt, and we’re going to perform at the May Chapel and also one of the nights at the winter solstice.

Bill Meyer:  How was the instrument originally used in Moby-Dick?

In the original version of the play, I was one of the characters as well as being the person onstage who made the live soundscape. In the first version, I came in droning on this thing and circled the audience for the first two or three minutes, playing a full-on drone—it was strapped on me, you know, I was in procession, and it was a simple effect for that version of the play. In the concert version that we performed in France last year, I brought the instrument more into the soundscape, using it in different parts of the play. It wasn’t until I got it home and started to work with the instrument that I saw all of the possibilities aside from full-on, four-string droning.

Were you Ishmael in the play?

No. There were four brothers, two puppeteers and two musicians, but we were sort of ancient-mariner monks reciting parts of Moby-Dick as part of a liturgy, if you will. At different times we did different things, including singing sea chanteys and things like that. My character was primarily there to make sounds on the stage—the live sound for the play, but also as one of these monks.

It sounds like the instrument is a prop as much as anything else.

Yes, it was originally designed as a sound-making prop, but then we made this crazy instrument and it sounded pretty good.

Zerang's hand on the Coffin's strings
Zerang’s hand on the Coffin’s stringsCredit: Courtesy of Michael Zerang

I saw one of those solo performances, and my impression was that it sounded neat, but there was only so much that you could get it to do.

Over the three studies, I explored quite a few things that it could do—but if you only saw one of the three, you’d only get a limited view of what the instrument was capable of. The point of these studies was to explore how to play the instrument, because even though it’s based on a hurdy-gurdy, it’s nothing like a hurdy-gurdy in that there are no keys that change pitches. It’s really more simple and much larger, so it has a fuller, deeper, raspier sound.

Is the piece that you’re going to perform scored all the way through, or is it a guided improvisation?

I’m creating a form. It’s a drone piece, and the duration is going to be about 48 minutes. It’s not so much that it’s completely notated and it’s not so much that it’s an improvisation. It has five sections, and each one focuses on a different aspect. We move through these aspects together. It’s very unified playing, with no soloistic playing by the musicians, and it’s pretty much organic and unified as far as the overall sound. The coffin itself, Queequeg’s Coffin, sometimes acts as a catalyst for different changes, pitch shifting at different rates of movement, but it’s all pretty unified within the ensemble.

The crank at the end of Queequeg's Coffin turns the wooden wheel that vibrates the strings.
The crank at the end of Queequeg’s Coffin turns the wooden wheel that vibrates the strings.Credit: Michael Zerang

How does the piece relate to the way the light shines through the chapel’s stained glass windows?

When I started working on this composition, I did remember—because I have seen some concerts at May Chapel—especially in the afternoon, the light is really beautiful in there, and it shifts. It’s not the overriding compositional directive, but it’s definitely an aspect, and I want to make sure when we rehearse that there’s some kind of acknowledgment from the ensemble of the shifting light that is in a weird way being written into the work. When I think Follow the Light, that’s almost a literal directive.

Did you have a mortality notion going as well?

My instrument is shaped like a coffin, and we’re playing smack dab in the middle of a cemetery. Without beating it over the head too much, yes, that’s there as well. I’m going to dedicate the performance to my old and dearly departed friend, the musician and composer Daniel Scanlan, who was the first person I ever played music with in a serious way. He was a violinist, so that was the first instrument that I ever engaged with as a musician. So I think this would be fitting—the dedication of this piece of string music to him.