Q: Why aren’t you writing concert music anymore?
A: . . . The long answer involves a careful reassessment of the very first minute of my very first composition lesson. My teacher, Ramon Zupko, sat down at his desk, looked me straight in the eye and asked something to the effect of “Do you know what the job market is like for composers?” I said something like “I imagine it’s pretty bad.” He replied “There is no job market for composers. The only reason anyone should do this is because they can’t imagine not doing it.”
—composer/percussionist/sound designer Dennis DeSantis, from the “occasionally asked questions” section of his blog
Pioneering new-music composer Ramon Zupko never intended for his son, Mischa, to follow in his footsteps. He knew the frustrations of that career path too well. A Juilliard graduate who’d studied composition at Columbia University and in Europe only to find himself in Chicago in the late 1960s, trying to figure out how to earn a living, Ramon thought his only child would be better off doing something else.
“Except for a very few people with the right connections, you can’t make a living in the U.S. as a composer,” Ramon says. You can become an academic and devote yourself to teaching for 30 years, as he did, finishing up as professor emeritus of composition at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo with a catalog of nearly 100 compositions to his credit. But “just going out and writing pieces and hoping somebody buys them? Really foolish.”
Also, a miserable grind: chasing commissions that are never big enough to live on, scratching out a living with part-time teaching and other gigs, spreading yourself too far and too thin. It wasn’t what he wanted for his son.
But next week Ramon will be in the audience at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, where a Mischa Zupko composition will be performed by the Fulcrum Point New Music Project as part of a concert called Speaking in Tongues.
Mischa, 39, is Fulcrum Point’s composer-in-residence. Like his father, he says, he has a “true desire to communicate to anybody who wants to listen.” But he’s also living out Ramon’s frenetic scenario. In addition to the part-time Fulcrum Point gig, he’s spent the current academic year teaching at Roosevelt and DePaul universities as well as Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, matching music writers with young performers as head of the Composer’s Lab program at the Music Institute of Chicago (where he’s also composer-in-residence), and sharing a full-time job with his wife, Minkyoo Shin, as music director at the Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Northfield. He and Shin share a three-year-old son named Leo, too.
“He doesn’t have time to breathe,” Ramon says.
That’s pretty much the norm, though. Craig Carnahan, vice president of programs at the 1,800-member American Composers Forum, says that although new technology and software has made it easier for composers to get their work introduced to conductors and performers, they’ve got to be enterprising. Making a living as a serious contemporary composer “probably means tissuing a couple things together—doing residencies, being good at writing grants, being good at networking and getting your name out there so you’re on the radar screens of conductors and folks who are commissioning. You have to be pretty entrepreneurial as well as a talented composer.”
Carnahan adds that composers also teach, many perform, and writing for film and, especially, for video games are areas of opportunity. The relative few he can think of who live entirely on composing income “work hard. They’re very entrepreneurial. They’re out there exhibiting at conferences and conventions where they think there’s likely markets for their music. They don’t wait for people to come to them. It’s as much business as composition a lot of the time.”
Born in Pittsburgh in 1932, Ramon Zupko started playing piano at age eight and was writing sonatas by the time he was 12. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Juilliard School—where he was taught by Vincent Persichetti, whose other students included Philip Glass—and studied theory at Columbia University. Though he’s probably best known for his electronic music (you can hear his Masks on YouTube), Ramon’s training was classical and the bulk of his compositions are acoustic. Juilliard was “a very conservative school as far as new technology was concerned,” he recalls. But Columbia—which Ramon says already had a synthesizer of sorts—was a hotbed of innovation. There, he fell under the influence of Milton Babbitt, composer and champion of electronic music whose infamous 1958 article for High Fidelity magazine, “Who Cares if You Listen?,” discussed the already dire relationship between contemporary work and the public.
The technology was even more advanced in Europe, Ramon says. Thanks to a couple of Fulbright fellowships—and a lack of job prospects in the States—he spent a total of five years there in the late 1950s and early ’60s, studying in the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany and taking seminars with the likes of legendary avant-gardist Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Ramon was brought to the Chicago area in 1965, by a Ford Foundation program that was putting composers into public high schools; in 1967 the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University (now part of Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts) hired him to teach composition and theory and launch an electronic music studio. The CMC studio acquired its Moog synthesizer so early on that Bob Moog himself dropped in to check it. Equipped with oscillators, filters, and modulators, Moogs were “big, unwieldy machines that you had to program very laboriously,” Ramon recalls. “Eventually something would come out that you were satisfied with, but it took a lot longer than it does now.”
Ramon says he’s always been interested in cooperative, theatrical projects. His first big production utilizing the Moog was Third Planet From the Sun, a 1970 multimedia extravaganza that combined his own electronic and live music with dance, poetry, projections, and special lighting. It was performed at Auditorium Theatre. Ramon applied tricks he’d learned from techies at the old Electric Theater rock club and, he says, “collaborated with all the [Roosevelt] departments and dancers from all over the city. We did two performances, played to 8,000 people. I think it was the first thing done in Chicago that utilized all those disciplines. It was akin to opera, except it wasn’t Puccini.”
Ramon’s wife, Vonette, was one of the many dancers in the show. They’d met in 1969, when she performed in a piece he’d written for the Synthetic Theater (Landscapes for the Ear, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead), and married three months later. Mischa came along in 1971. In the fall of that year, Ramon went to work at Western Michigan’s music school, where they were also itching to establish an electronic music studio.
Mischa was three years old when his dad began giving him piano lessons. “A little bit young to start,” Ramon admits, “but he caught on to it right away.”
From the time he was seven or eight until he was 16, Mischa says, the lessons came in the form of three-hour sessions every Sunday. After that, he studied with Phyllis Rappaport, a concert pianist and head of WMU’s piano department at the time. He also commuted to Chicago on weekends for lessons with Emilio del Rosario Jr., a famously demanding Music Institute of Chicago teacher. After a year and half as a piano major at WMU, Mischa—who’d grown into a trim six-footer with a shock of black hair—transferred to Northwestern University.
Like his dad, Mischa did some composing as a kid. He remembers writing the theme, when he was seven, for the second movement of a concerto Ramon was composing for pianist Abe Stockman. “By the time he was ten or 11, he was writing real pieces,” Ramon says. “And he was winning all of the contests for grade school kids” sponsored by the Michigan Music Teachers Association.
But the writing stopped dead in high school. “More interested in building my skills as a pianist,” Mischa says. “That’s who I felt I was at the time. I got a degree in piano performance and, when I got out on the other side, I didn’t quite know where I was going and what I was doing.” He took some time off and went to Europe with a musician friend. “We both discovered a desire to compose out there,” he recalls. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the air we were breathing or the fact that we were visiting the graves of our favorite composers.” When he came back to the States a month later, he was fired up with “an incredible urge to create.”
“My first experiments were completely on my own, and I thought they were terrible,” Mischa says. “I thought, ‘God, this sounds exactly like [Maurice Ravel’s] “Ondine.”‘ This is much harder than I thought it was.'” But he played his attempt at a piano sonata for a number of people, including composer John Corigliano, who nudged him in the direction of the well-regarded music school at Indiana University, where, Ramon says, they looked at his work and “gave him a graduate fellowship on the spot to study composition.”
He was getting a late start by conventional standards. “It was really almost like an epiphany, that I needed to do this, when I was about 24 years old. And that’s usually the time when people are getting some headway on their careers. They’ve maybe won a couple awards, had a commission or two. And here I was, trying to figure out where the trumpets were on an orchestral score. But because I was so passionate about it, the learning curve was pretty quick.”
Mischa met Shin, a fellow grad student, in IU’s music library. By the time he finished his doctorate, seven years ago, they were married and considering a move to Chicago. They spied Ascension’s listing for a music director, applied for the job, and landed it.
“We thought we could split the work between the two of us,” Mischa says, “and have time to pursue the types of things we needed to do individually—her dissertation, my freelance composing and getting networked here in Chicago.” Shin is still working on her degree. Her doctoral recital performance will be a piece Mischa wrote for her, Dawning.
Seven years of juggling gigs can seem like an eternity, especially when what you really want to do is carve out four or five hours a day to write music. But this year Mischa thinks he’s on the cusp of a more manageable arrangement—if he can just keep all the balls in the air until it happens. He’s already dropped one, and it’s clearly troubling him. A rush of opportunities that came his way last fall, coupled with an already tight schedule, caused him to miss a commission deadline for the first time ever. A three-movement Fulcrum Point piece for flugelhorn and organ, supposed to have been completed in January for a March 13 premiere at Saint James Episcopal Cathedral in River North, is only two-thirds done. “I could’ve turned something in,” Mischa says, but in mid-December he was so unhappy with the way the final movement was going that he went to Fulcrum Point artistic director Stephen Burns. They agreed to hold off on it. Only the lyrical first movement was played on Sunday; they’ll premiere the full piece later.
Mischa says he doesn’t think much about whether his music sounds like his dad’s. “I studied with him for the first 13 years—there’s definitely some influence there. Every once in a while, if I hear a performance of mine, I’ll have a moment where I say, ‘Oh my God, that sounds like my dad.'”
The harmonic language they share, he says, “tends to be between neo-romantic and something that incorporates dissonance quite freely. And we both have an interest in modernizing older forms. We write music that we love to hear—that comes from our deep roots in being performers and also from the music of our time. We embrace those influences. But, most of all, we’re both very visceral with our music. We want the music to communicate directly and immediately. It shouldn’t have to go through layers and sublayers of understanding.”
Composing, he says, is about “changing the world for a moment.”
A lot of Mischa’s music can be heard on his website, mischazupko.com. But in the last month there’s been a flurry of live performances. Two of Mischa’s pieces were on the bill at a faculty recital, March 3, in Roosevelt University’s hidden treasure, Ganz Hall. His friends, violinist Minghuan Xu and pianist Winston Choi, rendered Shades of Grey, the inventive and intricate exploration of partnering he wrote in 2005 in honor of their wedding. And Mischa himself carried off the human part in his wonderful Shunt—a duet for piano and prerecorded, manipulated piano sounds that swoops and tumbles into unearthly territory. It features a visual “score” by the Chicago video art team Luftwerk.
Mischa and Burns played and were interviewed Tuesday on WFMT, and this Saturday Fulcrum Point previews next week’s Harris Theater concert with a free open rehearsal at Ascension. That program includes Mischa’s Rising, which is based on the ascension text from the Gospel of Luke and was written last year for Ascension’s 50th anniversary. He’ll perform at the rehearsal but not at the Harris.
Ramon relocated from Kalamazoo to Chicago with Vonette a year and a half after Mischa and Shin’s move. He’s made his peace with his son’s career choice. According to Mischa, it happened early on, when Mischa played that first piano sonata for his dad after his return from Europe. “I finished,” Mischa says, “and, I still remember, he said, ‘I knew you always should’ve been a composer.'” v
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