Back to the Roots: Evan Ziporyn plays Berkeley

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Evan Ziporyn performs a solo recital at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive on Friday as part of BAM/PFA’s L@TE Friday Nights concert series. Photo: courtesy Evan Ziporyn

People move to Berkeley for all kinds of reasons. For Evan Ziporyn the big draw was gamelan.

Best known as for his two-decade tenure in the Bang On A Can All Stars, the prolific composer and clarinet virtuoso was an undergrad at Yale in 1979 when he became entranced by Balinese music. On the same day that he experienced his gamelan epiphany, Ziporyn heard about an East Bay ensemble, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, recently launched in a Berkeley living room by Rachel Cooper, Michael Tenzer and the great Balinese composer I Wayan Suweca.

“They had just started but to me it seemed like they were already established,” says Ziporyn, who performs a solo recital at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive as part of BAM/PFA’s L@TE Friday Nights concert series. “That’s why I went to graduate school at Cal, to join Sekar Jaya, and I played with them until I left in 1990.”

Ziporyn is just starting to perform solo concerts again after two decades devoted to other pursuits, and he credits his re-immersion in the demanding setting to his recently launched trio Eviyan with violinist/vocalist Iva Bittová and guitarist Gyan Riley.


In many ways the material he’s presenting at BAM/PFA flows out of his experience writing the opera, A House In Bali, an ambitious Cal Performances production that made its US debut at Zellerbach Hall in 2009. Based on the life of Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer and musicologist who did pioneering studies of Balinese music, the opera took Ziporyn deeply into 1930s field recordings from Bali and East Africa, sources that surface in the material he’s playing Friday.

“It’s a new direction for me, working with samples, but the setup is pretty old school, pre-recorded electronics,” says Ziporyn, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s mostly music composed by me or my partner Christine Southworth, including this new suite of nine pieces, In My Mind and In My Car. Mine are really explicitly sourced, and it’s me meditating upon that original source. Christine’s points of departure are harder to track.”

He and Southworth hadn’t planned on collaborating, but “she was working on these stand alone electronic pieces in the next room in our house, and at a certain point I said I’d really like to play over them with bass clarinet. Suddenly it seemed they all worked really well as a set, that they had a coherence and identity as a single piece.”

Pianist Sarah Cahill, who booked him for L@TE Friday Nights and performs the first 30 of his 100 30-Second Pieces for Two Pianos with her duo partner Regina Schaffer at the Center for New Music on Nov. 22, encountered Ziporyn back in his mid-20s when “he was already very clearly an exciting and original composer,” she says.

“If you listen to works like ‘Some Coal’ or ‘Filling Station’ from the mid-80s when he was a grad student at UC Berkeley, they don’t sound like student compositions. They’re already mature and fresh and fascinating. He already had a very focused idea of who he was as a composer.”

As a regular at Daniel Plonsey’s Beanbenders concerts, Ziporyn credits his Berkeley years with introducing him to the musical lexicon that continues to define his music. “Rova Saxophone Quartet was also very important,” he says. “They really changed things when I heard them. It’s not just that they’re players, what I liked was that you couldn’t tell when they were playing composed music or improvising. I really learned a lot from them.”

Speaking of ROVA, the powerhouse saxophone quartet plays its final Bay Area gig of the year Sunday night at the Berkeley Arts Festival space on University Avenue, with guest appearances by other saxophonists.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

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