Evan Ziporyn began a gamelan – a Balinese orchestra – at MIT. This year, he and the 30-member group performed at Carnegie Hall.
“I was thrilled, but the students were through the roof,” he says. “The concert wasn’t until 4 pm, but the entire group showed up at 10 am, just because they wanted to stay back stage as long as possible.
“The students were spectacular. And the audience went nuts. They were clapping, cheering, and whistling,” says Ziporyn, who founded MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika in 1993. “I just think it’s one of the most interesting kinds of music on the planet.”
Evan Ziporyn, director of MIT’s Music and Theater Arts Section, is a renowned composer, clarinetist, and world music specialist. The Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music, he earned a degree from Yale in 1981, then earned a master’s in 1986 and a Ph.D. in 1989 from U.C. Berkeley. He joined the MIT faculty in 1990. In the fall of 2000, he toured for several months as a saxophonist with Paul Simon. (“It was a huge thrill,” he says.)
Ziporyn, who has performed across the globe, has recorded five CDs himself and appeared on more than 30 CDs with others. Much of his work is a mix of Eastern and Western instruments and electronics, and much of his music defies all genres.
“As a young musician, there was no place for this music because it didn’t fit into any genre whatsoever,” he says. “It’s not that we thought, let’s make music that nobody has any place to put in the record store. It’s just that that’s who we were as musicians.”
Music in the Family
Ziporyn was raised in Evanston, Illinois. His father is a psychiatrist, who was a great violinist, and his mother is a lawyer, who loved to sing. As a child, Evan listened to their large collection of albums — from Peter, Paul and Mary, to Dixieland jazz, to music of Pakistan. He says of the latter: “I think that’s what started my interest in other cultures.”
Gamelan, a Balinese orchestra, features mostly percussion instruments, including gongs, chimes, cymbals, and drums. Ziporyn first studied Balinese gamelan as an undergraduate and went to Bali for a year in 1981. Later, at graduate school on the West Coast, he became involved in gamelan again and later returned to Bali. He fell in love with the music and the culture, so when he came to MIT, he decided to begin a gamelan here. The MIT group has performed dozens of times across the East Coast, and Ziporyn’s compositions propelled MIT’s group onto the world music scene. It was Ziporyn’s own work for gamelan and western instruments that the MIT group performed at Carnegie Hall.
With its cross-cultural messages, the music took on greater significance after 9/11 and after the Bali bombing in 2002, he says. “The message of the terrorists was keep your culture out of our culture. My feeling was that my deepest experiences came from people and ideas from other cultures. It suddenly seemed to me that the message of this music was that there is intrinsic value in having an intense encounter with people from other countries.”
Ban on a Can
Ziporyn is also a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, which is a group that is part classical, part rock, part jazz. It originally began as a new music festival in New York City in 1987. Since, it has become a bold institution of festivals, concerts, publishing, recording, teaching, and touring.
A clarinetist for the six-member group, Ziporyn says he believes deeply in their music. “I feel like I’m working at my peak, that I don’t have to hold anything back creatively or musically, and it’s very fulfilling.”
His goal for the future, he says, is he would love to see the gamelan flourish, and he’d also like to reach out to the larger community by composing bigger pieces that involve theater.
What he has learned most from music, he says, is “there is value in seeing your ideas through. Even if it seems like you don’t know where something will lead, or it seems like there’s no point in pursuing something, that’s probably the road you’re meant to follow.”