“The present-day composer refuses to die,” said Edgar Varèse. It’s a quote that famously inspired Frank Zappa, and it’s equally applicable to the work of Evan Ziporyn, a clarinetist, classical composer, and leader of his own Balinese gamelan group, Gamelan Galak Tika. He’s recorded and performed with Steve Reich and Matthew Shipp, and tours regularly with the Bang On A Can All-Stars. His newest CD, Frog’s Eye, is his third for the Cantaloupe label, run by Bang On A Can.
Frog’s Eye contains four lengthy pieces, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Orchestra and Wind Ensemble on “The Ornate Zither And The Nomad Flute,” inspired by and incorporating poems by Li Shangyin and W.S. Merwin, the soprano Anne Harley is heard.
Ziporyn’s compositions have an organic feel, reminiscent of classic Minimalist works by Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. “Frog’s Eye,” in particular, bubbles up and around the listener, slowly becoming an entirely enveloping environment. This is exactly the effect Ziporyn was hoping to achieve with the piece.
“I was walking around Walden Pond in the summer of 2002,” he says, recalling its inspiration. “It was an incredibly hot day, one of those New England days where you can’t really do anything. And I saw this frog, 99 percent immersed in water with just his eye poking out, and it reminded me a lot of the feeling that one gets when you’re immersed in nature, that you’re just a tiny speck in the world, and you feel the world kind of enveloping you. The piece progresses and things happen. You hear insects, and you feel the weather change, and you see cloud patterns, but somehow, you’re part of it rather than making it happen or just observing it passively. The other thing about that piece is that when I thought about it, I realized that what the frog was probably doing was looking for insects to eat. So there was a Zen stillness to it, but also this very active, engaged survival thing which had a certain kind of violence.”
An aspect of Ziporyn’s music that isn’t particularly audible on Frog’s Eye, at least not when compared with his 2003 CD ShadowBang, which featured Balinese shadow puppeteer I Wayan Wija alongside the Bang On A Can All-Stars, is his fascination with gamelan. “I spent all of my twenties either in Bali or playing Balinese gamelan in the Bay Area, when I was a student,” Ziporyn says. “And when I moved to the East Coast in 1990, I kinda thought I was going to leave all that behind, but I just felt like life was not as rich without it. So I started my own gamelan in 1993, and I still play with them twice a week, to this day. There’s something really important about getting back to that feeling.”
He’s currently preparing a concerto for gamelan and strings for Galak Tika and the Philadelphia Classical Orchestra, which will have its premiere in April 2007. The experience has apparently made him even more cognizant than ever of the differences between the organic nature of gamelan music—based on slowly unspooling improvisations on tuned gongs—and the hierarchical, highly structured world of large-scale orchestral composition. “I always feel like music comes out of performance, and comes out of playing,” he says. “Even now, when I write, it really comes out of a lot of time spent alone, improvising on my instruments and finding material through doing. Almost all the music I end up using in my pieces come out of some kind of improvisational impulse. I really feel that’s the source of melody, and the source of feeling in music. A lot of times, if you think about an idea in your head, you may not think there’s much to it. You can overanalyze, and say ‘Well, that’s not so interesting.’ But when you’re actually playing things, that’s when you really know whether something is interesting or not.”
At the same time, though, the distancing effect of a piece of score paper has its benefits. “The n