New York, NY, March 29, 2007. I’ve been a fan of Evan Ziporyn’s music since six or seven years ago when I first heard his work in a concert of piano music at Dartmouth College. (I think it must have been “Pondok,” in a recital by the fabulous Sarah Cahill, but I can’t seem to find evidence to support that conclusion. Sarah, if you’re out there. . .) Ziporyn is a fixture at Bang On A Can, and a member of the Bang On A Can All Stars where he plays a mean clarinet; he’s also a member of the music faculty at MIT and the founder of Gamelan Galak Tika. Last Thursday, Ziporyn teamed up with cello-percussion duo Odd Appetite (Ha Yang Kim and Nathan Davis) and bassist Robert Black (another Bang On A Can All Stars member) for two sets at The Stone, John Zorn’s Alphabet City new music dive.
Ziporyn opened the set with “Partial Truths” for solo bass clarinet, from his 2001 album “This is Not a Clarinet,” which weaves together percussive sounding tongued notes, cycles of leaping figures that outline lovely contrapuntal lines, melodies sung through the instrument in harmony with the clarinet sounds themselves, and a variety of other extended techniques that pushed at the far edges of the acoustic properties of the instrument. The fullness and richness of the texture was remarkable given the limitations of a single, ordinarily monophonic instrument.
The atmosphere was very relaxed and informal as the remaining three members of the quarter took their places for the remainder of the concert, and Ziporyn explained that while some of the pieces they were about to play had titles, they were really just working titles and so we weren’t going to be told what they were. But they were all good.
The first piece with the quarter, for example, started with a devastatingly beautiful texture of rich descending lines and then slowly went haywire. The consonant harmonies of the beginning slowly went dissonant, and the notes themselves were played with harsh extended techniques. This was to be a common structural feature of the remaining works—clean, organized music that gradually broke down in fascinating and simultaneously beautiful and ugly ways. Talking with Nathan Davis afterward learned that about 30% of the concert was improvised, and most of that improvisation took place in the parts where things “get weird.” I also learned that while the first piece for the quartet was through-composed the performers were instructed to add harmonics and other effects to dirty-up the sound. The cello and bass would essentially play with deliberately sloppy technique in order to introduce the kinds of artifacts that one ordinarily avoids. Ziporyn’s clarinet would make the kinds of shrieks and howls that I remember making by mistake when I was first learning the saxophone in elementary school. But in this context those “ugly” sounds simply added to the character and to the beauty of the music. Other pieces switched seamlessly from one time signature to another, in the same effortlessly disorienting way that the best Philip Glass music does, and layering different time signatures over each other. Following the music by counting becomes impossible, but once you let go you drift above the grid carried by the chaotic beauty of the sounds.
And all that remains is to note that the performers themselves were uniformly excellent. All four have impeccable technique, and Davis and Kim are both skilled composers themselves which presumably enhanced the level of the improvisational components of the evening. I suspect all four will be heard on this summer’s Bang On A Can Marathon, so mark your calendars.