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Ziporyn draws musical inspirations from Bali, Eno

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Evan Ziporyn, professor of music and founder of MIT's Gamelan Galak Tika, presented segments of his own compositions, his arrangement of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" and a new work, "Partial Truths," as well as insights into his creative process at a recent session in the Arts Colloquium series.

Alan Brody, associate provost for the arts, introduced Professor Ziporyn, describing the composer as "an extraordinary ethnomusicologist."

"I was probably meant to be a village musician. From an early age, I was interested in the music of other cultures and in the function of music and all its roles and uses in community," said Professor Ziporyn.

Professor Ziporyn, who has worked for 19 years with the traditional music of Bali, is a composer, clarinetist, saxophonist and producer. He is a member of the New York-based Bang on a Can All-Stars, has performed all over the world, and has recorded for Sony Classical, Nonesuch, Polygram and New World. A current project is a puppet opera, in collaboration with a Balinese puppeteer.

"My own role is difficult to describe. I take inspiration from many sources. I'm neither just a performer, nor just a composer," he said.

Professor Ziporyn described two very different sources of inspiration for his current work. One was his discovery of musical life in a village in Bali, which led him to explore the Gamelan and to found the MIT group. The other was Brian Eno's "Music for Airports," a 1978 composition of ambient music.

"Ambient music is music you can either ignore or listen to very carefully. After listening to the original version of 'Music for Airports,' I asked myself, what's going on inside this piece? What's the pattern and what do I want to do with it? I began to impose my own narrative on it. I found beautiful, soulful melodies. I found moments when the voices of individual instruments came out -- moments like the ones you hear during the magical time when an orchestra is tuning up. Instrument by instrument, they're getting ready. The audience experiences a sense of expectation, a 'get on with it.' In ambient music, there is no 'getting on with it.' It's more like a film -- it's made up of discontinuous, even disconnected events, that seem continuous. It reveals itself slowly as you interact with it," he said.

Professor Ziporyn made his point by playing first a CD and then a video clip of Bang on a Can's performance of "Music for Airports" in a departure lounge at Stansted airport outside London.

While Rm 14E-304 is hardly a large public space, the effect of Bang On a Can's CD was unsettling and soothing, eerie and familiar, as if the assembled MIT group were travellers in some mystic realm.

The CNN video clip of their performance at Stansted, followed by wry commentary by rock musician, producer and ambient composer Brian Eno, added a note of characterisic irreverence to Professor Ziporyn's talk.

"Ambient music is like interesting wallpaper. 'Music for Airports' was designed to disguise the fact you're about to take your life in your hands. I wanted to make music that said to nervous travellers, you wouldn't actually mind dying," Mr. Eno said to the CNN camera.

(Mr. Eno, who has produced works by U2 and Talking Heads, "gave his okay to the Bang on a Can project. He liked it and doors opened," Professor Ziporyn said.)

Professor Ziporyn also described how projects "come to confluence" in a current solo work. He played selections from Soviet Georgian a capella choir music and showed how his own experience with Balinese instruments as well as his expertise on the clarinet formed tools by which to explore the "inside" of the ancient Georgian sound.

Professor Ziporyn listened as attentively as his audience to the selection from his new work. Hands in a black suit jacket, he leaned into the up-and-down reedy notes. His silhouette, backlit by a huge window, formed a freeze-frame of a traveler's eager pose. Only the music moved.

The Creative Arts Council, the Council for the Arts, the Arts Scholars, faculty and arts staff are invited to the Arts Colloquia. Thomas DeFrantz, assistant professor of music and theater arts, will speak on performance research in dance style on November 19.

The Arts Colloquia are hosted by Professor Brody. For more information, contact Laura Moses at x3-9821 or

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 17, 1999.

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