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Ziporyn on tour with Paul Simon

Composer, clarinetist and Professor of Music Evan Ziporyn is performing on tour with singer/songwriter Paul Simon this fall, playing clarinet and saxophone as part of Mr. Simon's 12-piece band throughout Europe and the United States. The tour will bring them to Boston for three performances at the Orpheum Theater December 1-3. Dr. Ziporyn also plays on Simon's new album, You're the One, which was released in October.

An expert on the Balinese gamelan and innovative composer for combined ensembles of gamelan and western instruments, Professor Ziporyn is a member of the New York-based Bang on a Can All-Stars, and founder and director of MIT's Gamelan Galak Tika. He also performed with the All-Stars at the Sydney Olympics this fall as part of the Olympics Arts Festival. Director of Arts Communication Mary Haller interviewed Professor Ziporyn by e-mail upon his return from Europe, as he prepared to leave for the eight-city American portion of the tour.

Haller: How did you and Paul Simon get together?

Ziporyn: Simon contacted me a little over a year ago to discuss the possibility of incorporating Balinese gamelan into his music. He had started working the previous summer with a couple of musicians I know -- Jamey Haddad, an extraordinary world-music percussionist who teaches at Berklee, and Mark Stewart, the guitarist from my group Bang On A Can. At that point [Simon] was just getting some momentum on the record and was still exploring a number of possibilities. His working methods involve following quite a number of paths, only a small portion of which end up in the music. He came up to MIT and spent the day with some members of Galak Tika, trying out ideas, seeing if the sound and tuning of the instruments fit into his tunes. The gamelan didn't end up working out, but we had a good time. After that I guess I was on his radar screen.

Tell me a little about the album-recording process. Was it very high-tech?

The process was no more or less high-tech than most albums -- they just had a lot more time and money! At a certain point this difference ends up being qualitative: all my previous work in the studio, on dozens of records of one sort or another, involves first and foremost a fair degree of watching the clock, using one's time as effectively as possible. That wasn't an issue here. My involvement was quite peripheral -- five or six sessions over the course of eight or nine months -- so I heard the music developing in a time-lapse kind of way.

What was Simon like to work with during the recording?

His working methods were both intriguing and inspiring to me -- very collaborative, very patient, but also very directed and perfectionist. He is a true composer, with his idiom being the entire spectrum of popular music. He draws his musical ideas both from specific genres and from the qualities of particular players, and then shapes these ideas around very personal and extremely moving lyrics.

The album has gotten great reviews; what's new and different about it?

I see it as a refined continuation of his previous work -- the world-music explorations of Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, combined with the lyrical qualities of earlier records like Hearts and Bones. I know Graceland is thought of as "the South Africa record" and Rhythm as "the Brazilian record," but in fact they're far more broad-ranged than that. There are elements of North African and Indian music on this one, in subtle doses, but to me this record is simply an elegant work by a mature artist.

How are audiences responding to the tour performances?

The most striking thing to me is how important his music is to so many people. Every night there are quite a number of audience members mouthing all the lyrics by heart, even the new songs, which have only been out for about a month. In general the concerts are incredibly joyous -- and it's thrilling for me to see people in a state of high exhilaration that's due, at least in part, to something I'm doing. Part of the reason I love performing is because the performer/audience relationship is so ritualistically charged and mysterious -- every audience is different, and what gets generated is never predictable. It's also something of an ongoing object lesson for me, about popular culture, its weight and import.

How many instruments do you have with you on stage?

I'm carrying five horns -- three saxophones and two clarinets -- and I play them all in equal turn. Paul's music serves the lyrics and the voice, as it should, and like all rock-and-roll it's primarily guitar-oriented, so much of what the three horn players do is subdued and in the background.

Tell me about the process of working with other band members. Do you get to improvise much or at all?

The music is all worked out collaboratively (but under Paul's direction) over several weeks of intensive rehearsal. It's composed but not notated, just like gamelan, and everything is open to revision and negotiation. Even tunes with classic horn lines like Late in the Evening or Call Me Al might get transformed and altered. Musically, this was incredibly compelling, spending hours working with musicians like Steve Gadd and Bakithi Kumalo, working out ways to reinvigorate music that I've loved for years and years -- or just leaving it as it is if it's working. This was a peak musical experience, even if my own parts aren't exactly the center of attention. Within that, I've of course brought my own sensibility and interests to the table, not for their own sake but because that's just how I think about music. So there are saxophone lines based on pygmy hocketing, bass clarinet melodies based on Indian drones, some multiphonics, even some good old four-part chorale writing in a couple of the tunes.

You were pretty young when some of Simon's early albums (Sounds of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Water) came out. What is your memory of them? Were you influenced by Simon in your own development as a musician?

I remember owning Bridge Over Troubled Water as a child, and even at the time being very interested in some of the sounds -- the South American flutes on El Condor Pasa, the echo effects on The Boxer. He was interested in nonwestern music and innovative production from the beginning. After that, I'll be honest and admit that my focus shifted to Stravinsky and Coltrane, but like everyone on the planet I always enjoyed his music when I heard it. Graceland hooked me again. In addition to being very beautiful, it spoke to my own interest in nonwestern music, to my own attempts to make music that crossed cultural boundaries. I also felt a connection to that record because my own wanderings had brought me into contact with South African music and with several of the musicians who ended up on that record. I've always considered it a model for what cross-cultural collaboration can be in a western context: respectful of its sources, yet interested in making a music that speaks on its own terms.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 2000.

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