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New music by Ziporyn spans 1,000 years with voice, wind

"The Ornate Zither and the Nomad Flute" is the intriguing title of Professor Evan Ziporyn's latest composition, which will receive its world premiere thanks to the MIT Wind Ensemble this Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium.

Commissioned by Richard D. Nordlof (S.B. 1955) in memory of his wife, Jody, "The Ornate Zither and the Nomad Flute" juxtaposes two poems written more than a thousand years apart that deal with sensation, memory and the mysterious ways one becomes the other. The Chinese poem "The Ornate Zither" by Li Shangyin dates from the 10th century and is sung in Mandarin; "The Nomad Flute" by the contemporary poet W.S. Merwin appeared in "The New Yorker" in November 2004 and is sung in English.

Lecturer Frederick Harris Jr., director of the wind ensemble, brokered the match between Ziporyn and Nordlof, a long-time supporter of the Wind Ensemble, to honor Nordlof's late wife. "My idea was to have something for voice and winds," since Jody had been an amateur soprano, Harris said.

As the piece uses two alternating pieces of poetry, Ziporyn, who selected the poems, has divided the Wind Ensemble into two identical, smaller groups of winds surrounded by metallic percussion situated on either side of the stage. The chords and melodies will oscillate between the two sides of the stage.

Ziporyn characterizes "The Ornate Zither" as "beautiful and strange, both highly lyrical and highly abstract." The piece features soprano Anne Harley, who speaks Chinese. "I felt she could convey the stark power of the words in a luminously beautiful way," said Ziporyn.

A graduate of Yale University, Harley received her master's degree in voice from Boston University as well as the Certificate in Opera Performance from Boston University's esteemed Opera Institute. She has since performed throughout Canada, the United States and England, specializing in both contemporary and early music.

An accomplished clarinetist and composer, Ziporyn, who is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music at MIT, has had compositions performed by numerous contemporary artists including the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, the Nederlands Blazer Ensemble, master pipa player Wu Man, Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Maya Beiser. He has been associated with the Bang on a Can Festival since its founding in 1987, appearing as composer, soloist and ensemble leader. As a performer and recording artist, Ziporyn has worked with a range of master musicians from numerous musical cultures, including Paul Simon (with whom he toured throughout the fall of 2000), DJ Spooky, Matthew Shipp, Balinese dalang (puppeteer) I Wayan Wija, Darius Brubeck and Todd Reynolds.

The Wind Ensemble will also perform Vaughn Williams' "English Folk Song Suite," Charles Ives' "Fugue in C" and Peter Mennin's "Canzona." Admission is $5 at the door.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 9, 2005 (download PDF).

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