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Music professor debuts trio in MIT concert

Evan Ziporyn's EVIYAN mixes elements of classical, folk, jazz, minimalist and global traditions.
Three performers on stage
Photo: Christine Southworth

The musical trio EVIYAN was born in vocalist-violinist Iva Bittová's house in the woods of the Hudson Valley after a few bowls of mushroom soup. In that rustic setting, performer-composers Bittová, Gyan Riley and Evan Ziporyn came together for the first time to create the kind of loose musical tapestries — weaving elements of the classical, folk, jazz, minimalist and global traditions — that debuted to high acclaim on Saturday, March 2 at MIT's Kresge Auditorium. "It felt like a family reunion," says Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music and Faculty Director of the Center for Art, Science & Technology.

The group was Ziporyn's brainchild as the next phase after a 20-year tenure with the celebrated genre-smashing group Bang on a Can. For the past several decades, Ziporyn has combed the globe in search of new musical possibilities, most significantly working with Balinese gamelan musicians — from master teachers to adventurous teenagers — since the early 1980s. While much of his previous work took its shape from the sensation of cultural dissonance, where "the form and content [of the music] was the cultural clash," his newest project demonstrates a more easy coexistence between diverse traditions. He describes the experience of playing with Bittová and Riley as "gliding."

The concert opened with the incandescent Bittová drifting through the ensemble, the silvery thread of her voice twisting and winding through the instrumentals. Her ethereal vocals and violin combined the timeless traditions of her native Eastern Europe with classical, jazz and avant-garde sensibilities. Similarly, Riley — the son of minimalist legend Terry Riley — played the western classical guitar in such a way that evoked the instrument's kinship to the plucked instruments of India and the Middle East. The performance featured new works composed both individually and collaboratively, each member adding his or her own singular imprimatur to the pieces.

All members of EVIYAN have their roots in the classical tradition, which values both technical mastery and precision in expression and execution. Yet from this virtuosity springs the desire to at once dismantle and rebuild the borders of these worlds. What unites the three, Ziporyn says, is "a musical ethos that is pan-global and post-classical." Just as Picasso, a master of realism, invented the prismatic forms of cubism to contrive a new language for painting, these musicians deconstruct and reassemble the component parts of different musical genres to create an entirely new musical lexicon. "Each genre has a potential good energy and beauty which we can be more open to understanding. It's like learning more languages," says Bittová.

Joining them onstage were tablaist Sandeep Das, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, and bassist Blake Newman, both of whom Ziporyn has worked with before. He collaborated with Newman as part of MIT's Balinese ensemble Gamelan Galak Tika, and with Das on Ziporyn's "Sulvasutra," which appeared on the Silk Road Ensemble's album Off the Map. Like the trio, these two musicians share an improvisational ethos and an iconoclastic musical curiosity. "Putting this combination together can be a very deadly mix," Das says. Opening for the group was the visionary Angolan-Portuguese composer and instrument-builder Victor Gama, who will be giving a lecture-demonstration on Wednesday, March 6 at 12 p.m. in Killian Hall.

This is just the beginning for EVIYAN. The group, now starting to compose a greater number of songs collaboratively, will be performing at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival this summer, and it's unknown what the future has in store. The only thing to expect is the unexpected. Says Bittová, "I like to be surprised always."

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