Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Interview with Mark Zaki / Tom Moore

Composer Mark Zaki has been involved in a wide range of musical activities, including extensive work as a baroque violinist in early music ensembles playing period instruments, working with MIDI violin, electronic music, as well as music for film soundtracks, and playing lead guitar in a rock band. He grew up in New Jersey, and is presently professor of music at Rutgers-Camden. We spoke by Skype on February 11, 2010.

MOORE: What was your exposure to music as a child?

ZAKI: I was drawn to music from a very early age, and I recall wanting to play the trumpet, if for no other reason than that it was loud and shiny. My dad, who was in academia, was at the University of Minnesota when I was young, but he had done some post-graduate work in Germany. He was staying with a family there, and the parents – this was post-war – had three kids, and every morning he would wake up and they would be practicing Mozart piano trios. One played the piano, one the violin, and one the cello. And so he probably thought “my kid’s going to do that too, when I have one.” I wanted to play the trumpet, and he handed me a violin when I was about four or five. It was something that I took to very quickly. I must have been good at it then, though I can’t really remember. I advanced fairly quickly. That could have been good, and could have been bad. I always played concertmaster throughout my early schooling, but at the same time I didn’t get a lot of attention.

MOORE: It was accepted that you would be at the top.

ZAKI: Yes, and because of that I was pretty much left to my own devices. When I was fifteen I started teaching myself how to play guitar, since that was what one did in high school. I was also very interested in electronic music, and the progressive rock of the day. I always liked to play with the basic synthesizers they had at school. I decided I wanted to be a musician by the time I got to college. I went to Rutgers, and there was some parental pressure to have a “practical” degree of some kind, and at the time the only area where you could have a double degree at Rutgers was electrical engineering – a dual BS/BA. I thought that was great, I could do electrical engineering and music, but the electrical engineering people were not too amused. I finished the music degree, and continued to have the electronics in the back of my mind. I did a fairly traditional violin program – I went through college, and got into Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers and eventually did my MA and DMA. At about the time I was doing the DMA, Zeta had come out with their MIDI violin – I took to that, and the next thing I knew I was at Princeton.

MOORE: If we can rewind a bit, did your father have some interest in music?

ZAKI: He played the violin – I have pictures of him holding it badly. He was someone who loved all things German – especially music - Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. He didn’t quite understand it I think, but he went out of his way to find it, and he wanted to give that appreciation to me too.

MOORE: Where was he from?

ZAKI: Egypt. He was a physician, and taught pathology at the University of Minnesota. He was an amateur on the music side.

MOORE: That’s not an uncommon connection – people in medicine are frequently musical.

ZAKI: He was at the American University in Cairo, which probably was very Western culturally. Your typical Egyptian in the 1930s probably wouldn’t have gravitated toward German classical music. He was exposed to it fairly early.

MOORE: What was his religious background?

ZAKI: He was Coptic, which as you know is a minority there.

MOORE: This may have facilitated his going to the United States?

ZAKI: Possibly. It made it easier for him to go to Germany, where he did his post-doctoral work. His mentor in Germany ultimately wanted to take him to the University of Minnesota, and apparently the Egyptian government wouldn’t let him leave, for a number of reasons. He worked out some kind of agreement that he would participate in a United Nations nuclear commission, and so he was able to go the United States. He met my mom at the University of Minnesota. Later he moved into industry, and was doing research at Bristol Myers in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I was probably ten or so when we moved to New Jersey.

MOORE: Everyone in New Jersey is from somewhere else.

ZAKI: And they all work either in finance or big pharma.

MOORE: What town did you grow up in?

ZAKI: East Brunswick.

MOORE: You were playing violin and classical music in the schools, and you were also playing guitar. Did you have a garage band?

ZAKI: Sort of. You get together and start jamming with friends, and then you think “I can write my own tunes, too” and you see who you can impress. I didn’t really start playing in bands until I got to college, when there were more opportunities to play at parties and so forth, and to meet people with similar interests. I played in a couple of short-lived, professional bands, did the Jersey Shore thing, played at clubs when they still had live music in New Brunswick. That scene is long-gone now. I didn’t play in bands for that long – about four or five years at the most, enough to know that it was probably not what I wanted to do. I was more interested in the recording side, and had more fun the few times that one band I was in actually tried to record. One summer I saved up all my money to buy a porta-studio – a little multi-track cassette player, and spent all my time figuring out how to break it.

MOORE: What genres of music were you playing with these bands?

ZAKI: Because it was commercially-oriented, the flavor of the day was new-wave, the post-punk era – the Cars, the Clash, some things by the Rolling Stones – typical garage-band stuff. Our purpose was to go to a bar and make the cash registers ring, so you wanted to keep people in there, and get people to dance. It was pretty much whatever was top-40 in the early eighties.

MOORE: Did you play lead?

ZAKI: It was known to happen.

TM: This was while you were in college, and at the same time you started to play early music on period instruments. How did you get involved with that?

ZAKI: The Mason Gross School had started their graduate music program at about the time that I graduated from undergraduate school, and I was recruited to come back – they needed violin students. I went back for my masters’. At the time, the teacher they had was Rafael Druian, who was teaching at Boston University at the time, and who had been the concertmaster at the New York Philharmonic under Boulez for a little while. Most people remember him as the concertmaster for the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1960s. I was playing Bach for him, and there was something that I wasn’t getting right for the Juilliard/Curtis crowd – that 19th-century romanticized tradition – and he said “I think you are hearing this differently – you need to listen to a Baroque violinist play this. You are trying to do something that isn’t quite working for this instrument.” At the time I didn’t know quite what he meant, but he pointed me toward Sergiu Luca, who had that big “period-instrument” recording of the Bach sonatas. The library had it, and I remembering listening to it, and thinking “Yeah, that’s it.” About four or five years later I met Ben Hudson, who was concertmaster for just about everything in New York at that time (in the late 80’s), who said “you need to get a baroque violin.” He got me hooked up, and I got an instrument. He had been playing in all the baroque groups in New York, and got me on some lists, and one thing led to another. A lot of it was on-the-job training. I took to it because it was a sound that was satisfying, something that I intuitively feeling or hearing, and it made sense with the music. As a modern player I have never been a big fan of that “turbo” vibrato sound, you know that continuous wobble – there was something about it that seemed artificial to me. And if you play with no vibrato on a modern instrument, it somehow comes off as the wrong accent, especially if you are schooled in that big romantic tradition. When you have a less complex tone, and the articulation and affect and rhetoric all come from different places than how fast you can shake your left hand – it really makes sense with the early music.

MOORE: It’s interesting that there are so many people who end up doing contemporary music, or period instrument performance. Vocalists who may not have a big romantic wobble, but sing baroque cantatas or contemporary music.

ZAKI: I think that’s true. You do find people from the early music scene who also do contemporary music. My sense is that in a strange sort of way, contemporary music is more of a creative act than a re-creative act, and baroque music is similar because you don’t have the established conventions that you do for the traditional repertoire. That sort of creative activity appeals to a particular type of artist.

MOORE: In both early music and contemporary music you are exploring unknown territory.

ZAKI: I think that’s a large part of it. To my ears, when you hear a baroque group from Europe, a baroque group from New York, and a baroque group from the West Coast, you can hear very different things, whereas if you hear the Grosse Fuge played by different groups, it won’t be exactly the same either, but the stylistic playing field is a little smaller – the parameters get tighter.

MOORE: Your MA and DMA at Rutgers were in performance. How did you start moving in the direction of composition?

ZAKI: I had always been composing, and even in high school had been writing some preliminary piano pieces. I wasn’t drilling down compositionally, but I did like the idea of constructing something. It was a way of building something. I had always done it, and then when I was at Rutgers Charles Wuorinen was there, and I studied composition formally with him. I had studied earlier, but he was the first high-level teacher that I had, and I spent two or three years with him while I was in grad school. That was my first exposure to a more rigorous approach to composition.

MOORE: What was his pedagogy like? What did you work on?

ZAKI: He initially let me do my own exploring. It was a matter of learning how to use the materials, and this whole process of being a composer, sitting down, establishing a work flow. He expected me to bring in something every week, but as far as what it was, he wasn’t too dogmatic in the beginning – Charles has a reputation for being opinionated, shall we say. That came later. He began to reel me in – “an octave doesn’t really work here, because…” and he would go into a the types of things you’d see in his book [Simple Composition], and started pulling me in that direction. As a teacher he was very strong – the rigor was there, which is not something that I can say that I have always had with other teachers. But then composition is a tricky thing to teach.

MOORE: Are there pieces in your catalog from that period?

ZAKI: There are a few. Another teacher used to say that that we have to write a piece so that we can write the next piece, and a lot of the pieces from that time I see as formative. I have actually gone back and revisited them for their potential. I have done some electronic pieces based on some techniques which didn’t work so well in those early pieces, but which were more successful when I had better command of what I was trying to do. Electronics, for me, seems to lend a better palate for working with that material – the serial, timepoint things that Charles had been doing. The line between pitch and noise has become blurred – noise has become part of the musical fabric – and when you start moving away from pitch, one of the first questions you start asking yourself as a composer of electronic music is how do you know what happens next. The hierarchy changes. I find that timepoint structures can be valuable for setting up your logic, your history of events, your chain of events….

MOORE: Were you working with electronic media at this point, or was it notes on paper?

ZAKI: At the time I was working with Charles, Zeta had just come out with the MIDI violin. I remember the ad that I saw very clearly – I think it was in Electronic Musician – and it said it something like “now violinists can enter the world of synthesis – you can play any sound you want from a violin.” The promise was that in using this violin controller you did not have to change your technique as a violinist, and yet you could use it as the front end for a synthesizer of some sort – you could play a drum kit from your violin. That’s a nice thing to think about, I suppose, but in reality it didn’t really work so well for me. There’s something about the way that the physical, mechanical driver for the bow works, that doesn’t translate well to electronic or other kinds of sounds. Take a percussion sound for example. The sound is very discrete, you run out of sound, and what happens to the rest of the bow stroke? I was exploring that, and we didn’t have a dissertation for the DMA, but had to do a series of lecture-recitals. For one of the lecture-recitals I wrote a piece for MIDI violin, which was one of my first electronic pieces, and delivered a paper about it. Coming from a background as a violinist, that is what I knew. It was hard, initially, for me to separate myself from the violin paradigm, and I was trying to map that onto, or force it onto, an electronic world. I think that I cured myself of that fairly quickly.

MOORE: How did you decide to go to Princeton for the Ph.D?

ZAKI: I had actually applied for a job at Princeton. They were looking for a studio person, someone with an electronic music background, but who also had to have experience in composition and performance. I had applied and nothing came of it. I had started doing concerts in which I would play baroque violin, and modern violin and MIDI violin – it was a good way to shop a program around, because people would be interested in the differences between the instruments, and at the time it was something new. I started bumping up against the fact that the electronic music didn’t really fit in a traditional classical concert setting. I didn’t know how to proceed with my own music in that context. I met someone who had just graduated from Princeton, who said “You really should meet Steve Mackey – he plays the guitar, he has done stuff with the Kronos Quartet – he might be an interesting person for you to talk to.” I called up Steve, and said that I was interested in discussing all this with him. He told me to call up the office, make an appointment, and we’ll have coffee. I showed up on the appointed day, and somehow the perception was that I was interested in grad school, when all I really wanted to do was talk to Steve about this electric violin business. I looked at the list of people that I was supposed to meet that day, and I had interviews with Claudio [Spies] and [Peter] Westergaard – everybody was on the list. Gyula Csapo was there at the time…. I met the whole faculty, everybody except Milton [Babbitt]. I had only wanted fifteen minutes with Steve, but they had the whole day planned for me, and I thought, “this is interesting. Let’s see what happens. I have a whole day of one-on-one conversations with this amazing faculty. Let’s see what they have to say.” So I went through it, and didn’t mention that I wasn’t intentionally there as a potential grad student. I probably shouldn’t say this, because now they’ll take my degree away…. I ended up meeting Steve at the end of the day, and he sat down and said “I know you!” and I said “OK”, and he said

“You applied for that job last year.”

“Alright… So I’m curious then, tell me how did I fail with the job?”

“Well, you didn’t have a degree in composition, but we thought you had an interesting resume. We actually kicked it around for a while. Would you ever consider a place like Princeton for a composition degree?”

“Well, I just finished a doctoral degree in violin performance. I’m not sure that’s what I want to do right now.”

He started to tell me more about the program, and it got me thinking. The next thing I know I asked when the application deadline was. He said “I think it’s tomorrow”, so I ran over to the registrar’s office, got an application, filled it out, turned it in and stuck it on my mental back burner. They probably get about two hundred applications, and accept four to six, so I had thought “right, like I am really going to get this….” But then I realized that since they had kicked my job application around, maybe I had a chance. That was in November, and in April I got a call from Paul Lansky saying that they wanted to offer me a spot. That’s the long version. I didn’t have my sights set on Princeton, but in retrospect it is what I should have been doing rather than going to Mason Gross. It was definitely more in line with my interests.

MOORE: You are another one of those persons who sit between the carbon and silicon parts of the Princeton department. Were you more on the silicon side?

ZAKI: I tried to be. The high-level computer stuff was really new to me. Princeton in those days was focused on the NeXT platform, and I found it to be a little intimidating. Paul Lansky put me at ease. He said “Look, if you plug it in, it’s electroacoustic music. We count that as silicon. Don’t feel like you have to change your spots. These are your strengths – let’s see what we can build.” One of the nice things about that department is that they really give you a place to try things and fall down. You can go out on a limb and see what works. The electric violin pieces that I did at that time were largely hardware, without a lot of computer involvement. I did some computer pieces, but they were tape pieces. That was my introduction to acousmatic music and musique concrete. To me at the time that was fairly separate. Speculum Musicae came in and I wrote a trio for them, the Nash Ensemble of London came and I wrote a piece for them, but there were no electronics involved. Since I’m a violinist, I tend to write pieces that I can use, and most of them have an electronic component of some sort. That being said, I just finished a string quartet this summer that I didn’t picture myself playing in.

MOORE: Could you talk a little about the style of the works that you wrote for Speculum and the Nash Ensemble?

ZAKI: That’s a long time ago. The Speculum piece was a string trio for violin, viola and cello. Back then my immersion into electronic music, because it was new, really colored the way I was writing for instruments as well. I was bumping up against the notion that I have these sounds, so what do I do with these sounds, how do I organize these sounds – I can’t think about these in terms of traditional pitch structures, on the electronic side of things – and what I found myself doing was working with images. This is a picture of a triangle spinning through space – how do I represent that with sound? So when I went back to write these carbon-based pieces, protein-based pieces, I was bringing that imagery back. In a way, it was intuitive – I would come up with a phrase, and think, that reminds me of some kind of image, and vice versa. I wasn’t being strict about using a certain design or technique. It was more like meeting somebody and letting them reveal themselves to you – working with the material, sculpting it, perhaps. I would say that it was largely intuitive. It was a reflection of working with sound from the first time and separating it from the whole pitch idea. That’s changed over the years. The Nash piece I remember more clearly than the trio, only because I was starting to get more interested in film music at that time. It was my idea of what would happen if I were to make a “sound movie”, and edit it. I had an image of a TV show, with multiple points of view of something, with fast cuts. How do you represent time within the conventions of film, where you might have a crossfade to imply that time has past? How do you do that in an acoustical way? That’s what I recall about that piece. I was trying out things.

MOORE: Any other recollections about Princeton?

ZAKI: I came out of a DMA program at Rutgers which was quite traditional in the conservatory sense – you had to produce your Beethoven sonata and your concerto, and you had to do in the way that everyone has done it for the last hundred years. I chafed at that system, which was another reason that I was drawn to Baroque music – there was no one saying “this is how you have to do it, because my teacher did it that way”. On the composition side you have to make your own rules. The thing that I liked about Princeton was not only that you had to create your own logic, you had to defend it as well. Sure, you had a space to fall down, but they made a point of having you justify your approach, and why you did it, of making you think about what you were doing and clearly articulating your reasons for doing so. Coming out of a conservatory background, I found that very liberating. I wish I could go back and do those four years over again, because I would be better equipped to do it now, but at the time it was the best thing I ever did, because I had had my head screwed on so tightly by the conservatory routine and the way they did things, their way of perpetuating nineteenth-century performance tradition, that I was stuck, and I think that Princeton unstuck me. That’s the one thing that I really took away. I also think when people get into Princeton, there’s a moment where they wonder “why am I here?” I certainly did. “Why am I rubbing shoulders with these people who are all better composers than I am?” Princeton looks for an interesting mix – “who can we throw into the pot? Let’s see what happens if we put these people in the same kettle.” And they think, “how can we help this person get a leg up? We see potential.” In that respect, Princeton was very helpful to me. I also had already started to take an interest in film music – my cousin was a film student at Boston University. He called me and said, “I need to do my thesis project. Would you like to do the music?” I had never done anything like that before, but I was very intrigued. I was learning on the job again. As luck would have it, Paul Chihara came to give a colloquium in my last year at Princeton. So I had this short student film that he spent a great deal of time on, ripping it apart, frame-by-frame. It was like accelerated film school. I still think back to that and how much I learned. We got finished, and Paul said “You know how to compose for film. Let’s talk about how to get you a job doing that.” It wasn’t long after that I was moving to California.

MOORE: Your next stop was Los Angeles?

ZAKI: That was the plan after graduation, but I took a detour. I was in San Francisco for one year, at San Francisco State with Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez. He was a year ahead of me at Princeton, and they needed a sabbatical replacement at SF State – one of the faculty was on leave for the year, and he called me and said, “I hear you are coming to California. Do you want to make a detour for a year?” I thought it would be a good idea to have a job when I got to California, because I had been planning to pick up, go and just see what happened. When the position there ended, I just got in the car and went down to LA, met up with Chihara again, and he hired me to do a few things, which is how I got started there.

MOORE: How long were you in southern California?

ZAKI: That was in 1996, 1997 – almost eight years.

MOORE: You must have been leaving behind a lot of things that you had been doing, such as baroque violin.

ZAKI: No, not really. There were a couple of early music groups in LA. I was quite bi-coastal, because I continued to play a lot in New York. There were people in New York who didn’t realize that I had moved to California, because they kept seeing me all the time. I had gone out to California to do film music, and a few eyebrows went up among the Princeton crowd, who thought maybe I had lost my bearings in going from that world to a commercial world – they were wondering what was up with that. Certain academics do tend to look down on film music. But I had a background playing rock, and had commercial experience then. I don’t always make a distinction between different kinds of musics. For me it just makes for a bigger playground. There were a number of things that were appealing to me about film music. I had always wanted to write an opera, but there are all kinds of issues – the investment of time, and if you are lucky to get it mounted, and have it performed, then what happens when it’s over? It’s done and it sits on the shelf. At least with film you have a record. Film music allows you to take on characters as a composer. If I write a C major chord in a piece of film music, none of the film people would have anything to say – but they probably would say something at Princeton if it were in a concert piece. If I wanted to get out my guitar and do a blues thing, I could actually do it if the film called for it. You don’t get criticized for those kinds of things in film, so in a way it allows you to do different things. It’s a very valuable exercise for a composer when you have an input that you have to support. It can move you out of your comfort zone, which I think is a good thing. In a funny way film music allowed me to put a lot of my hats on one head. I did an independent feature film that was a psycho-thriller based on a Shakespearean legend, and I was able to bring in some baroque things. I wrote a whole set of cues that were based on a Purcell bass line from a fantasy that I knew. It worked really well. The electronic and tech side was front and center, and it opened a lot of doors for me.

MOORE: Is your film music available for listening outside the films?

ZAKI: I have film cues that would lend themselves as material for a concert piece. The tricky thing about film cues is that the form is bound by the film, so if the cue is seventeen seconds that is all you have. But I could certainly take that and develop it into bigger pieces. I have done a variety of types of films, and some of the psychological dramas allowed me to pull in highly dissonant things that worked quite well.

MOORE: So much of contemporary concert music ends up representing problematical psychological states. You are now at Rutgers Camden. How long have you been there?

ZAKI: I joined the faculty of Fine Arts in 2008. They are looking to start a MFA in digital arts, and they had a need for someone who does electronic music but also had an interest in film and acoustic composition as well. My role so far has been building the studio and laying the groundwork for the composition and tech curriculum. My Baroque side gets utilized as well since Julianne Baird is there, so that’s a nice complement.

MOORE: Those who have not lived in New Jersey may not be familiar with Camden and how close it is to Philadelphia. Do you see yourself having connections with the musical institutions across the river?

ZAKI: Some, and I’m sure that will grow more in time. I have connections with Maurice Wright at Temple, and an electroacoustic colleague of mine, Joo Won Park, teaches at Community College of Philadelphia. He came over to Rutgers Camden recently and gave a great lecture-demonstration on SuperCollider, the real-time algorithmic composition and audio synthesis environment. The Fine Arts department is separate from the music school, which is at the Rutgers New Brunswick campus, but Camden is in a nice place to be – there is a robust animation program already in place, and we have visual arts, we have theater, and we have electronic music now – we have the ingredients for an intermedia degree which seems to be very popular at the moment. We are very well positioned to really do something with it.

MOORE: Could you talk about a recent piece or upcoming project?

ZAKI: One thing that I am coming back to is using the violin as the front end for a performance network. Given the state of the MIDI violin back then, it had lost its appeal for me, and I had put it away for a while, but now with the way that software is developing – things like Ableton Live, for example – and the whole portability and ease of being able to perform with things now, I am really coming back to using the violin with electronics as a performance vehicle for me, and I have written a couple pieces which I have been taking around. I am going to be performing at the biennial arts and technology symposium at Connecticut College, and I recently played at SEAMUS, and at the Third Practice Festival of Electro-Acoustic Music. I am encouraged that things I was trying to do fifteen years ago are more easily accessible now. I am looking at different ways bring my violin performance back into the mix. One of the things that I found frustrating in the past was that the performance control wasn’t there. With the MIDI violin, there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between your gesture and the sound. Now you can create things in Max that can listen to the acoustic violin, and actually respond, much quicker, much faster, and with a higher degree of resolution, so there is a lot more that you can do to extend the capabilities of the instrument. That’s what I am looking at. The other area I am working in right now came out of my interest in film music. I’ve been exploring visual music and composing with computer-generated imagery or animation. Those are a little more time-intensive, and I am bumping up against not having a background as a visual artist. But I have four or five large-scale videos now that have gotten out there – that’s another avenue that I am interested in.