As SFCMP prepares for a performance of Hive, we asked composer Evan Ziporyn about the concert’s namesake piece:
On the list of works on your website, the first section is labeled as “Works for Clarinet/Bass Clarinet,” but many of the pieces, includingHive, appear in other sections as well. Of course, since you play Clarinet yourself this isn’t all that surprising, but could you talk a bit about how you think about these works as somehow distinct from the other pieces with which they share “secondary” categories?
Mainly this is navigational – my default job description is ‘composer/clarinetist,’ many of my works are for clarinet, so a significant number of visitors to the site are clarinetists – putting that section first is the equivalent of displaying something in the front of a store – if this is what you’re here for, you need look no further! Of course it also reflects something about my music, the depth of my relationship to the instrument, technically and personally.
While writing for only wind instruments is maybe not all that unusual, it’s also not an ensemble type that many people are particularly familiar with, and in fact Hive is the only piece of its kind (in terms of instrumentation) that we’ll be featuring in our programming for this season. Could you talk about how you approach the wind ensemble and perhaps what you find particularly interesting and unique about these instruments?
This is really a continuation of the last answer. For years I thought of the solo clarinet pieces as self-portraits; it at first took me by surprise the other musicians would want to play them. (Coincidentally one of the first players who approached me years ago was Jeff Anderle, he’s played several of my pieces brilliantly, so it’s great to have him be part of this performance). I had to find a way to codify my idiosyncratic techniques, find notations and alternate fingers, set aspects that in my own performance could be more open, etc. Hivewas a commission from another ‘legit’ player who has performed my music extremely well, Ted Schoen of Minnesota. The other members of the original group were two extremely fine orchestral players, principals in St. Paul and Atlanta. Classical clarinet, wind ensembles, and clarinet choirs were a large part of my youth, but over the years I had come to feel like an outsider in that world. So the fact that they wanted to do this was very important to me – an opportunity to reconnect to that community and to that style of playing, to find a way to meaningfully merge our sensibilities. I felt like I was returning to my hive after a very long day out, bringing back nectar and pollen from the outside world.
Continuing somewhat with this thread of interest in unique sound-worlds, could you talk a little bit about how your experience with Gamelan music shapes your compositional style?
I began studying Balinese gamelan over 30 years ago; and I’ve led my own ensemble and composed for it for over 20 years – so at this point it feels like part of the DNA – hard to know where to even begin! Direct evocations and quotes aside (though these almost always seep in), I suppose it’s a cyclical orientation, a love of syncopation, an emphasis on ensemble interaction, and an awareness of the visceral and the beautiful. That would be the musical side of it. There are also community aspects of gamelan – both how the ensemble works and how it fits into Balinese society – that I find continually instructive and inspiring. These have been equally important to me in shaping my musical activities over the years.
Finally, in the notes for Hive you mention that the piece is in part derived from your experiences as an amateur bee-keeper. Could you talk about your decision to use bees as the jumping off point for this piece? Did you decide to start keeping bees knowing that it would inform your music?
My wife and I had begun keeping bees in 2007, right around the time this piece was commissioned. Like many non-musical avocations – chess or child-rearing, to name too – it opens up entirely new ways of thinking about the world – sometimes small observations, sometimes life-changing epiphanies. In this case it was somewhere in between – there is something so ‘other’ about bee society, it is one thing to know this in the abstract, quite another to experience it in an ongoing and interactive way, dealing with this bizarre alien culture (which incidentally has the ability to kill you) in a box in your back yard. That said, the meaning of bee life is structural and formal – the life cycle, the rhythm of their interaction, the way they work together. All fueled by a daily hunt for the sensuous. You will notice how well that corresponds to the list in the previous answer…so how could I resist