Martha Mooke: Walls, Windows, and Doors
In any given week, Martha Mooke could be performing a solo concert on her electric five-string viola, playing in a symphony or Broadway pit orchestra, touring either with a famous rock musician or one of her own improvisational groups, and/or giving educational clinics to young string players on how to find their musical voice.
Putting together a career as a working musician has never been easy, but one of the mantras for making it possible in the 21st century is: you must multitask. Most musicians multitask out of necessity, but for others it’s actually the source of their inspiration. And then there’s someone like Martha Mooke, who is engaged in so many different types of musical activities on a regular basis that it’s difficult for anyone else to keep track of them all. In any given week, she could be performing a solo concert on her electric five-string viola, playing in the viola section of a symphony orchestra or a Broadway pit orchestra, touring with a famous rock musician or with one of her own improvisational groups, and/or giving educational clinics to young string players on how to find their musical voice.
“I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities,” Mooke acknowledges when we caught up with her in between gigs at the New York offices of ASCAP. ASCAP was actually a fitting place for us to talk, since it was through her ASCAP-produced Thru The Walls, a series of concerts that focused on composer-performers who worked in a variety of musical genres, that she first met David Bowie which ultimately led to her performing and recording with him and then a whole host of other luminaries.
“I wanted to have that juxtaposition of music worlds … all types of influences: jazz, electronics, rock, all kinds of things,” Mooke remembers. “I spoke with Tony [Visconti], who had a very broad background and broad interests. What could be better than having a renowned, legendary rock and roll producer introducing a new music concert? … Tony was living up in Rockland County at that time. I’d gone over to Tony’s house … and as I was leaving, he said, ‘By the way, I mentioned to my friend David this event tonight, and he said, he might come.’ And I’m like, ‘Right; sure.’ But sure enough, two minutes before the lights go down, in walks David Bowie.”
Within a year, the string quartet she put together to perform with Bowie appeared with him on the stage of Carnegie Hall for the annual Tibet House benefit and also in the recording studio for his 2002 album Heathen. She described similar chains of circumstances that led to her appearing on tour around the United States and Europe with Barbra Streisand in 2006 and 2007, her extensive educational work under the auspices of Yamaha (which is still ongoing), and one of her more recent obsessions—writing for symphonic wind band.
“I think it began almost as a joke, in a way,” she recalls. “I had never thought about writing for concert band. I had really, at that point, never written for an ensemble larger than a string quartet or a chamber ensemble. Then finally we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ So I came up with the concept of X-ING … It’s the crossing of the worlds between electric viola and concert band. What happens when you cross those worlds? One of the things that happens is you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing. I just crank my volume; I go to 11.”
But no matter what musical activity she is involved in, she always views it as an opportunity not just to break through walls, but to open doors or to look out through a window in a new way. It’s a crucial life lesson that she taught herself very early on and one that she hopes to impart to others.
“I never accepted limitations and boundaries no matter what I was doing, whether it was because I was female or because whatever. If I liked doing something and had an interest in it, I just did it. I found opportunities. If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them. … I’m about overcoming those barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor, which seems to get more built into students as they go through school. … Unlimited possibilities. I would say you never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing.”
Frank J. Oteri: I’m going to begin in a very unlikely place; I’m going to compare you to Gunther Schuller.
Martha Mooke: Wow. I’m actually honored.
FJO: Well, one of the pieces of trivia regarding Gunther Schuller is that he was the only person who performed with both Toscanini and Miles Davis. Plus the instrument he played was the French horn, which is not an instrument that you normally think of as being able to genre hop. That’s also true for your instrument, the viola. And yet, you’ve performed with David Bowie. You’ve worked with Osvaldo Golijov, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, Alvin Singleton, and Barbra Streisand—so many people most people would never think of in the same sentence.
MM: Right. Actually it’s interesting that you mention Gunther Schuller because I’ve been doing a lot of research for this new piece that I’m writing for Symphony Space called Beats per Revolution. It’s for electric viola, beat boxer, and chamber ensemble. All the musicians in the ensemble will be improvising, so one of the people I’ve been studying is Charles Mingus. I actually purchased his score of Epitaph, which is a two-and-a-half-hour monster piece. Gunther Schuller helped to finish that and he conducted it, so it’s kind of cool that you started out with that. I’ve been immersed in Mingus and Gunther Schuller for the last few weeks.
FJO: The other thing about Schuller is that in the ‘50s he codified this notion of there being a Third Stream—there was classical music, there was jazz, and then there was this third thing that emerged from connecting the other two. But for you, it’s not three; it’s not even four or five. You’ve gone beyond streams; you’re in an ocean of music!
MM: I’m calling one of the segments of Beats per Revolution “Third Stream of Consciousness,” and that will be a little homage to that genre. But I love instruments that you don’t think of as being in the forefront, improvising or playing in non-traditional ways, like a bassoon playing jazz. Or a French horn. It’s a wonderful opportunity to open things up from the inside.
FJO: Interesting that you say open things up from the inside, because the horn and the viola are both essentially mid-range instruments. We won’t get into viola jokes.
MM: We can laugh at them; we’ve overcome that.
FJO: But the thing about the viola is that most people don’t know what it is. If they see it, they’ll probably think that it’s a violin that’s a little too big. Most people would probably just say it’s a violin, if they know the word violin. On top of that, the viola is the only instrument that plays music written in this oddball clef that no one else can read.
MM: It’s the only clef that really makes sense because middle C is actually on the middle line in alto clef.
FJO: It really is in the middle, yet it’s a total outsider in a way.
MM: Right. I think whatever instrument you’re playing needs to resonate with your soul. I started on the viola because in my public school class, when I was in fifth grade, the music teacher came in and said, “We have violins, violas, cellos, and basses; who wants to play violin?” And pretty much everybody raised their hand. Nobody knew what a viola was. A few people knew what a cello was. I always go the route of most resistance, so I picked the viola. I worked with it and it resonated with me to the point where the music teacher wanted me to switch to violin because I was actually progressing a little more rapidly than the violin players were. So I took one home one weekend, but I brought it back because it didn’t resonate under my ear; it didn’t do anything to my soul. I’ve overcome that now, by adding the fifth string, but that’s how I began as a violist.
FJO: I’m sure the reason why most students gravitate to the violin is that they are hoping to become soloists. A viola soloist is rare, but at that point you were just playing viola in your school’s string orchestra.
MM: Yes. The middle school teacher came to the elementary school and started the program to feed us into the middle school. Then that fed into the high school. They were all public New York City schools.
FJO: Wow, you’re a poster child for public school education and for music education programs in the school system.
FJO: This is something that we don’t quite have to the same extent anymore.
MM: There are a few programs still around, but it’s definitely not on the same level as it was in those days.
FJO: It’s fascinating to me that playing the viola resonated with you so much that when the teacher asked you to switch to the violin, you tried the instrument and it didn’t speak to you. At what point did you think to yourself that playing this instrument was what you want to do for the rest of your life?
MM: I just kept doing it. I was studying other things in school, but there was just something about music and playing the viola at Tottenville High School in Staten Island. I was a member of the string quartet and in the orchestra I got to play Bach’s Sixth Brandenburg with my sister, who at that time also played viola with the orchestra. They also had music theory in this high school, so I just kept going because I was proficient and I loved it. So I was exploring and I was learning, taking private lessons and playing with community orchestras.
FJO: The Sixth Brandenburg has no violins and so the violas are really carrying the melodies, which is pretty rare in the repertoire.
FJO: The interesting thing about identifying with the viola and it being your instrument is that it really didn’t function so much as a foreground instrument until the mid-20th century. I doubt that either the school or the community orchestra you were involved with was performing the Bartók Viola Concerto.
MM: No. But I never accepted limitations and boundaries no matter what I was doing, whether it was because I was female or because whatever. If I liked doing something and had an interest in it, I just did it. I found opportunities. If the opportunities don’t exist, I make them. It never occurred to me that viola could not be a solo instrument. Then somebody gave me an album of Jean-Luc Ponty in my last year of high school, I think. That opened up all kinds of new worlds for me, and I started delving into non-traditional string playing.
FJO: Had you written any of your own music by that point? Had you improvised? Or were you just playing other people’s music?
MM: I used to write songs with a guitar. I wrote a lot of singer-songwriter songs, and then I stopped because I felt like I got a little bit stuck. I loved to sing. My sister and I would sing together, but I didn’t see that that was going to be my career path. I wanted to do something a little more than write songs. After listening and exploring the world of Jean-Luc Ponty, I went and explored any jazz violinist I could find because I don’t think there were that many jazz or electric violists at that time. I hadn’t yet encountered The Velvet Underground with John Cale, but Turtle Island String Quartet was also popular back in those early days. So I went out and bought all the albums that I could, closed the shades and closed the doors, put on music and just started playing with it, improvising to it. When I went away to college, I did that as well.
FJO: Cale’s stint in The Velvet Underground pre-dates the Turtle Island String Quartet, but that probably wouldn’t have been something anyone would have exposed you to by the time you were in high school.
MM: No, not at that point. In fact, I didn’t discover them until the day I got a call to go on tour with John Cale.
MM: Then a whole other world opened up. I ended up recording and doing a bunch of tours with John Cale and the Soldier String Quartet.
FJO: Without having heard The Velvet Underground?
MM: Yeah, I didn’t really know about that world.
FJO: Even though you grew up in New York City, your family probably didn’t listen to that music. Were they interested in classical music? What did your family listen to?
MM: Neither of my parents were into music. My father loved Gilbert and Sullivan, so we listened a lot to The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. And we watched the Boston Pops. That was my classical music. That’s how I got to love Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring and started tuning into that world. But I just gravitated towards music and my parents always supported me in that and paid for lessons.
FJO: So there was no rock and roll in the household?
MM: Not really. There was more traditional stuff like Peter, Paul and Mary.
FJO: And I suppose even for people who were fans of harder rock, The Velvet Underground wouldn’t have been the mainstream.
MM: Well, don’t forget, I also grew up in Staten Island. At that point, to get to the city you almost needed a passport! And when you’re not driving, it’s that much harder. It takes two hours to get to the city from Staten Island, so there’s a big a culture gap in many ways.
FJO: But hearing Jean-Luc Ponty opened your world up. Not just to improvisation but also to amplification and electronics.
MM: The album that changed my world was called A Taste for Passion. On the cover, Jean-Luc Ponty is cradling a beautiful blue five-string Barcus-Berry violin. Within a year or so I convinced my parents to take me to Manny’s on 48th Street, and I went in and I bought a Barcus-Berry, the same color five-string. It was my first electric instrument. I still have it in my instrument closet.
FJO: So what’s the difference between a five-string violin and a five-string viola?
MM: The range is the same, but on the viola you’ll have a longer fingerboard, which is pretty much the difference. You don’t need to have a bigger body because you’re amplifying it, although the size of the body and the material of the body of an electric instrument does impact the sound. But that instrument was an electric violin. I couldn’t find any violas. But it was five-string, which meant I could have the range of the violin and viola. So I started exploring. I bought an old delay [unit] called an Effectron. It was digital and analog. You had to push the buttons and you could only do one effect at a time. But I made my very first demo tape with that. I didn’t have a recording studio or anything, and I wanted to apply for a residency at Harvestworks. So I took headphones, plugged them into the headphone jack, put them on the floor, put the microphone to my tape recorder, put towels on the bottom and on the top, and that’s how I made my demo record. They accepted it, and I got the residency. And because of that, I started recording my very first CD, Enharmonic Vision.
FJO: Now before we make that jump, we’ve already made another jump, because at this point you’re creating your own music. You went from playing viola in orchestras and performing classical music with lots of other people, to hearing Jean-Luc Ponty and wanting to improvise on an electric five-string. You’d written songs on a guitar and you sang, but when did you get the idea that you could make your own music for this instrument, and when did you decide to create music specifically for you to perform by yourself?
MM: I just started to explore the world of improvisation in combination with the electronics. I never studied formally. I didn’t study jazz. I didn’t study composition. I was self-schooled in a way. I discovered it on my own, so there was no wrong way. I asked a lot of people what amplifier and what effects to get, but every person I asked had something totally different to say. So I ended up doing just lots of trial and error, experimentation with sounds. I discovered digital delay and that became a looping device; it was like an infinite echo. They couldn’t start and stop at any time, just four seconds or eight seconds. But that’s where I started exploring. Then I went to my first AES convention—Audio Engineering Society. I walked in and there was a guitar player there with this looping device called the JamMan made by Lexicon. I stood in front of this guy, and it was this big thing—eight seconds of delay that you could start and stop and so have control over. So as soon as it became available on the market, I bought it and started working with it. I was able to expand that to 32 seconds and, adding more electronics and just experimenting and building sounds, I started—through improvisation—creating works.
FJO: There had been many people messing with delay units independently of one another by that time; it’s been part of the zeitgeist since the late ‘60s when Terry Riley experimented with his time lag accumulator and when Robert Fripp and Brian Eno had done concerts together in the early ‘70s. In fact, this was well after Fripp had started doing his solo Frippertronics, which was also a way of being an orchestra of one by controlling various effects units. You hadn’t heard any of that stuff yet?
FJO: Well, all of that was improvisation-based music. No one was “writing” music involving delay units, at least not that anyone was aware of at the time.
MM: There was no repertoire, so again, just out of necessity, I started creating repertoire. Then, having a lot of composer friends, I started asking composers to write for me.
FJO: The initial impulse came more from wanting to perform than out of wanting to compose?
MM: I wasn’t calling myself a composer. I wasn’t calling myself anything. I was a player. I was a violist. Looking back on it now, I think I was just tapping into a way of expressing myself that I didn’t know I was able to do. I was finding this voice within me. The electric viola’s unlimited possibilities, the colors and the textures, were allowing me to really explore different worlds. What was interesting was whenever I would find a new piece of equipment, I would always find the limitations of it right away. So I would have to overcome that somehow.
FJO: Like being restricted to looping either a four- or eight-second phrase.
MM: Exactly. I just developed ways of working around it. Creating just kept going in that direction, because I had accessed something that I needed to get out—my inner voice.
FJO: And instead of avoiding the limitations of what you could do alone with this equipment by creating music to play with other people, you found workarounds so you could still do it yourself.
MM: I think that was part of the exploration of my voice as a creative entity. I was just exploring by trial and error, listening to Jean-Luc Ponty, discovering Laurie Anderson, then Kronos Quartet big time, and following the Turtle Island String Quartet.
FJO: Your first record came out in 1998. I remember the first time I heard you perform. It was a year later at the Henry Street Settlement. You were doing Vertical Corridors, which is still active in your repertoire and which you’ve since expanded and done other things with. I was so intrigued by what I heard you do that I immediately bought your CD there from someone who was selling stuff at a table.
MM: Oh cool.
FJO: But I was so bummed because the piece that I heard wasn’t on the CD.
MM: Right. It’s just come out this past year. It’s on No Ordinary Window.
FJO: But it’s a different version than what I heard.
MM: Well, every time I play it, it’s different.
FJO: Anyway, the thing that struck me about that performance, even though you started creating so that you’d have music to play on your instrument, was that it made me forget the instrument. You were making music in real time, but because there were all these other effects, it didn’t sound like one person playing a viola. Instead it was an immersive and all-encompassing sound world that sounded like a large group of people. It could probably have been triggered from any instrument, so in a way it didn’t matter what the instrument was. I felt the same way when I heard the pieces on that CD. The music was so harmonically—as well as contrapuntally—rich.
MM: When I’m writing for myself, it really starts out as a lot of experimentation, looking for different sounds and finding a recipe for a combination of sounds. When you’re working with different electronic devices, you pluck one note and it could trigger a whole episode of beautiful harmonies or delays or a really interesting rhythm. So when I find something and get that “Aha!” moment, then I start exploring that. A lot of my music I’ll notate after the fact, and I have to go in and figure out what it was that I did. Sometimes it’s complicated to notate because, if it’s based on some harmonization or multi-effects processor, there are a lot of elements involved. With No Ordinary Window, I created a score and I did snapshots of the parameters that I use as far as reverb and delay and things like that. So if somebody wants to perform the work other than me, they can do that with any other piece of equipment.
FJO: So other people could play these pieces?
MM: Yeah, but there’s a certain sound when I play—everything is my instrument. It’s all an extension of me as a player—the instrument going into the electronics and into the speakers or whatever system it is. It’s all me as an instrument.
FJO: But at the point when you were creating the pieces that are included on Enharmonic Vision, they weren’t all necessarily written down. I imagine that they were all amalgams of pre-conceived ideas, improvisation, and studio experimentation. You probably weren’t thinking of other people playing them.
MM: Not at that point. It was just something I was compelled to do. Again because there weren’t that many people doing it at that time. Then it was at around that time that I installed a pickup on my acoustic viola that I play in orchestras. I would show up to an orchestra rehearsal and people would look at the pickup on my bridge and think right away that I play jazz. That wasn’t part of the mainstream, so it sort of perked a little bit of interest at that time.
FJO: A lot of violin and viola repair people are horrified by the notion of putting a pickup on a classical music instrument, that doing so is somehow tainting it.
MM: I found very friendly luthiers that welcomed that, actually. They loved the fact that I had a pickup on my bridge, and they could fix it if it needed to be fixed. There’s one actually around the corner from here, Mathias Lehner. I bring my acoustic viola to him, and I bring my electric. If something happens to one of my Yamahas, I bring it to him and he can put the tailpiece on, which is all connected to the electronics. It’s a whole other world for them, and the ones that welcome that have that much more business, I guess!
FJO: Before we leave Enharmonic Vision, the CD booklet has all these wonderful quotes from other people, but it doesn’t have quotes from you. So I want to ask you about certain aspects of those pieces. There are so many different kinds of music on there. Raindance sort of sounds like bluegrass to me, a little bit. It comes out of that whole double-stop fiddling sound world. Winds of Arden sounds like ambient soundscape-y kind of stuff. And then Bones is filled with all these pizzicatos and extended techniques; it’s pretty avant-garde sounding. They’re all different, but you don’t seem to think of them that way, and it’s all a seamless and cohesive whole.
MM: Because it’s me. I guess this is both a plus and the bane of my existence. When I released Enharmonic Vision, I did so as a solo entity. I was the artist, the composer, the publisher, the record label. Very naïve. I took a few copies with me down to Tower Records in the Village. I went up to the classical section, because that’s where the Kronos Quartet and Philip Glass were. I met the manager and I said, “I have this CD. Would you listen to it? Could you sell it here?” He listened to it and he said, “Okay, I’ll take five copies on consignment.” So I signed five copies over to him. He called me within the week and said, “We sold out; bring five more.” He had liked it so much that he put it in the listening station between Kronos and Philip Glass, so people who would not have known to look under the filing of Martha Mooke saw me there. They listened to it, and they bought it. It was kind of neat. I still have a few copies with the Tower Records price tag.
FJO: But it’s interesting that you took your CD to the classical section. Listening to that album and even looking at the cover, I wouldn’t necessarily think it was something for the classical section.
MM: Yeah. I guess that as a violist, I came out of the classical world. That was the thing with Tower; you had to fit into one of those slots. Somewhere I guess it would have been great to be in different rooms, different slots, but that’s how it worked out. So that’s where I first started selling my CDs. And then they hooked me up with their distributor, Bayside, and that connected me with a distribution company.
FJO: This was before you connected to anybody in the pop world.
FJO: Even though the album looks more like an alternative rock album than a classical record.
MM: Well, I guess unintentionally. It turned out the way that I dreamed of it.
FJO: I noticed that Bill Duckworth and Nora Farrell were connected to that first album. Bill Duckworth was such an extraordinary person. He came out of classical music, but he was open to so many other things and he really opened the door for people creating music who weren’t necessarily writing it down for other people to play. And he, together with Nora Farrell, conceived and built one of the earliest musical performance interfaces on the internet. That was around that same time.
MM: I became friends with them through the new music world. And I really struck up a friendship with Nora who, I guess through conversations, joined on as the producer of Enharmonic Vision. She actually designed the cover, too. I had this really cool picture that had been taken at the World Trade Center during an orchid show. I think I was lying on the floor. Anyway, she came up with this cool idea and created the cover art as well. And produced the recording.
FJO: That makes sense, because one of her mantras was that classical music had to stop looking like classical music.
MM: Yeah, she had a big influence. And Bill, too. They were great friends.
FJO: Still, at that point, you’re not thinking of yourself as a composer per se. You’re a performer who is creating pieces for yourself, and you’re occasionally asking other people to write pieces for you. So at what point did you start identifying yourself as a composer?
MM: I guess it was around the time I became a member of ASCAP, which is where we happen to be sitting. I became a member of ASCAP so I became a composer. But I didn’t quite fit in with the classical concert world as a composer. I wasn’t writing orchestral pieces or string quartets at that time, so that wasn’t really a place for me. Shortly thereafter, I happened to be at a big membership meeting of ASCAP and listening to something that just made me say, “Wait a minute, I have to figure out where my voice is in this organization and in this music world.” I remember Marilyn Bergman was the president. She was walking up the aisle and—there’s where you need your 20-seconds elevator pitch—I just sort of stepped in front of her and said, “I’m an ASCAP classical composer, but I’m doing things that are beyond classical and I have this idea of doing something.” And she’s like, “Okay, talk to John LoFrumento.” So I went over and talked to John. He’s like, “Okay, that sounds good. Talk to—” and it went down the pike. That’s how [my club concert series] Thru the Walls was conceived. Out of necessity, because I needed a place where I could have my voice heard that was accepted and was legitimized in a way.
FJO: I didn’t realize that Thru the Walls came about so soon after you joined ASCAP.
MM: Within a few years, I guess. It was at a membership meeting. There were lot of people in the room, and they didn’t discuss concert music at all. And I think I got upset, because I thought, “I’m part of this terrific pro-composer, pro-writer organization, but I don’t know where my voice is in it.” It was just kind of spontaneous. I’m usually pretty shy. But there was something that really pushed me. I had that moment with Marilyn to block her path and somehow explain with enough clarity that I was then able to make appointments with Lauren [Iossa] and with Fran [Richard] and Cia [Toscanini] where we sat down and came up with this idea. I came up with the name: Thru the Walls—listening to something through the walls, not being able to easily identify what it is. It was based on ASCAP composers who were also performers. This is not a new concept—the composer as performer, or the performer as composer—but the idea was to take it into another context in the contemporary scene, bringing it down to The Cutting Room, which was a venue that was more likely to produce jazz and rock concerts. You wouldn’t think of going to that venue to hear a classical music concert.
FJO: Nowadays everybody’s playing in clubs. But at the time Thru the Walls came into being, it wasn’t as typical. The other thing that made this series unusual, I think, is that it was officially embraced and directly supported by ASCAP, so it had this official imprimatur; others who were playing classical concerts in clubs didn’t have that kind of endorsement. It also attracted a very diverse audience, which included people like David Bowie.
MM: Right. Well, I understand a lot of things now about what I was doing that I really didn’t understand then. It’s all about reframing the situation. Again, as far I’m concerned, as a musician I can be playing Beethoven one day, rock and roll the next day, and my own music the following day or something else. So I don’t have these [walls] and I didn’t at that time, either—and this was pre-2000. I had been doing sessions with Tony Visconti. I had met him backstage at some concert that I played with the lead singer of the Zombies. I had been asked to play in the string quartet. He got interested when I said I also play electric viola, so I started doing string sessions for Tony. When Thru the Walls started developing, I wanted to have that juxtaposition of music worlds, composers who weren’t just doing classical. It was all types of influences: jazz, electronics, rock, all kinds of things. I spoke with Tony who had a very broad background and broad interests. What could be better than having a renowned, legendary rock and roll producer introducing a new music concert? That sparked a lot of interest in both worlds. People who knew Tony were like, “Why is he doing this?” And people from the classical world thought, “Why is this happening at The Cutting Room?” Kudos to [The Cutting Room’s owner] Steve Walter who embraced us; that’s how it began.
FJO: I imagine that Bowie showed up because Tony produced some of Bowie’s records.
MM: Right. Tony was living up in Rockland County at that time. I had actually gone over to Tony’s house. Tony also did Alexander Technique, and I was a little nervous, and he was sort of calming me down a bit. As I was leaving, he said, “By the way, I mentioned to my friend David this event tonight, and he said, he might come.” And I’m like, “Right; sure.” But sure enough, two minutes before the lights go down, in walks David Bowie. He sits down at my table, and the rest is history.
FJO: Well, not completely. We’re going to make it history now. How did it go from him being there to you performing and recording with him?
MM: I guess you’d call it fate. You’d call it circumstance. January 2001 was the first Thru the Walls, and shortly after that I got a call from Tony that David was slated to play the Tibet House benefit concert that Philip Glass produces at Carnegie Hall. That was going to be at the end of February. He wanted to know if I could put a string quartet together to play with David. So I said, “Yeah, I could do that.” I did and it was amazing. We rehearsed at Philip’s studio a few days beforehand. We played “Heroes”—string quartet and Tony played stand-up bass. Can you imagine playing “Heroes” with David Bowie? Moby was also on that concert. Moby played guitar. And we played another song, “Silly Boy Blue,” with David. It was absolutely magical.
FJO: So that’s what opened the doors to your being a go-to side person for all these pop stars?
MM: Yeah, that was a big door opener. Then there was another Thru the Walls, which happened right after that. And that led to a bunch of other opportunities. A little documentary was done for DCTV, downtown television. At that point I was recording Osvaldo Golijov’s Rocketekya, so they came up and they filmed the recording session with Alicia Svigals, David Krakauer, and Pablo Aslan. It was cool because the beginning of the tape is Rocketekya. It’s a rocket ship taking off, so we don’t count in. We count down—five, four, three, two, one. Then it takes off. Then we got a call from David to play with him at Tibet House again and, in the middle of that, he asked us to record with him on Heathen, which happened the weekend after 9/11. It was very emotional in a lot of ways. Then we just kept being asked back. We became David Bowie’s quartet; then we became the quartet of Tibet House. People were asking, “Can we borrow the quartet to play?” Even after David didn’t do the benefit, which he did three years in a row, we kept coming back. Philip kept calling us to come back; this is going to be our 17th year.
FJO: Wow. And the Streisand connection. Did that happen through Marilyn Bergman?
MM: No, but I did end up on tour with Marilyn. It came about through my work as a Broadway player. When Barbra was putting a U.S. tour together for 2006 and then the 2007 European tour, she hadn’t toured that much and she wanted to have a Broadway orchestra. They used a rhythm section from L.A., and they culled from the different pit orchestras on Broadway. I feel like I hit the lotto on that one. It was just such an amazing experience.
FJO: Well, talk about putting together a career doing music. One day you could be on stage with the Westchester Philharmonic or the American Composers Orchestra, with whom I’ve seen you play. Then in the pit with a Broadway orchestra another day. Or backing up a rock band. Or part of a jazz group. Or playing your own music by yourself. Or writing music for other ensembles. But it seems that carrying out a specific role in each of these musical projects would require different approaches to where you personally fit in. Do you feel you need to be in different mental spaces for each of these activities or is it all part of a continuum?
MM: I’ve had to come to terms with my different personalities. As a player, I have to approach it from a different point of view. If I haven’t created it, there’s an obligation to be true to the printed notes as long as they’re all printed out. So I have to do my due diligence—woodshed and practice and, if it’s with an ensemble, rehearse. But if it’s a piece that I’ve composed and I’m playing either with my quartet Scorchio or my piece e-chi—which is with a percussion ensemble—or something with a combination of notation and improvisation, that gets a little tricky for me. Because I’m coming at it as the composer, I have to work twice as hard to realize I can also take some license with what I play. But realizing that I have written parts for the other players, I need to make sure that we’re literally on the same page. With Bowing, the duo with Randy Hudson, we started just as improvisers and built the pieces which became part of the Café Mars record. Then I retro-notated Quantum, which is on that duo CD, for string quartet and then for string quintet, when we add a bass player. Time in a Black Hole, which is with bass and percussion, is all just improvisation. We don’t have a plan. We just get together; we meet, hit, and leave.
FJO: I love this term retro-notated. How much of this music is retro-notated? Can all of these pieces be retro-notated?
MM: Sure. Sometimes there’ll be a bare bones notation, like in jazz you have a chart. That’s how No Ordinary Window began, or Virtual Corridors. For many years, when I played Virtual Corridors, it existed just as words on a page with maybe a couple of lines that I sketched out. It was really more a description of what I’m doing. Ultimately I retro-notated Virtual Corridors, so it exists in a notated version. No Ordinary Window existed just basically as a solo line. Then I needed to figure out how to notate the electronics that I used—this amazing pedal by Eventide called the H9 that opened up a whole other world of sound. I figured out a way of bringing that into the score by describing what kind of effect I’m using and then actually taking screen shots of my iPad, which has the exact parameters of reverb and what kind of effect or filter I’m using.
FJO: But considering all the improvisational passages you include in your own music, as well as all the educational workshops you do about improvisation, you’re somebody who wants to engender improvisation in other people. When you retro-notate something and fix it on the page, aren’t you losing something in terms of what an interpreter is bringing to it?
MM: Well, the beauty of live performance, especially when you’re an improviser, is the energy of that and the communication with the audience. I think sometimes that gets lost in more traditional concert settings where the audience comes in and they know they’re going to hear a Mozart symphony. Sometimes the tempi are different from what they remember, but they don’t realize there is communication going on between the performers and the audience.
When I’m performing solo, I make sure the audience is aware that they’re actually part of the performance. I’m informed by them sitting out there. I get feedback. You can call it biofeedback or whatever. For the audience, it becomes more of an experience than just being played at or played to. You can’t notate that and that’s okay. Likewise, a recording is just a moment in time. But that’s okay, too, because hopefully people will have heard the music live and they’ll take that as a memory. At some point the album will exist when I no longer exist. Hopefully there’ll be enough material out there, whether it’s videos on YouTube or other iterations of performing the same piece, and they’ll draw their own conclusions. People think that everybody’s hearing the same piece when it is the same notes being played, but everybody hears differently. We all have our filters and our own way of processing—if you wake up in a bad mood, if you have a headache, if the temperature’s too hot in the room, or the person sitting next to you is a little odorous. It’s never going to be the same. You’ll never process that experience the same way. That’s something that, more and more, I’m putting an emphasis on, because it’s so easy just to stay home and watch on your screen, but you don’t get that same experience as being in the room when it’s happening. So as long as I’m alive, I’m going to keep that happening.
FJO: I’m curious about the pieces that have been written for you by other composers. How much does somebody who wants to write a piece for you have to know about all of the electronics you use when you perform? Or are these elements that you then add on as an interpreter, post-composition, in a sense becoming a sort of a co-composer?
MM: I did two full concerts of works that I commissioned, all from friends and acquaintances of mine. Most of them didn’t know anything about writing for electric viola, let alone the electronics like foot pedals. So most of them came to my studio once or twice, sitting on the floor. Victoria Bond, Alvin Singleton, Tania Léon, and even Leroy Jenkins were asking me questions. “Can you do this? What happens if you do this?” So there was a lot of collaboration in the pieces.
FJO: And are those pieces fully notated, or were they retro-notated?
MM: Some of them have improvisation in them, like Alvin’s piece, which I’ve recorded. Leroy’s piece was not notated with notes. It was more a back and forth between the two of us, a conversation between a grandfather and a granddaughter. But most of them were fully notated. There was one piece I remember, almost every note had a different effect. I had to enlarge the score and color code everything. It doesn’t get performed as much these days. But getting such a variety of pieces from the different composers was an incredible experience.
FJO: Now in terms of your writing music for others, an area you’ve been working in quite a bit—which is somewhat surprising since there are no strings—is wind band music.
MM: I think it began almost as a joke, in a way. In one of the orchestras I play with, there was a French horn player who is the music director of the Ridgewood Concert Band—Chris Wilhjelm. We started talking, and he was intrigued by what I was doing as an electric violist. He thought it would be cool if we did something together at some point. I had never thought about writing for concert band. I had really, at that point, never written for an ensemble larger than a string quartet or a chamber ensemble. Then finally we said, “Let’s just do it.” So I came up with the concept of X-ING—as in pedestrian crossing or deer crossing. It’s the crossing of the worlds between electric viola and concert band. What happens when you cross those worlds? One of the things that happens is you don’t have to tell the band to play quieter because a string instrument is soloing. I just crank my volume; I go to 11. The first movement is “Pegasus X-ING”—the winged horse. I use electronics and, in the notated score, I had to notate so the conductor is actually seeing what he’s hearing. There’s an effect where I play one note and a series of rhythms happens. I play dah, but what you hear is da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da. In the ending, I use a combination of loops and different effects to get the winged horse taking flight. I keep the loop going while I switch instruments. I switch to an instrument that’s actually re-tuned to E-flat and B-flat, so that I can play open strings and harmonics in the middle movement with the band that tunes to B-flat. When I was writing the middle movement, I was at the MacDowell Colony; it was at the time when my uncle, whom I was very close to, was taken very ill in Miami, and he was actually at the point of crossing over. That became that second movement, “X-ING Over”; that’s a tribute to him. The last movement, “Double X-ING,” is rock and roll. It starts with a crazy cadenza with overdrive and all kinds of improv and loops and things going on. And then we’re off, trap set and all.
FJO: Then you wrote another band piece, which you’re not playing in at all.
MM: That was one of the hardest moments I’ve had, understanding that I wasn’t going to be playing. I spent a lot of time working on that. I had to come to terms with how I would approach writing it. With X-ING, I actually was playing and composing at the same time, but Skandhas, which is the name of the piece, came out of a different world. I was composing more at the computer, using Sibelius. It does have elements of improvisation in it as well, but I had to remove myself and that was very challenging. There’s some really cool things that I like about it, but after the premiere, I ended up doing some revisions and, who knows, I may still revise it more at some point.
FJO: But you liked the experience enough and felt confident enough to go on to write yet another one.
MM: I just finished my third piece, but I got a little sneaky with it. It’s going to exist as two entities. It will exist as an ensemble piece, but then there’ll be another version with electric viola obbligato improvisation. It’s not quite an alternate version, because the plan is for them to be performed on the same concert.
FJO: So for the new piece, did you return to composing with your viola in one hand like you had done with X-ING?
MM: I think I wrote less with the viola in hand. I had a keyboard and a computer. I also had to not make it too complicated, in terms of notation, since it’s not for a professional ensemble— although it could be played by professionals—and also had to bear in mind that it may be written for an ensemble that doesn’t have that much experience improvising. In many school bands and orchestras, there’s not an opportunity for members of the ensemble to improvise, whether it’s the full ensemble improvising or members as soloists.
FJO: You’re also now performing X-ING with an orchestra. So you’ve taken the band score and turned it into an orchestra score. Many people have written orchestra pieces and then have made band versions of them. But this went the other way around.
MM: I’m retro-orchestrating! I’m not a purist in anything that I do, so I don’t have a problem. It’s another opportunity. That’s another thing with the band world—they love playing new music and they love living composers. They love supporting living composers, and they rehearse a lot. Certainly there are orchestras that play new music and commission new works, but it’s a little bit different in the orchestra world. So I love that the orchestra world is interested in performing it. The challenge was how to re-write the piece. It wasn’t just substituting violins for flutes and things like that. I had to rework some of the innards. I revised the middle movement a little bit, tightened it up in ways. I’m looking forward to the first time performing it.
FJO: It’s funny that you wrote for band before you wrote for orchestra and that your first orchestra piece turned out to be a revision of a band piece. You’ve played in so many orchestras and so you really have an insider’s knowledge of the orchestra. That’s not something you had with band. In fact, many composers who’ve written for orchestra, even ones who are master orchestrators, are reluctant to write for band since it’s just not something in their background.
MM: Yeah, it’s a big learning curve, learning the ranges of the different instruments and the transpositions, learning that you can’t just write a slide anywhere you want to for trombone because it may not happen, it may be over the break. It’s not just write the notes into Sibelius and this is how it’s going to sound and if it’s red you can’t write it. It doesn’t work that way. There’s also a harp in the band version. I had to learn the intricacies of the harp. I was actually writing that part when I was on the Streisand tour, so I had access to the harpist Laura Sherman; she would look at it and give me some hints.
FJO: I thought that the band stuff grew out of all the education work you do, but it didn’t. Still, I’m curious about that part of your life. You’ve done so many education seminars, teaching string players how to improvise and use electronics.
MM: A lot of that is due to my involvement with Yamaha. We came together when they were just designing their electric string line. At that point, they were calling it Silent Violin, because the whole point was that you could plug your headphones into this instrument and nobody else would have to listen to you practice. I happened to meet one of their team and they liked what I was doing, so they sent me a prototype of it and I said, “I love it with the headphones, but I want to play it loud. Can you do this?” That began our collaboration. They’ve even invited me to go to their headquarters in Hamamatsu, Japan, to work with a design team. I’ve been with them for a long time, and I have many generations of their instruments. They’ve also been extremely supportive in the educational realm when there are opportunities to go to schools and to conferences to demonstrate and present workshops, working with students and also working with the teachers. A lot of times, the teachers don’t know how to work with electric string instruments, if they have them in their schools, or with improvisation and having it be an opportunity for the students to create and find their voices. Sometimes they may not be as proficient as they’d like in order to be able to express themselves. I’ve discovered ways to help them overcome that, whether it’s by banging on a table, strumming the inside of the piano, or just playing some other sounds just to help them find their creative voice. It’s all about discovering that voice inside that a lot of times kids are afraid of accessing.
One of my most popular workshops is called “Am I Allowed to Do That?” That literally came out of a workshop in a school. I sometimes start out with my acoustic viola, walking around the room, playing really crazy stuff just to get the students to respond without thinking, because that accesses something that they don’t know how to do usually. They’re not supposed to do that. They’re supposed to put that part away. What happened is I went over to this violinist and started playing and said, “Answer me. Don’t think. Just answer me.” And he looks around to see if his teacher’s looking and says, “Am I allowed to do that?” Yes, in this timeframe, you’re allowed to do that. And you’re allowed to explore it after school, or at home. In the school, in this class, you need to conform and do what you need to do, but I’m about overcoming those barriers and breaking through that inhibition factor which seems to get more built into students as they go through school.
FJO: We began this conversation talking about how you started making solo music with an electric viola and various electronic effects units, which enabled you to create an almost orchestral-sounding sonic landscape all alone. It’s something you still continue to do, even though now you also do all these other projects. The pieces on your new CD No Ordinary Window are fuller sounding than any of your solo work I had previously heard. And one of the pieces on it you perform live with video; it’s an immersive sight and sound experience that you’re triggering all by yourself which adds yet another layer.
MM: These are actually two projects. No Ordinary Window is its own performance experience that doesn’t usually involve video. The whole concept is finding these amazing spaces with a window, starting the concert before dark, and having the sunset be part of the lighting show. It’s a window looking out, a window to the soul, and a window of opportunity. I first envisioned No Ordinary Window in Sedona up in the Red Rocks. There’s a chapel there and my dream was to play in that chapel as the sun was setting and having that be a natural lighting effect with the music. As the concert starts, the audience sees the beautiful rocks outside as the sun is setting. Then it gets dark outside and the windows become mirrors. The audience sees themselves. I was able to do that concert, though not in that chapel. I happened to be talking to the president of Eventide saying this is my dream concert. He knew somebody that had a house on the next block and made that happen. It happened to be the person that created Eventide. Again, it’s all these coincidences. But that’s the No Ordinary Window experience.
A Dream in Sound is on the recording of No Ordinary Window. Then I did a version of it for that became Dreams in Sound, which was essentially the same music, but it took on a whole different form with a string quartet where everybody was using effects. I took that a step further when I got a commission from this improvisation festival in Prague and a foundation that discovered me through an event I produced a couple of years ago with Women In Music. It was another one of those Thru the Walls moments. I was commissioned to write a piece for this festival, so I took the dream experience to the next level. I created a 50-minute piece called Dreaming in Sound. I had another residency at Harvestworks that was supported by that foundation, and I was able to work with one of their engineers there and designed multi-dimensional effects and looping, not just for the solo viola, but also for four channel audio that I also controlled with a foot pedal. I was able to launch sounds into four isolated speakers. I had control over the speakers, rotating this way and that way; this was done through Max/MSP on computer. I knew that I had to also have a video element—that was part of the proposal—but I wasn’t quite finding the right way to go about it.
A couple of years ago through these monthly salons called LISA—Leaders in Software and Art—I met the woman that runs them, Isabel Draves, and we became friends. Her husband is this amazing software artist, Scott Draves. I was asking Isabel if she could recommend any video people. And she said, “Scott has this new program and he loves your music, and he’d love to work with you.” That’s how that whole collaboration came about. The program—which he calls Dots—is “listening” to all of the music that I’m creating on the spot, and it’s responding to it. There’s a big score, but there’s also lots of improvisation, and the video is responding to me. And then I’m watching the video and responding to the video, which takes it to another place within the improvisation. So, again, every time I do it, it’s different. I premiered it in Prague during this festival. Then I was able to do it the following week at National Sawdust because there was this big Creative Tech Week going on. It’s a big ensemble piece, but I’m the only live player in the room.
FJO: Too bad that that wasn’t released on a DVD. Maybe it will be at some point?
MM: I need to do it.
FJO: Might there ever be a time when you incorporate immersive video with a larger ensemble? It would be amazing to do that kind of thing with a wind band!
MM: Unlimited possibilities. I would say you never know what you’ve been missing until you know what you’ve been missing. A lot of what I do is exploration, trial and error experimentation. Sometimes the best thing is if I’m improvising or I’m playing something, and something goes wrong with a foot pedal. I misfire or I play something I didn’t mean to. I take that as an opportunity to explore the space that I might not have explored before. I didn’t really mean to do that, but it happened for a reason. So I’m going to go in that direction.
FJO: It’s really an extension of your workshop where you give students permission to do anything.
MM: I was taught a long time ago, even as a classical player, if you make a mistake don’t let on, don’t make a face. Either make the same mistake again if it comes back or just keep going. Most of the time, people won’t ever know if I intended to do it or not. Hopefully they don’t. Hopefully it just becomes part of that moment and that experience.