Big Apple Sojourn: Interview with Evan and Gil (#1)

One of the great things about classical improv is that you are not dependent on a composer to write something for your particular group. Notation-only players are forced into instrumentations which may or may not line up with whom they would actually like to play with. When you are a music creator, you can play with anyone else who can “speak music” at any level and any instrument.

Duende is an unusual trio: horn, cello, and piano, made up of me, Gil Selinger, and Evan Mazunik. We made a terrific CD (“Mosaic“) some years back (available from where we took medieval and Renaissance music and used it as source material for improvisation. It came about thusly: Evan and I had been working together as a duo for about four years at the University of Iowa, giving improv workshops, concerts, and we made a CD (“Repercussions” – available from Then Evan left school and moved to New York, where he met improvising cellist Gil Selinger. Evan and I had already worked up some of this early music repertoire during a creative residency we spent at The Centrum (in Port Townsend, WA, on the grounds where they filmed “Officer and a Gentleman” with Richard Gere and Debra Winger). Gil brought some ideas and we had the material for “Mosaic.”

Well, those two went back to NYC, and, although I still worked with Evan doing concerts and workshops now and then, Duende was on ice.

Until this week. The band is back together! I flew into the Big Apple yesterday. We had a sort of “rehearsal” today, where we got to play together and tentatively set up what we will do at the concert tomorrow night. We’re going to do one number from “Mosaic”, – Esta Montaña Enfrente – a medieval Spanish Sephardic tune, but we’re doing it quite different from the CD version (surprise!). We’re also doing a version of my “September Elegy”, which was originally written about 9/11 for Natural horn in Eb and piano; we’re adding cello and changing a few things. Gil’s expressive cello works wonderfully on this moving piece.

The concert will be at the:

WMP Concert Hall
31 East 28th Street
Between Park Ave. and Madison Ave.

Start time: 7:30 pm. Join us if you’re in the neighborhood!

It’s been great hanging out with Evan and Gil. We talk nonstop about improv, music education, and a hundred other things. I am filling giant mental bins with ideas and inspiration. I thought it would be good to harness some of this for the blog. I thought that it would be good to improvise a running interview with them and pass it on to you. The interview below is a bit loose; I asked some questions, they talked and I typed as fast as I could on the laptop to transcribe as much as possible. Note that these are not verbatim transcriptions – it’s just what I was able to get down; I couldn’t get it all. But at least the gist of it for your consumption. I will try to add more in coming days (I fly back next Monday).

Jeff: How did you start improvising?

Gil: By accident. It was a combination of forces. One was a sense that I just wanted to see what kind of different sounds I could come up with.  I wanted to explore the instrument. I was very young. I was often dissatisfied with the pieces I was playing [in the beginner method books, etc]. I was searching for the note my ear wanted rather than the note that was written. It led me to extrapolating. There was also a laziness factor. I might not have practiced it [the written pieces], enough so I came up with an alternate version that I could play better. I did this early on.

Evan: I started on Suzuki piano. Suzuki has an emphasis on oral training. I had cassette tapes of the repertoire I was supposed to learn. I listened to the music I should play by ear, but I imagined a story to go along with the music (program music!) In my earliest musical memories I was comfortable playing by ear. But it was not until I was playing trumpet in junior high that I started really improvising – I wanted to sound like Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. I transcribed them and realized that I like to make up my own music. Braces killed my trumpet career. I had a lot of facilty on piano an applied it to piano. I started learning Thelonius Monk, and started playing with garage bands. It wasn’t until college that I found out that all my heros, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin – were all master improvisers! No one ever told me that you can improvise in classical music! Then everything was fair game. It was actually other instruments that got me into improvising. In high school my choir teacher invited Ken Medema, blind pianist, singer, songwriter. In the middle of the concert he would ask for suggestions from the audience and create pieces, on piano, even

Hank Roberts

Hank Roberts

Gil: it took me a long time to think of myself as an improviser. I was just a classical cellist who %&@#$!s around on the cello. I saw Hank Roberts at Ithaca – a jazz cellist soloing on the cello and singing at the same time. It blew my mind. He played with Tim Burns and Bill Frizzell. That was it. That popped the doors wide open on improv. Up until then it was just something I did with friends, but not something I worked on. Normal classical work was scales and arpeggios and concertos. I started having lessons with him 3X a week for a couple years. Very laid bck lessons.  He had studied with Janos Starker at Indiana. Didn’t like classical cello. Then with Gary Burton at at Berklee. I brought in classical stuff and he showed me how to improvise over it – chord structure, playing over changes. He had a pizzicato technique where he could sound like a bass and guitar at the same time. We worked on jazz, third stream, avant garde. It wasn’t the direction I wanted to go, but I stuck with it. I got Band in a Box [accompaniment software program]. I started composing with it. I started playing with musicians around town. I continued studying for many years, searching for technical mastery and musical advancement.

J: When did you get into Soundpainting?

G: In 1998 at the New Directions Cello Festival. It was an orchestra of cellos – 50  cellists! Walter Thompson [inventor of Soundpainting] came and did a workshop. After that I went to him and asked to join his summer residency at Woodstock. We worked together a lot, made CDs (Haydn Cello Concerto).

E: I was at the library and read an article on Walter Thompson – Sara Weaver interviewd him for Jazz Changes magazine. The article changed my life. This is what I wanted to do! I wrote Sara an email to get Walter’s contact info. I wrote him. And he called me up in my dorm room! Asked me all about what I was interested in. I was taken aback how he reached out to me. He was going to be in Ann Arbor over spring break. So I took a 14 hour bus ride to Ann Arbor and sat in on his workshop. It was a conducting workshop. There was jazz stuff. Walter got up and scanned [Soundpainting gesture – move arm over the group and people respond with improv] the group and my jaw dropped. He invited me to come out to a workshop at Woodstock, New York in the summer. That was the summer of 2000 – I spent a month there learning Soundpainting. It was all movement-based – which was not what I wanted to do – no instrument. But I stuck it out and had some amazing experiences. It was a magical month. It was so invigorating and exhausting. I could feel my brain throbbing in my skull. I was 20 years old. Workshop all day, jamming all night. Total immersion. At week 3 my body shut down with complete exhaustion – I was in bed for two days. Then I was back at it. I was completely changed by it.

When I got back to Iowa I started a Soundpainting group, Gamut. Started small – sometimes it was only me. But I kept at it and the group grew. We took the group to Ann Arbor to work with Sara’s group and record with them. Gamut made a CD, too, Countermeasures (there may be 5 left in existence). I kept up the group, then moved to NYC in 2005. Walter had started up the New York Soundpainting Orchestra that year. I started working as his assistant. I met several people I wanted to work with. In 2006 I started my own Soundpainting Orch, ZAHA and we started giving shows. First show: Addtract. Theme of human bowling. I stood at one end on a box. Everyone was standing in a diamond like tenpins. I made a gesture and they would fall (wihtout instruments). We did some guerilla performances; we did our first CD in 2007. We did a tour last spring. The “Sedge and the Bee” was our last, most recent CD.

JA: What do you see for Soundpainting in the future?

Evan: It’s become a language that people are developing and adding to. It’s fascinating to watch it grow and change. SP or something like it is going to revolutionize how music is taught.

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