Evan Ziporyn Discusses “Being Material”

MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte predicted in 1995 that “being digital” would have us entering a realm increasingly unconstrained by the materiality of the world. Two decades later, our everyday lives are indeed ever more suffused by computation and calculation. But unwieldy materiality persists and even reasserts itself. Programmable matter, synthetic biology, 3D/4D printing and wearable technologies capture the attention of engineers, scientists and artists.

“Being Material,” CAST’s second symposium, will showcase recent developments in materials systems and design, placing this work in dialogue with kindred and contrasting philosophy, art practice and critique. Panels on the PROGRAMMABLE, WEARABLE, LIVABLE and INVISIBLE—along with a concert, AUDIBLE—will explore new and unexpected meetings of the digital and material worlds.

-“Being Material” Conveners


Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor and Chair, Music and Theater Arts, and Faculty Director of MIT CAST, is a composer/clarinetist with an international reputation for his genre-defying, cross-cultural works and performances. For CAST, he curates the innovative annual performance series MIT Sounding which blurs the boundaries between contemporary and world music. In this interview, he discusses AUDIBLE, the musical performances he curated for the “Being Material” symposium, and comments on sound’s material and immaterial properties.


A Conversation with Evan Ziporyn


In some ways, the symposium is a response to Nicholas Negreponte’s prediction that “being digital” would free us from the constraints of materiality. What are some of your thoughts about the digital/material divide (or lack thereof), as it pertains to music?

Music—in whatever form—is a fairly strange human intervention into materiality.  Blowing into metal, scraping on strings, generating invisible variations in air pressure that waft into people’s ears: it’s kind of odd behavior, this end-in-itself patterning of soundwaves.  That being said, as it happens, the life-changing course I took in high school that got me interested in new music was called “Materials of Music.”  Ironically, in that course, and in the discipline, “materials” means ideas and the way the mind organizes them: melodies, rhythms, processes, structure, i.e. everything OTHER than physical beings, objects or forces.  


You curated AUDIBLE, the live performances at the “Being Material” symposium. How do Maya Beiser’s work and Grace Leslie’s work suit this symposium?

Grace & Maya, in very different but connected ways, merge this immaterial notion of materials back into “stuff”—in real-time, in the real-world. Grace’s merger is between two live generative forces, the flute and her own brainwaves, which trigger electronic sounds.  These are two simultaneous, parallel pathways: mind-to-digits (hand and fingers) and mind-to-digital (the software that translates brainwaves to sound).  

Maya’s rapturous interpretation of Michael Harrison’s Just Ancient Loops is based on a different type of abstraction and digitization, our ongoing fascination with music as number, and again how that manifests in sound and vision, in tuning systems and metric cycles. Harrison composes using an elegantly expanded version of Pythagorean just intonation—alchemical, intervallic numerology—layering cello resonances and textures into patterns and grooves.


You’ve worked with Maya Beiser for years, and recently have collaborated with her on your orchestral version of David Bowie’s Blackstar. What can the audience expect from her in Audible and—if it won’t ruin any surprises—from her upcoming concert at MIT in December?

Maya has been using her MIT time to explore very widely with several members of the faculty in different programs. The Blackstar project was of course my own collaboration with her. In many ways, it was a typical artistic residency, a chance for us to realize a dream project and to involve students and the community in the process. The December concert will grow out of her ongoing work with Skylar Tibbits and involve the interplay of sound and self-replicating materials. It will undoubtedly be influenced by the ideas and conversations that come out of this symposium.  I’m as curious as you are to see where that ends up.


Posted on April 11, 2017 by Sharon Lacey