The mechanical engineering graduate followed his muse as musician and composer.
The roads to MIT are many and circuitous. For Ray Zepeda ‘88, the route was straight east.
A lifelong Californian, Zepeda’s cross-country trip was motivated by dual interests. “Studying mechanical engineering was as a practical consideration for my life.” But music was his passion.
Zepeda graduated with a Course 2, Mechanical Engineering degree with a humanities concentration in music (this was before MIT had minors.) “I kept the two disciplines largely separate,” he says. Since then, he has established himself as a jazz musician and composer with a unique musical profile, a journey that began long before he arrived in Cambridge.
Memories of Oil Rigs and Jazz Improv
A move to the Los Angeles area at a young age sowed the seeds of Zepeda’s future; there he was introduced to engineering and oil rigs (his father worked in the industry) and to a thriving jazz scene.
Zepeda’s father, an amateur saxophonist, handed Ray his prized Buescher 400 “Top Hat & Cane” saxophone; the young musician soon began to land gigs in local jazz ensembles. “That early improvisational experience gave me some important skill sets that put me at an advantage in college and even graduate school,” Zepeda maintains.
All the while, he maintained his love of math and models. That made MIT a natural next step.
At the time, the MIT music department had two jazz ensembles with one led by Herb Pomeroy. “I was well aware of Herb Pomeroy’s reputation,” recalls Zepeda. “The fact that he was director of the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble was certainly a driver in my applying to MIT.”
Zepeda found Pomeroy’s leadership to be a powerful presence. He then studied music theory and composition with Eddie Cohen, the beloved composer, performer and senior lecturer at MIT. An enthusiastic promoter of jazz and new music, Cohen brought a deep understanding of classical music to his teaching.
The Lasting Impact of Twelve-Tone Music
Shortly thereafter, Zepeda began work with John Harbison, MIT Institute Professor and Pulitzer Prize–winning composer. Harbison’s eclectic musical scope sent his compositional thinking in a new direction.
“I can remember when he put the Babbitt Square up on the chalkboard during one of my lessons when I was struggling to write a piano piece,” he recalls.
Harbison’s suggestion made a lasting impression. Drawn to what he describes as the “crystalline beauty” of the composer’s approach to serialism, Zepeda was later inspired to write Re-Imagining Milton Babbitt: A Centennial Celebration for an Exceptional American. The piece was recorded in 2017 with the Bakersfield New Music Collective, a group the composer describes as “a loose collective of A-list players who are interested in this advanced music.”
In addition to the Collective, Zepeda performs with a variety of musical groups, including the Oklahoma-based New Century Ensemble and New Century IMPROV, as well as a California-based band called Mind, Body, & Soul. More recently, he’s written pop songs infused with his own jazz sensibility.
That limitless approach to music comes naturally to Zepeda, a philosophy that blossomed at MIT. For those called by multiple interests, the saxophonist offers some practical and inspired advice: “Follow your muse as you pursue a day career that can provide some financial stability. And don’t be afraid to be eclectic.”
Written by Matthew Robinson and Connie Blaszczyk