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Featured Member Profile: Composer Evan Mazunik Finds His Bliss

Evan Mazunik has creative moxie. Enough of it to coordinate a "guerrilla performance" that culminated in his being "curtly escorted" out of a four-star hotel. But don't get the impression that it's all just silliness. Evan is an accomplished composer, fluent in Soundpainting (more on that later), who recently received a 2010 Con Edison Musicians' Residency. His works have been featured in the NY International Fringe Festival and performed at venues devoted to creative, improvised, and experimental music such as Roulette, HERE and Galapagos Art Space. In this interview he tells us about the work of his experimental chamber ensemble, ZAHA, as well as his current projects and pipe-dreams...

Please tell us what Bliss Street Studios is. What was the impetus behind its creation?

Bliss Street Studios is the creative home for various multidisciplinary projects of mine and my wife's. Bliss Street Studios was officially created on a wintry evening in 2009 at Sammy’s Noodles. It was a rainy night in Greenwich Village, and we’d met up for dinner after (separately) teaching piano and attending a meeting with writing agents. For years, each of us had been searching a home for our various artistic projects -- a place large enough to allow for spontaneity and cross-genre pollination, a place unique enough to feel like our own, a place hospitable enough to invite friends over.

After a bowl of a little-bit-of-everything soup, a plate of Chinese New Years cakes, several cups of tea, lots of animated discussion, and scribbled notes and diagrams, we had the framework for a new organization: a set of linked studios, representing various realms of creativity, where exploration, improvisation, and expression are encouraged, where making things is valued more than consuming things. Where telling stories, and playing the accordion, and designing jewelry and writing songs, and improvising with the birds...and acting a little silly and being thought of as a little weird are all expected. Where we aren’t afraid of love or the dark or rejection letters or winding roads.


What kind of work do you do with ZAHA, your experimental music group?

We perform original compositions of mine, as well as explore real-time composition with Soundpainting. Occasionally, I’ll break out the keyboard or accordion and join the sonic fray myself. We play out around Brooklyn and Manhattan (our next show is September 1st at Brooklyn Lyceum). For the past three years, we’ve played an annual show on or around Halloween titled “Silent Scream.” For that performance, we create a live film score to silent films, usually in the proto-horror genre of early 20th-century movies.

So, what is Soundpainting exactly? How has it influenced your work?

I’ll begin by offering the official working definition of Soundpainting from the website: "Soundpainting is the universal live composing sign language created by New York composer Walter Thompson for musicians, dancers, actors, poets, and visual artists working in the medium of structured improvisation." For me, Soundpainting is a versatile language that enables me to collaborate with creative individuals from diverse backgrounds and trainings while fashioning a composition in real-time from the improvised contributions of the performers. Soundpainting has profoundly influenced my work for the past decade. Even when I’m not overtly using it in my composition or improvisation, I’ve found that this language -- its concept and philosophy -- still seeps into the fabric of everything I make in music.

Can you describe to us a particularly memorable ZAHA performance?

In “Sulam (The Dream of Jacob),” we installed ourselves in the elevators at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. For this guerilla performance, each elevator had predefined roles (e.g. one elevator was for strange sounds, another for repeating sounds), and I would get on and off each elevator at different floors, surprised by who was (or wasn’t) on the elevator. When and if people asked us what we were doing, we were instructed to simply say, “The city is sleeping.” I was honestly surprised that we lasted as long as we did (close to 30 minutes) before security curtly escorted us out of the building.

You are currently a composer-in-residence at the Florence E. Smith Community Center in Corona, Queens, having been chosen as one of six winners of the 2010 Con Edison Musicians' Residency: Composition Program. Can you tell us a bit about the nature of the projects you are working on and what stage they are at?

During this residency, I’ve started composing a piece with a working title of “Trigger’s Broom: an emerging suite for chamber ensemble.” Trigger’s Broom is a composition that plumbs the paradoxes of identity, change, decay, and growth. Soundpainting, graphic scores, structured improvisation, and traditional notation will be re-combined and re-arranged in an open-form, multi-movement suite that will gradually evolve over the course of several performances. I've written an assortment of “palettes” (i.e. pre-composed materials) and have culled signs from the Soundpainting language that will work well in both processing these palettes (as an electronic musician might “process” a pre-recorded sound) and generating related ideas from improvisers.

How has the Con Edison Residency helped you?

This Con Edison Residency has helped me in at least three ways. First, it’s provided me access to a studio space away from home. Some weeks, it’s difficult to stay productive at home, and “going to the office” has immensely helped my discipline as a composer. Second, it has provided some money during the slow months of the summer, when freelance teaching and gigs typically slow down in New York. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this residency has served as an encouragement to me as a composer -- a gesture of support and interest, which can serve as food for the soul during the lean periods of struggle and doubt one often encounters in the creative process.


Whose work do you especially admire?

Where to begin? Music: Walter Thompson, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Butch Morris, Thelonious Sphere Monk, Earle Brown, Arvo Pärt, Anton Webern, Talk Talk. Visual Arts: Biil Viola, Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Rauschenberg, Howard Finster. Film: Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman. Literature: Jeff Noon, Ronald Johnson, St. Augustine, Flannery O’Connor, Seamus Heaney.

How did you decide to become a member of Fractured Atlas? How have you benefited from your Fractured Atlas membership?

I heard of Fractured Atlas through several friends, including the talented Tomi Tsunoda. I’ve benefited from Fractured Atlas’s free online courses and recently applied for a microgrant to cover travel costs for attending a Soundpainting think-tank this summer in Bordeaux. I also plan to apply for fiscal sponsorship for Bliss Street Studios in the near future. Two thumbs up for Fractured Atlas!

Do you have a pipe-dream collaborative project that floats around in your mind?

Do I ever! I have a long list of pipe-dream projects which would need some deep pockets to get them off the ground. The problem is not imagining such a project, but choosing such a project. One idea is a multimedia Soundpainting opera which would integrate music, dance, theater, and visual arts. This piece would then tour across the U.S. and Europe with various Soundpainting groups serving as host ensembles.

Is there any advice that you would give to a musician and/or composer at the start of their career?

I would strongly encourage any aspiring musician to honestly consider the intensity of their passion for pursuing a career in the arts. If she or he finds that they can't imagine doing anything else with their life, then I'd urge them to dive in headlong and trust that, as they work hard at their careers, they will eventually connect with a community of listeners and patrons who will support them. If she or he can see several other options for their future, I'd advise them to keep making music while finding other options to finance their creative habit. There are just too many sacrifices to make as a professional musician that may seem unwarranted and disheartening if you aren't totally committed to a creative career.

What’s next on your professional horizon?

I have a few irons in the fire: besides ZAHA's performance at Brooklyn Lyceum on September 1st, we're also organizing a tour of the eastern U.S. for the spring of 2011, so stay tuned. Also, every week for the rest of 2010, I'm releasing a new musical setting of a sacred text in a series of liturgical music titled "Sunday Songs."

Thanks, Evan!

Learn more about Evan Mazunik and his work on his website, Bliss Street Studios' website and in this NYC Performing Arts Spaces blog interview. To receive notice of future composers' residencies funded by Con Edison, sign up for the eblast of NYC Performing Arts Spaces, a program of Fractured Atlas.

Top: (c) 2008 Colette Mazunik
Bottom: (c) 2006 Eric Eigner