An Interview with Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon

The music of Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, requires an especially cooperative attitude on the part of the performer—her own part is only a small portion of his concern, as at every moment an intricate contrapuntal structure is being advanced. The player continually engages with other members of the ensemble—and never only one or two at a time. On each performance, he discovers further consequences of his part, understands its cause and its function anew. On our recent tour, the Eastman BroadBand performed several of Zohn-Muldoon’s works, including his newest, Pluck. Pound. Peel. for three soloists and chamber orchestra. He writes about the work:

The original version of Pluck. Pound. Peel. was written for the Syracuse Society for New Music, thanks to a commission from Meet The Composer. The work is based on texts by Mexican poet Raúl Aceves, and is dedicated to my wife, harpsichordist Josephine Gaeffke. The settings of the text aim to parallel their concision. Thus, the voice line avoids repetition of words and melismatic elaborations. Instead, the expressive power of the words is projected through instrumental commentary, which at times takes over for extended passages. The harpsichord plays a central role in this commentary, and the particular orchestration of the work is designed to amplify and project the harpsichord’s discourse.

The ensemble also performed Zohn-Muldoon’s Comala Songs and NiñoPolilla, both operas in miniature. Zohn-Muldoon summarizes the libretto for NiñoPolilla, written by Mexican playwright Juan Trigos, Sr.:

In NiñoPolilla, a father and a mother scold their son, who has contracted a strange disease: a virus that is reducing him to dust. As the scene unfolds, bits and pieces of the boy fall (i.e. a finger, an ear, etc.). He occasionally coughs, expectorating yellow dust, which he is ordered to clean with a broom. Father and mother tell the child (while they occasionally whack him) that this disease is the well-deserved divine punishment for his bad behavior (i.e. refusal to attend Mass or do his homework, spying on the maid, reading “evil” books, etc.). In contrast, they assert, God’s punishment has evidently spared them to reward their decency and goodness. In the end, the boy collapses and dies amidst clouds of dust. The parents, gratified with this outcome, deliver a brief “moralistic” epilogue for the edification of the audience. The work is extremely satirical, humorous yet cruel and nonsensical.

During the BroadBand’s recent tour, soprano Tony Arnold was featured in all three works. In NiñoPolilla, Arnold was joined by tenor Scott Perkins and baritone Thomas Lehman. Harpsichordist Josephine Gaeffke and guitarist Dieter Hennings performed alongside Arnold in Pluck. Pound. Peel. The composer wrote to me extensively about his works and his experience with the BroadBand.

DH: What parts of the text motivated you to write NiñoPolilla? Are the morbid or comic elements of the text especially appealing?

RZ-M: The libretto for NiñoPolilla was written specially for this project. My friend Moritz Eggert invited me to participate in a “collective opera” project for the festival he directs in Munich (A/Devantgarde). The project was called “The last days of the V.I.R.U.S.” He asked five composers to each compose an operatic scene around this theme, with the understanding that he (Moritz) would compose the “context” narration. I asked Juan Trigos Sr., one of the most prolific and inventive playwrights living today, for a libretto. Mr. Trigos wrote the miniature opera NiñoPolilla. Some time later he turned this libretto into a full-length play, but my setting is circumscribed to the initial text. I find the text extremely compelling. It is very funny, but also very cruel. One cannot read it without laughing, while also feeling very guilty about laughing at this.

DH: Elaborate on your treatment of the text in the piece. What were the major challenges of realizing the text?

RZ-M: The text is very musical. Mr. Trigos wrote the libretto in verse, with abundant use of creative neologisms and inner repetitions that gave a natural musical phrasing. There are three characters (mother, father, son) that interact in rapidly shifting solos, duets, and trios, which is very helpful in terms of musical flow. The delivery is mostly syllabic, since it is very important that the text be conveyed clearly, despite the frenetic musical pace. One of the main ideas for the musical setting that occurred to me early on, was to reflect the gradual disintegration of the boy with a parallel disintegration of the ensemble. So, I decided that the “virus” would gradually infect each section of the ensemble, until only the piano and percussion were left to accompany the singers. The problem with this idea was that it produced an “anti-climactic” curve, which did not suit the trajectory of the text. So, I came up with the solution of bringing back the ensemble towards the end, but only as “coughing chorus (thus, the nickname that friend gave to this work: “Cantata Estornudata,” or “Coughing Cantata”). I also tried to inflect the sound world of the piece with the sound of coughing and wheezing, and that gave me a very good sense of the orchestration.

DH: On our recent tour, soprano Tony Arnold sang NiñoPolilla and two of your songs, El Mar and Nunca Sueno. Describe your experience working with her.

RZ-M: It is really a pleasure and a privilege to work with Tony. She is gifted not only with a beautiful voice and superb musicianship, but also with an unusual musical imagination. Her sensitivity to timbre is magical. She is able to internalize the timbral situation in which she is singing, and to interact (or blend) with the surrounding instrumental colors through her mode of singing and tone production. At times, one almost gets the impression that she has a whole orchestra of voices within her vocal cords. Tony is very concerned with expressing the deeper meaning of the text, and she truly interprets when she sings.

DH: What was your motivation to write Pluck. Pound. Peel.? If the piece indeed began as a concerto for your wife, harpsichordist Josephine Gaeffke, why is there also a soprano soloist in the piece?

RZ-M: The original impulse to compose Pluck. Pound. Peel. was to write a work for my wife, Josephine Gaeffke, featuring the harpsichord in a concertante role. Josephine is a very special musician in that her playing genuinely connects to her feeling for the music in a way that I have seldom witnessed. She makes the harpsichord sound full of life, energy, and color. My idea was to set her harpsichord inside an ensemble that could partner its complex musical personality, including the oppositional possibilities afforded by the two manuals. Thus, I designed a concertino group comprising a pairing of mandolin and steel string guitar to match the normal “nasal” sound of the instrument, and another pairing of classical guitar and harp to complement the harpsichord’s lute stop. Then I added two string quartets in support of these pairings: for example, one quartet could be muted (to match the guitar/harp pair), while the other could play sul ponticello (to match the mandolin/steel-string guitar pair). Finally I added two percussionists, and a contrabass to complete the ensemble. The title of the work is meant to represent the instrumental “mechanics” of the ensemble: the plucking of the concertino group, the pounding of the percussion, and the “peeling” action of the bow on the strings (think of the bow as a gigantic potato peeler). The soprano came into the picture when I had the idea to base the piece on aphorisms by Raúl Aceves, a wonderful poet from my native Guadalajara. I wanted to be true to the concise nature of the texts, and thus avoided repetitions of words and mellismatic elaborations in the musical setting. The interventions of the soprano are then like small “windows” in the flow of the music. The soprano sings the main musical ideas, which are then “taken for a spin” by the instruments, with the harpsichord leading the way. The five movements of the work are very tightly related, as the sung lines of the soprano are treated like voice leading “archetypes” in the fabric of the instrumental counterpoint. The work was written for the Syracuse Society for New Music, thanks to a grant from Meet The Composer. For the BroadBand tour, I wrote a new version of the work for a radically different instrumental configuration (essentially a sinfonietta, with the addition of the harpsichord, guitar, and soprano). This was extremely challenging, as the original work was so tied-in with the peculiar scoring. But, when there is a will, there is a way…

DH: For me, the faster movements of Pluck. Pound. Peel. require a special rhythmic quality—as I player I must strive for extreme precision but also incredible lightness and clarity. It’s very challenging, as your intricate rhythmic writing might tempt a player to pound out every change in meter, to overplay accents and other articulation markings. Is this lightness, in your mind, a common element of your style? How has it developed?

RZ-M: It is very interesting for me that you remark on that aspect of the music. From my beginning steps as a composer, I was aware that “rhythm” made things much more fluent for me. I fought this impulse early on, as it seemed “out of line” with what contemporary music “should be” in my student days. But this made my creativity really stutter. I gradually found a way to compromise with the impulse by intellectualizing it, thus coming up with rhythmic and metric schemes that appeared more interesting and more “sophisticated” than the initial impulse. I suppose that this had a positive aspect, in that it helped me develop technically. However, it was exhausting to keep restraining and “re-voicing” what surfaced naturally to my imagination, and at some point I realized that I was much happier with my music when I embraced it and really developed it. I think that the lightness that you refer to has to do with the fact that I treat rhythm motivically: as “pattern” and “phrase”, not just as pulsation, and definitely not as the “articulation” or ornamentation of a harmonic/melodic background. I feel that rhythmic motives that are readily perceived and internalized allow me to construct rich contrapuntal interplays, setting them in myriad relations to each other, rather than to a “primal pulse” or barline. Thus, the music has lightness, but it does require precision because the identity of the patterns has to be clearly characterized for the counterpoint to come to life. Much of the music that I dearly love operates very similarly, such as Mexican folk music from the area around the Gulf of México, and the music of Bach.

DH: I can’t say that I took up this light quality of sound in response to any indications in the score—of course that reveals some ignorance on my part, but I do remember the moment that this special lightness was made explicitly clear to me. I had been playing a suite of yours for months (with another conductor) when, in a later project, Juan Trigos described it to the ensemble. His observation changed the piece entirely and all at once—it was a significant and sudden revelation about your music, for me. Are there other elements of your style that might work like this—passed along almost as part of an oral tradition accompanying your music?

RZ-M: Juan is a very unique conductor, and a spectacular composer. I don’t think that I have ever really talked to him about how I want my music performed, as I have often done with other conductors. This is because Juan has an uncanny ability to get into the music and understand what the expressive intention is. I love his interpretations of my music. As for “oral tradition,” I have to say that I try to include everything I want in the score, but evidently this can only go so far. Among the issues that come up, in addition to the rhythmical aspect you describe, is the question of the “tactile” quality of my musical ideas. As you know, I compose with very defined motivic ideas, including a particular attention to timbre. Thus, I employ at times “extended” techniques in my instrumental writing, usually well-known ones (i.e. extracting harmonics from the piano strings, etc.). It is very important for me that these sounds are produced with as much “quality” as the normal sounds, because I never use the special timbres for their own sake, but rather to clarify, highlight, or develop a musical idea. Another aspect that I often find myself talking about in rehearsals is the interplay among the instruments. Many of the lines and gestures in my compositions are “compound” constructions, where the part of an instrument may be the intersection of several lines circulating in the ensemble. So, each instrumentalist must be very aware of their place in this interplay for the music to flow and make sense.

DH: Describe your experience with the BroadBand, now or in the past. In what way is working with the group different when compared to your experience with other ensembles? Do you have a good “tour story” from one of our other trips?

RZ-M: Working with the BroadBand counts among my most rewarding experiences as a composer. I find that the highly talented and young musicians in the ensemble are all firmly connected with the reason why we all became musicians. They are committed, enthusiastic, and clear about the value of music in their lives. Everyone in the group (including the composers) participates because they desire to make music together at a high level. The traveling adds an element of “uniqueness” to each project, and allows everyone to share a sense of discovery in the larger sense: new music, new locations, etc. It is a great privilege for me to have my music treated with such seriousness, and affection.


Mexican-born composer Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music in 2002 as associate professor of composition. Prior to joining Eastman, Zohn-Muldoon held positions at the School of Music, University of Guanajuato, Mexico, and the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. He received his undergraduate degree in guitar and composition from the University of California at San Diego, and both a master’s degree and PhD in composition from the University of Pennsylvania, where his principal teacher was George Crumb. Zohn-Muldoon’s honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Tanglewood Music Center (Omar del Carlo Foundation), Camargo Foundation, Endowment for Culture and the Arts of Mexico, a Mozart Medal from the Embassy of Austria in México, and commissions from the Fromm Foundation, U.S./Mexico Fund for Culture, and other noted institutions and ensembles in México, the U.S., and Europe.

Visit the composer’s website for further information about the composer and his work.