On the Road with Mischa Zupko

Mischa at work on the bus

Mischa at work on the bus

For two weeks in June, Chicago composer Mischa Zupko did something that composers don’t often have the opportunity to do: he toured with an orchestra. Camerata Chicago traveled to the Czech Republic, France, and Italy and gave five performances of Zupko’s new Chamber Symphony: Pilatus. Zupko was on every plane and bus, at every soundcheck, in every audience, and an honored guest at every group dinner. I was lucky enough to be there too, serving as acting principal second violin.

During the drive from Marseille to Milan, I headed from my perch in the second row of the bus to Mischa’s seat towards the back. It was my shortest-ever commute to an interview. On those long bus trips, Zupko could usually be found hard at work on a new piece for Jeffrey Zeigler—that, or trading jokes with the wind and brass players. The conversation that follows reveals Zupko to be a humble, energetic, and constantly searching artist, thriving in his role of “embedded” composer-in-residence.

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EM: Tell me about the experience of traveling with the orchestra. Have you ever been in such extended proximity to your orchestral collaborators?

MZ: I love it. I feel like one of the orchestra at this point! As a performer, I’m very much in touch with the performance aspects of my music. I feel viscerally involved with the performances of my music, or any other music for that matter. So the opportunity to learn about and understand every one of the individuals in this group is really an exciting process.

I’m getting a better understanding of how the orchestra works, those mechanics. It would have been nice to do this before I wrote the piece, too! But it serves a neat purpose of sculpting how this work grows within the context of each performance. And if we work together again, that will be so much more of an in-depth relationship to explore.

Mischa with orchestra members in Paris

Mischa with orchestra members in Paris

EM: I think the players feel an increased sense of commitment to your work because you are right here with us. You’re one of us, but you’re also special.

MZ: I’m having lots of experiences where people are starting to come up to me and ask about certain things. They’re curious about certain aspects of the piece, or what I meant with something. This is a very natural process with chamber music, but not something we often get to do with orchestral music. I wish that all compositions could be born this way.

I have a program at the Music Institute of Chicago that tries to advocate for this kind of thinking, this kind of collaboration between performers and composers. In this program, the performers really realize what is not on the page that they can do. There are these cliches, like “read between the lines,” or “look beyond the score,” but what the hell does that mean? It can be completely arbitrary, until you start to work with a composer and realize what could not be notated that was still trying to be expressed.

And you can apply that to so many other things. You can apply that to Brahms. All of a sudden, the personal aspect of the creative process becomes illuminated; it’s not such a third-person interpretation anymore.

EM: How does Pilatus, the chamber symphony of yours that we’re playing on this tour, fit into the context of your work overall?

MZ: I think it’s very visual and visceral. A lot of my orchestra pieces, for some reason, are very much visually inspired. Pilatus is inspired by various impressions of the great peak in Lucerne, and the mythology surrounding that.

When I first started writing for orchestra, it was very literally programmatic. But it has evolved so that I’m not trying to do a Berlioz thing anymore—not to create a direct narrative, but to take impressions from visual stimulus or poetic ideas and get in touch with how exactly that makes an impression on me, and how that can be communicated aurally.

As composers, we continually try to express things in the ways that we see them—but we refine that process to the point that the music actually expresses what we were feeling inside, not some thoughts that you can’t articulate in an abstract medium. I think that what makes great music great music is when a composer can literally bring others into an experience. It doesn’t have to be the same experience—that’s the beauty of it—but it guides people into a certain kind of visceral, psychological, emotional experience.

Mischa and Ellen on the tour bus

Mischa and Ellen on the tour bus

EM: You wrote Pilatus while you were traveling; now you’re traveling again. How does traveling connect to your creative process? What does traveling do for your writing?

MZ: The first thing that pops into my mind is actually thinking about my son, and what traveling is for him. We traveled with my son when he was very young—a year and three months old—and we spent most of our time in Tuscany. And watching what happened to his little brain during that time was remarkable. He went there with a couple of words, and he came back babbling. Traveling for children is really important because it stimulates the mind, in terms of being presented with new situations and having to problem-solve more frequently.

So when your environment is unfamiliar, it stimulates creativity. It’s common sense that whenever you go outside of your usual environment, your brain is outside of its routine. I think it’s important for unleashing a certain amount of daring and creativity within your work.

Jake Muzzy, right and Christopher Ferrer

Jake Muzzy, right and Christopher Ferrer

EM: Some of the musicians in the front of the bus have questions for you. This question is from Jake Muzzy, one of our cellists: “Tell us how writing by hand, which is how you work, shapes your composing?”

MZ: Obviously you’re talking in the context of a time when composers don’t necessarily start here [he gestures to the sheets of handwritten music]. They might record a fragment of something, start working electronically, and compose acoustic music around that. Composers might go directly to Finale and use playback to discern where they are in a piece. They’re “using the tools”—quotation marks—to try to get to know their own music.

I’m always encouraging my students to have the experience of doing the initial drafts by hand. Balances, performer dynamics—when you start working at the computer, you might not consider that stuff as deeply. You have to consider the performing logistics, the dynamics of how somebody’s going to react to a certain sound in the orchestra, and how they’ll play from there.

The handwriting process helps build that muscle, that mental representation of your own music, a mental playback where you understand what’s going to happen in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble. It’s really important for me personally to develop that imagination around sound.

Kate Carter

Kate Carter

EM: This last question is from another of our violinists, Kate Carter: “What kind of nonclassical music do you like to listen to?”

MZ: Sting is definitely at the top of my list. That reveals my age. There’s just something so unaffected about him. There’s subtlety and intricacy, but it’s never for show or for a self-conscious need to be more sophisticated. I love the nostalgia and the purity of the messages in his songs.

I’d also have to name Rush. That was what we used to call “hard rock”—it feels funny even saying that anymore. But they had this incredible imagination, and I always felt transported listening to them. Seeing them live, with Neil Pert and pitched percussion—at that time there was hardly anyone [in rock] doing pitched percussion, or thinking melodically about drums. Rush felt like a nice mix between my musical upbringing, with a father who was a serious Germanic composer, and riding to school and hearing bands like Motley Crue.

I love Radiohead. That’s a group where there is no excess—it’s all really concentrated on what they want to say. I love atmospheric kinds of music where it doesn’t break the sound environment you’re listening to, to get in an extra verse. It is authentically what it’s trying to be. When Radiohead sets the stage for a particular song, you’re there from the beginning to the end.That’s what I like about music in general—the concentration that allows you to enter something for the duration.

My kid is listening to Macklemore now, but I just find that entertaining. It’s always more fun to listen to something when you see your kid rapping all the words.

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