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David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ at Bing Concert Hall

In Music
STELLAR WORK: Ambient Orchestra explores the themes of David Bowie's final album 'Blackstar.'

STELLAR WORK: Ambient Orchestra explores the themes of David Bowie's final album 'Blackstar.'

The first time Evan Ziporyn heard David Bowie’s album Blackstar, it was from the other side of a wall. The Boston composer was at an artists retreat in Florida when he heard his neighbor in the next room playing music way too loud.

Ziporyn plays bass clarinet, and he was trying to practice. No one would have blamed him if he yelled, banged on the wall or pleaded for quiet in a less aggressive manner. But he didn’t do any of that.

“I remember vividly practicing to it through the wall,” he says. “He was listening to it obsessively. So I just played along with it.”

Ziporyn’s decision to go with the flow turned what could have been an annoyance into a bold new artistic direction. On Nov. 7, he comes to Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, leading his 26-person Ambient Orchestra (featuring cellist and soloist Maya Beiser) in a symphonic interpretation of Bowie’s Blackstar, presented to his audience just as he first heard it through the wall, from its first song to its last.

Two days after Blackstar was released in January 2016, Bowie died. Ziporyn got the news through an alert on his cellphone in the middle of the night. “I just thought it was a dream,” he says.

The Chicago-born Ziporyn, 58, is an accomplished post-minimalist composer and musician, best known for his work interpreting Balinese gamelan at MIT, where he is a professor, and for his contributions to the avant-garde ensemble Bang On a Can.

Like millions around the world, he is a big Bowie fan. Unlike many others, however, Ziporyn’s work brought him into the orbit of the pop-music icon. Bowie had developed an interest in Bang On a Can, and the two musicians met more than once. “He was an astonishingly normal guy,” Ziporyn recalls.

News of Bowie’s death—of liver cancer, two days after his 69th birthday—deeply rattled his fan base, including Ziporyn. “Slowly, over the course of a couple of days, I began connecting to all sorts of people, from different parts of my life,” he says. “And everyone was in a state of shock. I kept thinking, ‘This is really important. We need to do something with all this energy.’”

When Ziporyn returned to Boston from his Florida retreat, he thought immediately of doing a Bowie tribute in the classical world. He reached out to his contacts with the idea; within a couple of weeks he had signed up 80 musicians, and the Ambient Orchestra was born.

But then there was the question of the program. Bowie’s music had been interpreted by orchestras a couple of times over the years, but nothing felt right. “We didn’t want to do the standard pops concert where you get a Led Zeppelin-like band and just add some strings to it,” he explains. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But to treat this music like we treat all the other music in our lives, we had to find our own take on it.”

That’s when he again thought of the music he first heard coming through the wall. It had to be Blackstar.

Bowie’s final album will be forever associated with his death, but judging from its critical reception, it has slowly emerged as one of the strongest works of his career. “It’s a self-requiem,” Ziporyn says, “but it’s also something else. It’s kind of a guide to confronting death. He made sure to get it out before he died, because, in a certain way, it was preparing us for his death.”

Ziporyn’s Ambient Orchestra will not feature a singer, but instead cellist Beiser takes on Bowie’s vocal parts—“Maya’s kind of our Ziggy,” he says—and he’s enlisted a number of young musicians who feel comfortable traversing the idioms of classical, jazz and pop.

“What I was really taken with is right there in the first song,” he says of Blackstar. “That song moves through this central, swaggering, bluesy thing toward this humanism on his part, which is to talk to us about what he is experiencing, what it’s like to think of yourself as moving from life to death. And musically, I don’t feel like I’m giving up on anything. I feel like my whole musical being is called on. And what more can I ask for?”

The Ambient Orchestra
Nov. 7, 7:30pm $32+
Bing Concert Hall, Stanford

 

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