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Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon
07 Jan 2010

An Interview with Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon

Composer Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon is presently on the faculty of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he and colleague Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez played in a rock and roll band together.

An Interview with Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon

By Tom Moore

Above: Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon


He studied composition with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, where his fellow students included Jennifer Higdon and Osvaldo Golijov. We spoke via Skype on December 15 and December 17, 2009.

Part 1:

STM: Please talk about growing up in Guadalajara.

RZ-M: My father was an architect, and my mother, who is still living, is a psychologist. I was not extremely consistent with my musical interests as a kid. I started the guitar around the age of six, quit, did some piano, was just sort of bouncing back and forth. At home the listening was very erratic – my father liked folk music from Mexico, and would sing it to his own accompaniment on the guitar. He also listened to a lot of modern music, from the Beatles to early Led Zeppelin. My mother is an amateur pianist, and I remember her playing Chopin polonaises and mazurkas, also Scarlatti – I remember those things quite well. I wasn’t so furiously interested in music – it was something that I enjoyed, but didn’t see as my future. From all indications, I was supposed to go into the sciences, or architecture or whatnot. When I became a teenager, 12 or 13, I realized that the way to the hearts of young ladies in Mexico was through the guitar, and so I started studying again, this time with a very peculiar teacher. He was a very good guitarist, but frustrated with everything. One of the things that he would do to work out his frustration was to make arrangements of very strange things. For example, he made a fugue on the theme of “La Cucaracha” for the guitar. He was also transcribing Beethoven’s Fifth for the guitar. I would listen to these things and think that they were normal. The bad side was that his idea of guitar pedagogy was to run the students through this horrendous method by Julio Sagreras, something designed to make you quit the guitar, really. And I discovered that while the acoustic guitar was good for serenading, what really got the attention of young girls was if you played the electric guitar. Following my reproductive instincts, I bought a black Stratocaster, and started a band. It sounded horrendous at first, because it was just a bunch of friends who were interested in music. I remember that for the first half hour of every rehearsal I was trying to tune everything while the drummer was banging away, and people were making a lot of noise. Eventually the band got a little better, and actually Carlos Sanchez became the keyboard player. Those were our golden years! This went on for two or three years, and we actually had some moderate exposure in Guadalajara. This was a time when there were a lot of bands. I was playing all kinds of things. We would do covers of Dire Straits and Pink Floyd, and I was writing a lot of songs, which was what I most enjoyed. The lyrics of these songs have, thankfully, been lost, and probably the music as well, but it was an important thing for me, because it was a way to get into composition without really thinking that it was anything very serious. It was just fun to do it. I spent a lot of time making arrangements. We had a singer who had problems with pitch, so we ended up adding more and more instrumentals, which meant that I had to compose these arrangements to keep things interesting. By the time I was of an age to go to college, I was playing quite a bit, but I thought it would be a hobby. So I went into architecture for a little while – a semester at ITESO, a private Jesuit university in Guadalajara,. I had some “encounters” with the Jesuits, because I came from a family that was very unreligious. My religious education at 13 was a book that my dad gave me by Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian. After a little while in architecture I quit the school thinking that I was taking a break, and started working for my father, who was a very well-known architect. That convinced me that I really didn’t want to do it. So I spent about a year and half in my dad’s apartment playing scales and etudes , trying to get my guitar chops to somewhere decent, and then I went to the US, to UC San Diego, mostly by accident. They had a very good guitar program - the Romeros were there, and also it was very heavily into composition, so that was a crucial move for me, although not really one that had been planned.

STM: A very important center for contemporary music.

RZ-M: There was hardly anything from before 1945 that was worthy of their attention, and so I had a very odd education. I came from playing the guitar repertory, mainly, which was not very important in the classical period, and then jumped into the twentieth century, where Bartok was normal, John Cage was normal….When I saw the guitar majors there I realized that the level was just astronomical, with very, very good players. I was very clear that I was going to go into composition, but it was important to practice seriously at a decent level for a few years.

STM: Rodney Waschka, another guitarist, said to me that he believed that there was a close connection between guitar and electro-acoustic music, since the popular guitarist is always playing with the details of the sound. Would you say that was the case for you?

RZ-M: You have to understand that Guadalajara at the time was a real backwater of the pop music world. It’s a very large town, but it was difficult to get instruments. We had to travel to the US. We drove for thirty hours just to get instruments – it was an adventure. I had a few pedals, very noisy things, echoes, and all sorts of stuff like that. But I wasn’t so interested in that. I was more interested in the guitar as an instrument rather than what I could do with it in terms of sound manipulation.

STM: Tell us a little more about moving into composition at UCSD.

RZ-M: I was clear that I wanted to do composition, but I didn’t see myself as someone who would be composing for orchestras – I didn’t feel much of a connection to that part of the musical world. I saw myself as someone who would go back to Guadalajara after several years, start some kind of group, and do music that would be in between the cracks of jazz, pop, classical ….Carlos and I had a plan that we would start this group and really try to make a living from it….so my interest in composition was very strong but I didn’t have a lot of formal background – it was mostly entering that world through side doors, something that has its advantages and disadvantages. You are very free, but ignorance was something that I had to try to solve. I didn’t know the orchestral repertory well, I didn’t know music history – so I worked very hard in those years in an environment that was not really very structured, which probably was good for me. I was anonymous, just doing my thing. If I had gone to a conservatory, it would have been more difficult for me to enter that world with that kind of background. But at San Diego I did fine in classes – there were all sorts of people, and composition, because it was so focused on the twentieth century, and being creative, and doing crazy stuff – it was not intimidating, actually. It was much more intimidating a couple of years down the road, when I got it into my head that I wanted to write fugues and inventions and sonatas, and it hits you like a sledgehammer what that really entails. It was an interesting place, full of crazy people. Most of the faculty was composers. There was only one music historian.

STM: San Diego is famous for being the largest American city on the border with Mexico. Did you feel the presence of Mexican culture there?

RZ-M: La Jolla was so American – very wealthy, mostly white people, the University was a place that looked very first-world – and in fact there were very few Mexicans in that environment. I was a kind of oddball – perhaps there were two or three Mexican guitarists, because Mexico is always exporting guitarists. It was mostly a graduate program – of the undergraduates I believe that only two of us in my generation went on to do music professionally. The undergraduate program was very badly put together – a collection of courses that didn’t make much sense. I did a lot of independent study, with the orchestration professor, the theory professors – there was an amazing Frenchman, Jean-Charles François, who was a percussionist/pianist/composer. He was very important for me. He had a wonderful way of teaching composition. I had a yearlong course with him which combined composing with ear training, all sorts of theory – it was just do, do, do, do, do. Every week you wrote and wrote. By the end of a couple of years you had some chops.

STM: Who else was important for you at San Diego?

RZ-M: There was also Will Ogdon, who was a theorist and composer. Bernard Rands, who taught an interesting course on musical analysis (my first encounter with Berio’s music). I did not study composition with him, but of the composers who were there, his was the kind of music that I could relate to immediately. I was listening to contemporary music full-time – to hear Mozart was very rare. There was a contrabass ensemble with Bert Turetzky. I would go to this concert and hear eight contrabasses, and I thought “that’s normal”. Then I would go to a John Cage concert, and that was normal, too. All sorts of strange things….

Keith Humble was very important. He was an Australian composer who would come to UCSD for one quarter of every year. He got me to work with more discipline, looking at Bartok’s Mikrokosmos – that became my learning tool. He was very, very good and had a wonderful sense of humor. The guitar studio was important, although I never really felt part of it in the sense that I knew that I would not be a guitarist. It was a place where I had some friends, and would go to master classes with Pepe Romero. I studied for some time with Celin, who is one of the brothers. It was inspiring to see the level there, but the guitar repertory was something that I never really loved – I think that is one of the reasons that I went into composition.

STM: Do you have pieces in your catalog that date from your undergraduate years?

RZ-M: The only thing that I still feel some affection for is a piece that was a sort of piece d’occasion. There was going to be a celebration for the 85th birthday of Ernst Krenek. A lot of people at UCSD at the time had been his students. The director of the orchestra, Tom Nee, with whom I had studied orchestration, asked me to write a little birthday greeting for Krenek, and he told me “make it last five or six minutes, because he has to walk from his seat in the audience to the stage to get a big cake, but he’s very old.” I took “Happy Birthday” and made variations on it that were very strange. At the end there was a strange harmonization that the public would sing for him. It was the first time that I had written for a large ensemble. I was delighted! But other than that, no.

STM: And you then went directly on to graduate school at Penn.

RZ-M: I didn’t know what I was going to do, and someone said “Why don’t you try for a master’s somewhere?” One of the composers that I really admired was George Crumb. I was in the library, someone gave me a score by Crumb, and I couldn’t believe the way it looked. I went to listen to it, and I thought “this is great!” It was the first time I had heard recent music that I thought was full of magic and full of life in a way that other pieces didn’t have for me. A lot of music seemed intellectual, and listening to it was a duty, like music by Carter was “well, OK, I have to…” Crumb was different. My immediate assumption was that he was dead, since I thought that someone that good must be dead and buried… A year or two later someone pointed out that he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, so that was one of the places I applied. One morning someone called me and said that I had a fellowship to go study there, with everything covered. I thought it was a friend making a prank call. I was on the way to school and thought “Yeah, yeah, thanks a lot!” Somehow we straightened it out, and I went to Philadelphia for the master’s. I didn’t think I would do a doctoral degree, but when I was finishing the master’s my adviser said “Look, why don’t you start taking some courses in the doctoral program just in case you want to stay.” So I did. And I found a wonderful woman that I wanted to marry, and realized that I needed to have some kind of job some day, so I decided to finish the doctoral degree to see what I could do with that.

STM: You started at Penn in 1986.

RZ-M: Yes. At the time people were taking longer to graduate than today – maybe we were less evolved. There was very good funding – I never had to worry about it. I was funded for four or five years, and then there was another year where I was asked to teach music for non-majors. I had a lot of fun with that, which was a revelation. I finished in about ’92, ’93.

STM: You studied with Crumb. Who else was on the faculty?

RZ-M: With Crumb, and a semester each with Richard Wernick and Jay Reise. Most of my studies were with Crumb. I did my dissertation under him. It was a stroke of luck to have studied with him, because he was very encouraging, very gentle. The impression I had coming out of lessons was “this was great!” I just wanted to write music. I was struggling a lot – it was never easy. It was coming very slowly, but Crumb never made it feel like this was a bad thing. I know in other environments it can be very high-pressure, like at Eastman, where if someone is not producing a lot of music, eyes start turning toward this person…it’s tricky. Conservatories have a very different kind of mentality, because there is so much performance going on. At Penn it was more independent. If you wanted to compose a lot, that was fine. If you did it more slowly that was fine.

One of the great things at Penn was that I went “backwards” in my studies at that point. Crumb would teach a seminar on Chopin, for example, and we had to write mazurkas. I took a seminar on Brahms, a seminar on Mahler, all with him. He was very interested in traditional repertory. It got me to fill gaps that I had that other people had filled years before.

STM: Things that had not been addressed at San Diego.

RZ-M: At San Diego anything I got in traditional repertory was through my own initiative, but that was very haphazard. I was interested in Beethoven, so I would study that, I was interested in Bach, so I would study that…but Brahms was never on my radar, Mozart only a little bit….so I had very odd areas that I knew very well, and others that were problematic. I was never part of an orchestral culture in that sense.

STM: Were there institutions outside the university, musical groups in the city that were influential?

RZ-M: Mainly the Curtis Institute, which had a tremendous level of performance, and free concerts three times a week, so I started to go often to hear whatever they would play. The Philadelphia Orchestra, except that you have to remember that tickets were very expensive, and for student tickets you had to rush there and hope to get in at the last minute. I did see a lot of their concerts, and went to some impressive rehearsals – one where Lutoslawski was invited to conduct a whole program. He did “Mi-parti”, one of the symphonies, and the cello concerto. What was most important for me, in addition to Crumb, was that my generation had very good composers in the student body. There was David Crumb, the son of George Crumb, who is teaching in Oregon, Michael Fiday, who teaches in Cincinnati, Osvaldo Golijov, who is now a superstar. Jennifer Higdon came a year later, Pierre Jalbert, who teaches at Rice University, also a wonderful composer.

So the concerts of what used to be called the Penn Composer’s Guild were really, really good. They were events – you had all these young guys, and you didn’t want to be the ugly duckling, with a horrendous piece. I remember being in the practice room composing all day, all day, all day – I don’t know how we managed with courses, because the routine was you would get there in the morning, they had these horrible practice rooms, David would be in one, I would be in another, someone else in a third, we would compose all morning, and then go and look at what the other guy had done, laugh a little bit, go have lunch, come back, compose, take a seminar. It was very concentrated. There were very few distractions, not a lot of performances. It was a time to really go inwards. I found it very productive.

STM: I recall that computer software such as Finale was just beginning to be developed at the end of the 80’s. Twenty years later composers have such facility in using such programs, and get instant feedback with midi performances of the files. The period you are describing was before that divide, yes?

RZ-M: I remember when some of my older colleagues began bringing in these scores that looked pretty primitive by today’s standards. My friends slowly started going in that direction, but I kept doing everything by hand, because for me it was part of the process. I would get the piece to a certain stage, and then start copying. Sometimes there were things that were not finished, or details that were not decided, and copying gave me a focus. I did very careful copies – Crumb was the ultimate goal, but he was just too good. I started using Sibelius only about two years ago. I don’t use it all the time, but for large pieces it is very helpful. I have found that playback is something that I have to stay away from, because it is so tempting, and so misleading even after all these years of composing. You start writing and orchestrating things in a way that actually can get you into trouble, because it doesn’t make mistakes, it doesn’t take any time – it’s a machine. Not being a good pianist really forced me to be sure that I could hear every note that I wrote, that every note had meaning for me. I knew that I had to copy this stuff by hand – I didn’t want to [any] include any note that would suck. With these programs it is much easier to be wasteful – concentration is difficult if I am working with the computer.

STM: The end result can sometimes be something that seems hardly intended for human beings. I heard a chamber music premiere that I thought was wonderfully performed, and the composer said “it wasn’t anything like the MIDI!”

RZ-M: A friend said to me “It’s misleading for students, but it’s fine for an experienced composer.” I don’t quite agree, because I think that it puts you in a different frame of mind. It’s very easy to stop hearing internally, to think that some kinds of synchronizations are going to work – and they work very differently than they do in reality. For me I have to do it by hand. I use the piano a lot. I like Sibelius, because once you put it there any corrections are a piece of cake. My wife gave me an ultimatum a few years ago: “No more parts!” She was helping me with these, and it was getting crazy. She said “That’s it!” So I started using Sibelius. “Sibelius saved our marriage”.

STM: When did you meet?

RZ-M: In Philadelphia, in my first year. It was my first performance of something I considered a real piece, my first performance at Penn, in ’87. I had seen her – she was an undergraduate – but I hadn’t had a chance to meet her. She had come to listen to a piece by Osvaldo, because she and her friends knew Osvaldo. He had a piece on the same concert. She heard my piece, and liked it, and came to tell me afterwards, so I quickly asked for her phone number. It was a very nice place – I got a degree and a wife.

STM: Does she teach at Rochester?

RZ-M: We have two adolescent boys. She performs occasionally, and now that the kids are teenagers she will perform the Goldberg Variations. I am writing a piece for her, for the first time, a kind of concerto grosso for harpsichord, mandolin, banjo, harp, and guitar, and two string quartets, each with a percussionist and a contrabass.

STM: What would be a characteristic piece from your time in Philadelphia?

RZ-M: A song cycle, which was at the suggestion of Jay Reise. I wasn’t writing any vocal music. I loved vocal music, but it was always folk music. Opera was always so foreign, with a few exceptions. It was not something which tickled my fancy. When I thought of vocal music in the classical tradition, I thought it was something that was just not for me. He suggested that I do it, because I was getting bogged down working on technical things. He thought, and rightly, that writing for the voice would open something up. I took texts from a pre-Hispanic tale of a figure called “Quetzalcoatl”, both a mythical and a historical figure. I remember walking through the campus and hearing things –with the words I was imagining music. I asked a sister of mine, who is a writer, to set these in poetic form, and she made three little poems. I added another one that I found. It took me a long, long time to set these. I chose an ensemble that was two percussionists with a large battery – marimba, vibraphone, etc. – piano, flute, clarinet, cello, and baritone voice. I went to the Accademia Chigiana at the time and studied with Donatoni, which was very important for other reasons. I became a bit discouraged about the piece, and came back and showed it to Crumb. I said “I don’t know if I want to continue with this piece”, and he said “If you throw it away, tell me where!” and I felt so flattered!

I continued working on this, and it was performed at the Curtis Institute. The pianist was Pierre Jalbert, the flutist was Jennifer Higdon, the cellist was John Koen (now with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and the conductor was Osvaldo Golijov – we were very good friends at the time. It was insanely difficult to count. Osvaldo said “Look, I will do the little drawings in the air, and you listen and tell me if everything is right, because it is too difficult….” It doesn’t sound difficult – just that the notation was very odd. It was a big success for me. I had a piece where I felt there was a lot of personal expression, even though of all my pieces it is the one that has the most affinity with Crumb – it has a lot of sounds that I took from him. I can see a lot of influence now on the way it was composed, with small particles. I made an arrangement of it for violin, percussion, soprano and recorder, and sent to friends in Holland, who had an ensemble. Upon rehearsing it they disbanded, because they got into all sorts of fights….it was accepted at the Gaudeamus week, the big contest for young composers. That was a piece that helped me to grow, and brought me a lot of other opportunities, since it was an exotic-sounding work. It was hard to compose anything that I liked for a couple of years after that – I felt like I would never be able to do something like that again. It was a weird feeling – eventually things started to click. That was “Flores del Viento”. We just recorded it last May, after all these years.

STM: What happened when you left Penn?

RZ-M: I had a residence in the fall of 1992 at the Camargo Foundation. At the time they were already in contact with me from Mexico. They were going to open a new, high-level conservatory in Guadalajara, and they wanted me to be in charge of theory, and eventually composition. I went to France, came back, taught at Penn (as a T.A.), and finally moved to Guadalajara, but like many things in Mexico, this never materialized. Nothing happened, and someone from Guanajuato, a beautiful colonial town in central Mexico, offered me a job teaching theory and composition. I had nothing else – we were back in Mexico, I had no job, I had a kid, who was born in France in 1992. We moved there, and that’s really where I learned to teach – harmony, counterpoint, analysis – everything you could imagine. It was low stress in the sense that the expectations were not very high, but high stress in terms of the number of things that I had to do. I started a music festival with a crazy colleague that I had there. We brought Crumb, Steve Schick came – there were all sorts of things – electronic, acoustic. I did that for a few years, until I got fed up with the place. A Guggenheim fellowship miraculously materialized for me at the end of 1995. I never expected to get it. I wanted someplace to be that was outside Mexico. I had met Mario Davidovsky, who was at Harvard, and he kindly sponsored me as a visiting scholar. He taught two days a week, and I could use his office the rest of the time. It was fantastic! We were in Cambridge, we took the kids, and spent a year there, composing and enjoying Boston. This was during all of 1996.

STM: A good place to be. Was Golijov already at Holy Cross?

RZ-M: I called him, because he had gotten a Guggenheim the same year. We met a couple of times, but he was getting very busy by that point. That was about the last time that I saw him. He had a big shift in style and outlook in his last years at Penn, and has done incredibly well.

Part 2:

STM: Tell me about the origin of your compound surname.

RZ-M: When I came to the University of Pennsylvania, at my first lesson with George Crumb I was very curious about why they had accepted me as a student. He told me “Well, it was your name, Ricardo!” It was a Zen moment.

It is an odd combination – my father was an Austrian Jew, and came to Mexico when he was eight years old, with his parents. They managed to get out in 1938. From what he tells me, Jewish immigrants couldn’t really get into the US at the time – it was very difficult. They had a choice of Mexico or Shanghai.

They came to Mexico, where they had a relative. A lot of the family managed to immigrate to Mexico. My mother’s side of the family were immigrants from Ireland who had arrived in Mexico much earlier. My mother was born in Mexico, but her Irish side, the Muldoons, was very strong. In Mexico, the father’s surname comes first, and then the mother’s. Everyone has two last names, and the mother’s last name is lost in the next generation. When I came to the States, I had to hyphenate it, or else I would have been Mr. Muldoon.

STM: So your father is Jewish?

RZ-M: He was – he died in 2000. He was a very secular person – agnostic seems too timid a word. When I was thirteen, my Jewish friends were having bar mitzvahs, and my Catholic friends were having their first communion, and I wasn’t getting anything. I asked him “What about a party?” He said, “I will give you religious instruction”, and bought me that Bertrand Russell book [Why I Am Not a Christian]. It was a personal choice of his, but it was also a generation that was very humanistic. Jean-Paul Sartre has an essay about the Jewish question, and the contrast between Jews who had a more universalist outlook, and those who said that we had to go back to a more orthodox Jewish view of the world to survive. But my father was not religious at all, at all.

STM: Would you say that Jewish culture had an effect on how you think about things?

RZ-M: It’s hard to know, because I didn’t grow up with it at all. My house was very strange. I had the feeling that we were different from other people, partly because we were not Catholic, we were not religious, and partly also because my father’s work ethic was very, very strong, and on my mother’s side as well. My mother’s father had studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State. He was an engineer, and the US seemed very welcome in their household. There was always a sense that we were Mexican, but with some component that didn’t quite fit. I never saw my father drink, except for socially. Many of the parents of my friends would have drunken parties – my father was very temperate, and worked very hard, always at the office doing his architectural work. That was his passion.

I don’t know what part of this was Jewish, and what part was Germanic, since they were Austrian Jews. There was a big love of the arts, of reading. But I never learned any Jewish songs, and didn’t know anything about any of the services. I came to the US, and met Osvaldo, who had very strong Jewish roots. He invited me to a seder, and I had no idea what it was about. I learned about these things in the States, at the University of Pennsylvania, where there was a big Jewish population. I have never really felt part of the culture, but in a tangential way I have an affection for it.

STM: Marriages between Jewish fathers and Irish mothers was something that they wrote about in the US in the Twenties. There’s a famous play called “Abie’s Irish Rose”.

RZ-M: In Mexico there are not so many Irish, and the Jewish population is less strong than it is in Argentina, for example. In Guadalajara the Jewish population was very much a mercantile group that did very well. My dad was the odd man out, since he was a professional and an architect. Mexico City was very different, with a lot of intellectuals and artists who have Jewish names.

I have always felt at home in the US, because it seems like everyone else is just as disoriented as I am.

STM: And it is also the most Jewish of countries with the exception of Israel.

RZ-M: I have friends who are Jewish to varying degrees, some very Orthodox, some mildly religious, but definitely the sense of identity is much more present here than it was in Mexico. In Mexico, perhaps because the country is so Catholic, there was a tendency to not play up these things too strongly. Here, on the contrary, Jewish identity is very strong because there is so much competition among groups of differing ethnicities….. I have never really been part of a Jewish community, so to speak. I know it’s in my culture.

RZ-M: To finish talking about Boston – we went there for a year. Thanks to the Guggenheim fellowship I was at Harvard writing music. I was in Davidovsky’s office, and had some contact with him, but not study, mostly social. While I was there I applied for a couple of jobs in the US. I had a couple of interviews, and the one from Cincinnati came through. I started there at the beginning of ’97, since I wanted to finish the Guggenheim year. I was there for five years, from 1997 until 2002, when I came to Eastman.

STM: What would you like to say about Cincinnati? Is there a memorable piece from that period?

RZ-M: I suffered. It was a very good opportunity for me to teach things that I had never taught – analysis of twentieth-century music, analysis of romantic music – I had a lot of classroom teaching, which I enjoyed, because it is like performing for those large classes, and there is an element of humor which is very difficult to have in a seminar setting. When there are a lot of people, you can say something funny and the whole class lights up.

It’s a very good conservatory, which was then in a transitional period, with a generation that was retiring, and new hires every year. The theory department grew a lot. We were all bundled together – theory, composition, musicology.

There was a lot of classroom teaching, exams, administration – all the DMA’s had to write full-fledged dissertations. And for anything that was remotely Spanish-sounding I was assigned as a reader. No one asked you. The dean made the assignments – it was a quasi-military thing. Even a dissertation about medieval music from Spain….it was Spain=Ricardo, who is the token Latin-American. It was exhausting.

In order to get a raise, I needed another offer. I was very annoyed, since I prefer not to feel like a tomato in the market, you know? I am worth what I am worth. So I applied to Eastman, and when I met my colleagues, and saw the students, I was extremely impressed with the place…However, I was afraid to move my family – the kids were already in school, but the crux of the matter was that I needed more time to write, and they were unable to do that for me at CCM. So I left for Eastman.

I was writing as much as I could at CCM, but it was difficult. It was a time of struggle, learning a lot about teaching, a lot about the faculty culture here in the U.S., and composing when I could, which was tough. There were no sabbaticals.

It was, however, an important period in my composition, because in those years I wrote several pieces based on the book Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo. These include Páramo, for Pierrot plus percussion, Sangre, for guitar string trio and tenor, and several others. In my last year at CCM I finished the first version of a “scenic cantata”, Comala, which integrates all these works. Comala is an hour long, and growing still. It is some of the best music I have written, and where my “personal voice” really consolidated.

STM: So now life is paradise at Eastman.

RZ-M: It’s amazing! There’s the weather, which we don’t talk about, but other than that….It is a really amazing place, because the culture of new music is very strong here. There is a lot of interest from the students, a lot of activity that is not even generated from the composition department, and I think it is because the school had Howard Hanson from the very beginning, and composition was always part of the idea of the school.

My position opened up, and then the next year there was another position that had to be filled, and Carlos got it. He was this element that was missing in my life – the connection to Guadalajara and all these crazy people. So the craziest of them came here [laughs]. We grew up with all the same people – he knows my family, I know his – it was a very odd juncture that I never thought I would have in the US. This guy is a really old friend. I have been composing more, and having a very good time. I do feel guilty about it, but not too much.

STM: Jewish-Catholic guilt.

RZ-M: Thousands of years!

As I get to be middle-aged, I have noticed that I write a lot for ensembles that are strange. I am writing now for harpsichord, banjo, mandolin, guitar, harp and string quartet. I wrote another piece with some songs by Carlos’s brother, who is a very talented songwriter – a piece for him singing, with cello octet and symphony orchestra. It’s very weird. I took that route very early on, something typical of my generation – you wrote for what you thought you could do better. And lots of vocal works.

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