Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang advocates self-reliance and community | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang advocates self-reliance and community 

Building improvisational structures

click to enlarge Michael Zerang, in Durham for three days this week, believes that improvisation involves the whole person­­—and the whole community. - PHOTO BY MARC POKEMPNER
  • Photo by Marc Pokempner
  • Michael Zerang, in Durham for three days this week, believes that improvisation involves the whole person­­—and the whole community.

In improvised music, Michael Zerang is one of the best. Since the late '70s, Zerang has been central to the development of his native Chicago's fecund experimental music scene, both as a musician and facilitator. From a tight-knit, ultra-efficient group of experimenters, the roots have spread from free jazz of the highest order and surfaced somewhere near the mainstream with bands like Wilco and Tortoise.

For Zerang, experimental music, especially improvisation, is a complete life force: It feeds upon the community that creates it, and it feeds that same community two-fold. The music's outbound nature—built, as it is, necessarily upon finding one's own way, apart from the normal supports—translates into an independent ethos that fosters a de facto community. It's a model from which the Triangle, which has flirted with a truly welcoming experimental scene for at least two decades, can learn.

INDEPENDENT: Maintaining venues for experimental music here in Durham and around it can be a problem. It has less capacity, in terms of population, than Chicago, obviously. But you ran a small venue, The Candlestick Maker, in Chicago for several years. How hard is it to keep a space like that working?

MICHAEL ZERANG: I've been in Chicago all my life. Chicago's an interesting city in that it's relatively affordable compared to New York, Paris or Los Angeles, and it's relatively easy to get a space that you live in or you work in and that you can hold concerts in, too. For all these 30 years, there's always been a space to play in. If the clubs aren't functioning, then someone has a loft or a storefront. Chicago is a very do-it-yourself kind of city.

Right now, I could play in Chicago every night if I wanted, and that's great for the development of an individual artist but also for music in general. The best thing I can advise is to do it yourself because no one is going to do it for you. The clubs, especially: There are very few clubs that are going to open up to the idea of us presenting experimental music. And this music, anyway, is experimental, so it almost demands that people do it themselves. Especially in this country where there is so little funding for the arts.

But you've been awarded 16 grants, assistantships or residencies in the past 20 years. How much does that help?

Yeah, over a 20-year period, I've gotten a few grants. And it's been great. I don't want to knock it. But it's certainly not how I make my living, by writing grants. But, every once in a while if I get 500 bucks or 1,000 bucks, that's great, but that's not that big of a difference here. So it has to be done yourself.

You haven't sustained yourself working just in improvised music, right?

I also work a lot writing music for theater and dance and performance art and cabaret, any other kind of performance forms that are at least trying something that's outside of the mainstream. I've learned very much from doing that, so it's a win-win proposition. I expand my parameters as a musician. I get to work in other art forms and perform in diverse settings. I may be performing in a puppet theater, and there are 100 people there who have never heard of me.

You've never shied away from crossing genre lines, either. You've played on Bobby Conn's almost-pop records, you've played with electronic and noise guys like Kevin Drumm, and you've played pretty far-reaching free jazz with people from Peter Brotzmann to Jeb Bishop. Those are some pretty different contexts.

Well, I've been a musician all my life, and I just love music. I have no fear of any genre. I used to play in rock bands, noise bands, jazz bands. I've played a lot of traditional Middle Eastern music. I don't really discriminate. For me, I just love making sound. If I have to make a sound that goes dah-da-dah-dah-dah-da that might be in a pop group, fine. If I have to invent it onstage, that's fine.

I've studied Indian classical music, Chinese music, Middle Eastern music. The thing about improvisation is ... let me put it this way: I think it is the most demanding performance form. What's more pretentious than a handful of people getting onstage and winging it as opposed to someone who sat and composed and rehearsed? If it's not done fully and with great depth of commitment, it's pretentious. So even when things fail, if you're reaching for something, there is a certain visceral excitement to that that's hopefully there for the audience. The thing about improvisation is that you can never be comfortable in what you're doing. If you are, you're not doing it. If you're just doing what you know, you're not improvising. If you know where it's going, you're playing pop music.

Your performance in Durham will be for solo percussion. How often do you do that?

Not often, really. When I'm improvising with other people, I'm always getting stimuli outside of myself—something to work off, something to work with. When you're playing solo, that's not there. You still have an audience, you still have the energy flowing, but you just don't have that interaction. In a way, when I improvise live as a soloist, I don't really consider it improvising. I know where I'm going. I can't confuse myself or trick myself. But when there's another musician onstage, I don't know what's going to happen. And that is a profound, fundamental difference—for me, anyway.

Michael Zerang will perform on Duke's Campus at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12. For building name, contact Shannon Morrow at 680-0129. A quartet of Chris Eubank, Carrie Shull, Todd Herschberger and John Mayrose will open. Zerang will provide two improvising clinics at the Durham Arts Council's Durham Power Rehearsal Studio Saturday, Jan. 13 from noon to 6 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 14 from 1 to 6 p.m.

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