Hello again from “Composer’s Corner,” Subito Music’s informal composer-chat sessions. This time, we’re featuring Martha Mooke whose music is represented by Subito Music Distribution (SMD) (a division of Subito Music). (The SMD program is Subito’s distribution service for independent, self-published composers.) Mooke — a New York City-native — is an award-winning composer, electro-acoustic violist, producer, arranger, teacher and clinician, who is highly regarded for her artistry, music advocacy, and innovative educational programs.
Mooke transcends musical boundaries, enhancing classical training with extended techniques, technology and improvisation. Her large catalog of works includes solo, chamber, symphonic band and orchestra, as well as multimedia, film, theater and ballet scores. In addition to playing with traditional ensembles, Mooke is also the founder and artistic director of the Scorchio Quartet, the resident quartet in the Tibet House Benefit Concerts at Carnegie Hall, produced by Philip Glass. She has also performed with Barbra Streisand, David Bowie, Philip Glass, Elton John, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Andrea Bocelli, “Star Wars in Concert,” and Tony Bennett among others. Find out more about Martha Mooke below, as we chatted about: her NYC public-school education playing Mozart; how she discovered “for sure, that [she] was meant to be a musician;” her first time hearing an electric string instrument; working “as a touring musician;” how she collaborates with other artists; what she worked during COVID; how she developed and directs the cutting edge “Multi-Style Strings” Program at New Jersey City University; and why “touring with Barbra Streisand was an experience that [she] will cherish for the rest of [her] life.”
S: The musical community knows you as a dynamic, electric violist, who combines her classical roots with incredible technique and improvisation. Did you always want to study the viola? How old were you when began your traditional studies?
Mooke: I didn’t know what a viola was until 5th grade (about 10 years old) when my family moved to Staten Island, NY from The Bronx! The New York City Public School system in Staten Island was very strong in the arts (music programs and dedicated teachers). The Middle School Orchestra teacher (Mr. Ogren) came to my elementary school (P.S. 4) to start a string program [which would] feed into his school (I.S. 34) which had a great music program. That program then fed into Tottenville High School where I discovered, for sure, that I was meant to be a musician.
S: How did you find out about the electric viola, and how did the learning process differ for this instrument from a traditional viola?
Mooke: Up until the middle of High School, I studied traditional (classical) viola, playing [Mozart’s] Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with my HS String Quartet. I also participated in the New York All State Orchestra….My musical trajectory changed pretty much overnight the day a friend lent me an LP by Jean Luc Ponty. I had no idea who he was but the album — A Taste for Passion — had a picture of him cradling a beautiful, royal blue, 5-string electric violin. When I took it home and put it on my record player, I had a life-revelatory experience (insert mind blowing emoji, if it had existed back in the day!). I’d never heard a string instrument played like that before (a fusion of jazz and electronics) and it immediately inspired me to listen to more Ponty and seek out other electric string players.
S: Because you play an electric instrument, your performance history is eclectic and beyond the scope of traditional concert music. You’ve worked with a vast range of artists and genres including: Phoebe Bridgers; Debby Harry; Andrea Bocelli; Barbra Streisand; Iggy Pop and more! Is there one particular collaboration in your career that stands out to you?
Mooke: Interestingly enough, my work with many of these artists has been on acoustic viola playing as a touring musician (Streisand, Bocelli, “Star Wars in Concert”), or as string arranger/violist with Scorchio, my quartet. I have been so fortunate to have many highlights in my career. I’m happy to share a few. Of course, touring with Barbra Streisand (2006 US/Canada and 2007 Europe) was an experience that I will cherish the rest of my life.
Any of the dozens of collaborations [I’ve done] with Philip Glass(!)…and, in particular, the Tibet House Benefit Concerts at Carnegie Hall where I’ve played with many artists including David Bowie, Lou Reed, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Trey Anastasio, Moby and Jon Batiste…[and, of course] creating the orchestral arrangement of the mashup of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” with Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto…AND…playing it with both Philip Glass and Debbie Harry on stage at Carnegie Hall – it was a pretty mind blowing experience!
S: You’re also the Founder and Artistic Director for the Scorchio Quartet, an avant-garde/progressive/cutting- edge electro-acoustic string quartet. The ensemble has worked with David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright, and so many others. Tell us how this unique group came about.
Mooke: I’d been working with legendary record producer Tony Visconti for some years contracting string sessions. Tony was also fond of my electric viola work. In January, 2001, we were about to launch the first “Thru The Walls” showcase at The Cutting Room in NYC. (“Thru The Walls” was a showcase I created, sponsored by ASCAP, featuring composer/performers whose music defied categorization.) I invited Tony to host the evening along with Frank J. Oteri, New Music USA Composer Advocate and Editor of NewMusicBox.org…Little did I know that Tony had told his good friend “David” about the show, and as the lights were going down for the start of the concert, in walked David Bowie with his assistant, Coco. He sat at my table, opposite me, and Tony introduced us and the performance began, featuring sets by Ben Neil, Eve Beglarian and myself.
A day or so later, I got a call from Tony to say that David asked him to ask me if I could assemble a string quartet to play with him at the upcoming Tibet House Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall. That was the debut of Scorchio Quartet! We went on to record on David’s Heathen and Toy albums and have been an integral part of the annual Tibet House concerts since 2001.
S: The COVID-19 Pandemic, and 2020 in general, was a challenging time. How did you cope during this difficult period?
Mooke: When things began closing down, mid-March 2020, and having no idea how long this new reality would last, I started streaming live on Facebook as all of my in-person work — as performer and educator — shut down. I played meditative improvisations and concerts to calm and entertain. I was [also] contacted by teachers who didn’t know how to give lessons online or conduct a virtual class. I shared how I set up my home studio (which functioned as my office, classroom, “TV” production set, recording studio, rehearsal space, composing station, etc.); [and] I started doing Zoom masterclasses and “Quarantine Concerts.”
S: What outlets did you use to continue to create and connect with other musicians?
Mooke: I was very involved with Eventide’s weekly series “Quarantide,” curating and hosting panels featuring musicians such as Jean Luc Ponty and Jon Anderson, members of David Bowie’s band, and a riveting discussion with the duo Black Violin and Beat Boxing legend Rahzel. I also embarked on a virtual tour of student chapters of the Latin American Audio Engineering Society which included Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Argentina; and, I demonstrated how I use electronics in my music and collaborated on remixes of student recordings.
Some of the other things I did during COVID lockdown included: appearing with Phoebe Bridgers in the Virtual Tibet House Benefit Concert; released the album, Buzz: Music in Harmony with Nature; presented numerous workshops and live-streamed performances; published a collection of string sounds on the Sonic Collective series of “Splice Sounds”; and, as director of strings at New Jersey City University, [I] developed MultiStyle Strings Program, an approach which embraces all styles of music, technology and improvisation to assist 21st-century string players to develop their potential.
S: Did the isolation of working through the pandemic help or hinder you in finding any new levels of introspective creativity?
Mooke: When it became clear that COVID and its aftermath was going to continue for an extended period of time, I began re-framing the situation as an opportunity to explore and learn things that I might not, otherwise, have discovered. We didn’t ask for a pandemic, but it taught us that we need to be prepared to pivot in unexpected ways to continue to go on. This is where being an improviser came in handy. Over the years, I’ve learned to expect that during a live performance anything can happen, especially when electronics are involved. One little glitch in the signal chain, a misstep on an effects pedal, power surge or power failure can cause a performance to come to a screeching halt…or…at least take a sharp left turn. I’ve come to embrace these left turns as opportunities to explore unknown territory and discover/create something I may never have done without this opportunity.
S: You’re also a composer and creator who collaborates with other artists. Please tell us about your compositional process.
Mooke: The key word there is “collaborates.” Just as I collaborate with other artists in the creative process, I consider my creative process to be a collaboration with/between many things — not just musically, but experientially: the materials and resources around me; the instruments and electronics I’m using; the thoughts and feelings I’m having; the environment (local and global); frame of mind; fortuitously turning on the radio and hearing something that piques my interest and curiosity.
S: You transcend many musical boundaries and genres — it’s both innovative and inspiring. How have you successfully woven your classical roots with so many different styles and musical cultures throughout your career?
Mooke: I’ve never felt compelled to choose one particular style to play or listen to. Years ago, in the “Golden Age” of Tower Records, albums were placed in bins labeled with a style and those bins were in different rooms or areas of the store also according to style or genre. When I released my first solo CD, Enharmonic Vision (in 1997), I had no idea how or where to promote it. There were elements of classical, jazz, new age, experimental, electronics, etc. At that time in my career I was young and naive, and I took a few copies to the Classical Music Department at Tower Records in NYC and asked to speak with the manager. He kindly allowed me to leave a few for him to listen to and potentially sell on consignment. He loved it and couldn’t figure out which bin to put it in, so he put it in the Listening Station between a Philip Glass and a Kronos Quartet album. The five copies sold out in a week and the next five sold out as well, which led to a distribution deal with Tower Records’ own Bayside Distributors!
S: Please tell us more about your No Ordinary Window project, and how you created such a visually moving, interactive experience.
Mooke: No Ordinary Window is a journey of the illuminating power of music…As I was creating the work (commissioned by the Tribeca New Music Festival), I found myself exploring sounds, conceptual ideas about the many facets (literal and figurative) of windows. My goal was to create a virtual musical window (imagine an infinite stained glass window) that from afar may seem to be one solid entity, yet, when viewed or experienced up close, each pane illustrates — through sound — color and words, a unique and personal story.
The movements have titles like “Inner Window,” “Stained Glass,” “Window to World,” and “Window of Opportunity.” It evolved into a passion about sharing music that reaches inside and opens windows to the soul, moving the listener in profoundly personal ways…Scored for solo electric viola and effects processing, No Ordinary Window is as much a chamber music work through the interaction and interplay of the effects processing…I also had to create notation so the work can be played on either a 5 string violin or viola with any type of effects processing. Whenever possible, I try to schedule performances to coordinate with the sunset, so when the performance begins, it’s daylight and the audience can, literally, see what is outside (landscape, buildings, etc.). As the piece goes on, and twilight moves in, the colors change and shadows take on the effects of mood lighting. When the performance ends, the sun has set so the windows now reflect the inside of the room, essentially becoming “windows to the soul.” [For more information about No Ordinary Window click here; and learn more about her notation process here.]
S: Among the many hats you wear, you are an educator as well! Tell us more about your partnership with the New Jersey City University, and about the innovative “Multi-Style Strings Symposium” you created for string educators, to use as a teaching tool to embrace all styles of music, technology and improvisation.
Mooke: I’ve been presenting workshops, clinics, seminars, and all kinds of educational activities to teach and promote what I’ve developed since graduating from college and grad school as a Viola Performance major (in classical viola performance). In 2017, I started teaching a Contemporary Music class as an adjunct at New Jersey City University. In the fall of 2019, the new chair of the music department (who was familiar with my career as a string player and composer) asked me to help recruit students for the long dormant string program.
When I started putting together some thoughts, all the years of doing “eclectic” or “alternative” or “progressive” or “gear-related” sessions at regional and national conferences…came flooding back. [I’ve written] articles, lectured, and demonstrated…talking about how I wish I’d had a music program that I could have gone to, to learn about creative improvisation, non-traditional performance techniques, and [the] melding of many styles from classical to rock, to jazz to experimental, and more…I did extensive research into any “non-traditional” music programs I could find, which not only included how to play, but also how to promote, how to sell. I found programs about “Entrepreneurial Musicianship” or “Musician as Entrepreneur,” but they seemed to be on different tracks from performance degrees. I learned over the years, that to have a successful, rewarding career, it’s not just how you play, it’s how you play PLUS how you create PLUS how you market PLUS how you cultivate relationships, PLUS common sense, PLUS thinking outside the box, etc. This was the inspiration for the term I’d been looking for all along: “Multi-Style!” I crafted a proposal, and was soon given the go-ahead to create the “Multi-Style Strings Program” with a mission to support creative exploration, empower artistic identity and provide practical tools essential for the 21st- century string player to develop their potential. What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d be creating a new Masters of Music degree and Bachelor of Arts in Multi-Style String Performance. I also learned that string teachers wanted to bring different styles into their classrooms and rehearsal halls, but lacked the skills and training necessary to know where to begin. So I proposed a Symposium offering Professional Development credit to String Teachers featuring leaders in the Multi-Style music world. Talk about a big learning curve!
S: How have you continued to spark creativity and passion in your students throughout your career? As a barrier-breaking educator, what message do you have for future generations who are currently studying music or thinking about a career in the arts?
Mooke: Whether they are students, teachers, or any attendees at my workshops, classes and performances, they can see — first hand — that I’ve lived what I teach. I draw on all resources at my disposal from personal anecdotes and professional experience to bringing in guest artists and experts. I also help bring awareness to the resources each person has within them, especially [an] inner creativity they may not have known they have or how to access it. Re-framing situations so that obstacles become opportunities, can be the difference between giving up and discovering something [like] an idea [or] another way which could be a game changer.
S: Finally…what’s next for Martha Mooke and where can we see you perform in the near future?
Mooke: Ah…there’s always something in the works…stay tuned! Sign up for my quarterly e-blasts through my website: www.MarthaMooke.com.