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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

An Introduction from Martha

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Published on January 12, 2009

Martha Mooke submitted this blog in conjunction with her participation in the event Violinist Michi Wiancko & Electric Violist Martha Mooke.

Whenever I’m asked about how I balance my life as a traditionally trained violist and being an electric 5-string violist/composer/improviser and clinician, I pause for a moment, because I’ve long since reconciled my various “guises” into one entity. Over the years I’ve encountered some curious looks from orchestral colleagues when I take out my “acoustic” viola with a pickup built into the bridge of the instrument. Or if someone had heard that I play electric viola, after the initial shock of hearing the word electric to describe a viola (no viola joke there!) it was assumed I was a jazz or rock musician.

Over the years of leading this double life (I purchased my first electric 5-string – violin model as there were literally no viola size electric instruments to be found – in the late 1980’s after hearing a recording by Jean Luc-Ponty) I’ve witnessed a kind of evolution or perhaps revolution as more and more players walk into orchestras and Broadway pits with pickups attached, or toting a second case or cool gig bag containing their electric violin (4 or 5 strings) for their next gig.

I feel very lucky to live and work in the immediate New York City vicinity (I am, btw, a Native New Yorker) as I’m sure it’s one of the few places in the world I can do all the musics (new word?) I love to do. Mind you, no week is typical, and some are certainly busier than others, but I’ll give an example of why what I do is never boring. Just recently, in the span of 10 days I performed with the Irish singer/songwriter Enya on the “Live with Regis and Kelly” TV show then drove out to New Jersey to play an orchestral concert. Also during that week I took part in a recording session for a new Philip Glass film soundtrack, played in the pit orchestra of the Broadway show “Wicked” (all of these on acoustic viola) and ended the week jamming at the Stone (finally on electric viola!).

Though I love participating in all of these musical entities, my artistic spirit is fed mostly through my own music as composer/improviser/innovator. Perhaps half of the time I work on my own – as when I’m in my studio creating new music, exploring new palettes of sounds and coming up with, hopefully, unique musical languages. The other half I may be collaborating with another artist on a new composition, such as my Bowing duo with electric guitarist Randy Hudson where we co-write our pieces, or I may be brought into the studio to contribute my sounds, such as when I worked with David Bowie on his “Heathen” CD. It’s still rare to be able to collaborate, as such, in an orchestral setting, though I’ve been a member of Anthony Braxton’s Tricentric Ensemble and currently play in Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra where we read the printed score but there is plenty of room to break out and do our thing!

A few months ago I played in the string quartet of an ensemble that combined the jazz and classical realms of the music of Duke Ellington. The band was Nnenna Freelon, an amazing jazz singer and opera “diva” Harolyn Blackwell, along with a rhythm and horn section and David Bowie’s longtime keyboardist Mike Garson who as arranger and Music Director brought all the elements together. By the end of the show the lines of one style versus another had been blurred and the true essence of the music had shown through. Not to mention that I had the opportunity of playing the most wild improvised duo with Mike in the middle of the show!

All these anecdotes (somehow they are relevant to this blog…I think…) bring me around to the upcoming performance at Symphony Space with violinist Michi Wiancko. To the unsuspecting, it may come across as a nice recital of violin and viola music. Which of course, it will be, though with many twists and turns! The musical compositions on each half of the program on February 27 will be, at times, centuries apart, though what will tie the evening together is that the two of us, as living, breathing musicians will be communicating our interpretation of the musics to a living, breathing audience. For me, every time I perform is a collaborative event – whether I’m working with another artist or as a solo act. I draw inspiration from the audience as well as the music and any other performers – so that it’s all one organic experience (I don’t mean it to sound scientific or agricultural, and one can easily substitute “organic” with the word spiritual, comprehensive or some other adjective).

This concert at Symphony Space is a unique collaborative opportunity for me, and one that is still formulating. Michi is a wonderful violinist and composer in her own right. She and I have much in common in our artistic souls, and I’m looking forward to the process of putting our concert together, even as much as the actual performance. I have a feeling it’s going to be something really inspirational!


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