Diminishing Returns

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 9.38.04 AMOk, so the concert was a few nights ago, I’ve had some time to reflect, and honestly I still don’t know what I think about this piece.

But I do know a few things.

I know that my performers did an amazing job playing it gorgeously.

Through the first two movements, I know that I was pleasantly surprised to feel that the piece – as a composition – was actually pretty good and that my fears about it (as expressed in the previous post on this blog) seemed to be unfounded.

I know that in the third movement, I started to feel bad about the piece, and that I spent the last movement actively strategizing about how I would handle seeing people after the concert, how I would avoid talking about the piece and especially how I would restrain myself from making excuses and/or pouring out my shame and fury at myself for subjecting the audience to this piece.

I know that this was my experience listening to a very good, very musical performance of the piece.

I know that by the end of the piece my degree of mental and emotional discomfort was extreme, and I remember thinking that acute psychological distress and near-panic probably make it very hard to really know what’s going on around you.

I know that this piece still makes me uncomfortable.

I know that the main reason the piece makes me uncomfortable is not (as I wrote last week) that the piece is atypically simple or that it isn’t like other contemporary music pieces or that it’s rough and was written quickly (though it may be those things, too).

Now, I know that what bothers me is the strong suspicion that the piece is fatally flawed.

Here is my assessment of the flaw. The first three movements end with very slow sections, and then the final movement is also very slow. In my experience of listening to the piece, the effectiveness of suddenly dropping into these extremely slow and spare sections seemed to diminish on some extreme exponential curve, so that the first time was effective, the second time was interesting, the third time was disappointing, and the fourth time was exasperating (see the graph above).

If I’m right about that, then that kind of musical clumsiness is bad enough; but what is really horrifying for me to think about is that the combined effect of the four sudden slow sections ends up being not only tedious, but it ends up expressing something very nearly opposite to anything I would ever want to express.

I wrote in my last post about “trying or lying,” and the idea that a piece of instrumental music of this kind is either trying to tell the truth or it is lying. This piece, in its individual elements, is actually pretty disciplined (after the concert, one of my teachers even used the word “ascetic” in describing it).

In its slowness, roughness, and in the simplicity of the last movement, I know that it is not lying about what Alaska was like for me. It is not romanticizing the experience. Unfortunately, the repeated slowdowns came across to me as if they were meant to be somehow romantic, and because of that, they seemed to color the piece overall, and to make a single false piece out of its four true (or at least not-false) sections.

In those last two movements, the piece started to feel both precious – in its complacency and comfort with taking up listeners’ time – and boring – in the sense that it just seemed to be belaboring the same fairly obvious idea over and over again (nature is slow, I had a profound experience, blah blah blah).

I consider either one of those qualities as being, to put it simply, bad qualities in general and as complete non-starters in one of my pieces. So, to the extent that people may have experienced not just one but both of those things in my piece, I am mortified (after the performance, in an idle moment of self-loathing, I imagined a devastating one-sentence review of the piece: “How You Found It took the composer eight days to write and seemed to take eight days for the musicians to play”).

Ok, so, back to things I know.

I know that after the concert, people said nice things.

I know that I felt sure that most were just being polite, but I now know that’s not the case and that some people genuinely liked the piece. For example, the full phrase my teacher used, in an unsolicited message about the concert, was “a beautiful (albeit ascetic) piece.”

I know that I freaked out.

I know that I have serious doubts about whether the piece is good or not, and even more serious doubts about whether I like it or not (I know that I liked it in rehearsals).

So I’m left with my own experience, which was probably 70-80% distorted by my fears and imagined criticisms of the piece and was 20-30% simply disappointing; and objective evidence that no one else in the audience, whether they liked the piece or not, seemed to feel that the piece was especially self-indulgent or anything (in fact, I think it might have come across as the opposite – that is, in its insistent returns to slow, dark and static music, it might have come across as kind of courageously ascetic and hard-edged and disciplined).

I don’t really know what people experienced or what they thought, and I won’t ever know that. And here’s where I’m really having the central questions. I don’t write my music for myself. I want it to do a certain thing in the world (something having to do with truth, not lying, and some other things that I will probably write about soon). I want it to do that thing not for me, but for the people listening. And because of that, I need to have some idea of what it’s really like to listen to the music.

Ordinarily (and definitely as a performing and recording songwriter) I have a very clear idea of what it might be like to listen to a piece of mine. I consider that one of my strengths (and one of the most valuable things I retain from the years and years I spent as Pandora’s curator, listening to thousands of pieces of music and trying to understand them and evaluate them and so on). I need that perspective to compose the music I want to compose, but in this case, I feel like my fears about the piece and my freakout ended up combining with my genuine gut feelings about possible flaws in the piece in such a way that I cannot be sure what the piece really did for the people listening.

It’s so weird to write something and then to feel that you don’t know what it says. That feels like a total failure as an artist – it feels blind.

So there it is. That’s how things stand.

A question takes on more substance.



River People

There’s a river in the Ukraine about 200 miles from Kovel, where the Zapruder side of my family lived before they came to America. The river is called the Prut River, and, as our name is Zapruder, we’ve heard some speculation that maybe our name means something like “Prut River People.”

In the summer of 2014 I spent a few weeks in Alaska as part of the Composing in the Wilderness program, including one unforgettable night in Slaven’s Roadhouse on the banks of the Yukon River, here:

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The video above was taken at around 3 or 4 in the morning, after I had spent the night writing the last movement of a new piece.

That piece will be performed next week at Bates Hall at the University of Texas, and, this being the first performance of one of my pieces at UT, and because the piece is an atypical one for me, and because I wrote it in eight days, and because I think it is in some ways an atypical piece of contemporary composition, I have things I want to say about it.

The piece is called How You Found It, and it is a four movement piece for piano, horn, trumpet and trombone. It’s about 12 minutes long.

One of my teachers described it as “an attractive little piece” (hereafter, ALP), and I think that’s generally pretty accurate. Ordinarily I would chafe at the suggestion that one of my pieces was merely “attractive” and “little” – like most composers I am attracted to composition for its depth, and for the arduous but profound process of connecting a musical idea – a set of relationships of one kind of another – with something that ultimately feels like truth (or at least feels like the absence – the banishment – of lies). Writers discover the truth of what they are trying to say by writing it; composers discover the truth by composing it.

So I have in myself an ideal of composition that includes truth but also depth, and, so far, my best compositions are the products of considerable toil, and are finished when the musical ideas has been developed fully. Something like that, anyway.

But (whether or not my family name means “river prut people”), after swimming in and spending a full night writing music and looking at the Yukon River flowing by, I am also undoubtedly a river person. That time beside that river was one of the peak moments of my (contemplative) life, and the movement I wrote that night reflects the simple fact of the river and my place beside it.

To say I was humbled would be accurate but inadequate. To say I was annihilated by the power, the sense of time, and the utter implacability of the Yukon would be going (just a little bit) too far. Like in many experiences in deep, wild places where the planet asserts its natural identity, I nearly disappeared into something vast.

In that experience, I could not and would not want to write something complicated. I was looking to touch a unity that is profound and far from simple, but which also is plain, ordinary, dirty (in the sense that nature is basically made of dirt).

So the last movement is a love song to the river and to the people I met in Alaska, and it is – and here’s the key thing – humble music. This is where contemporary composition and this particular experience create some interesting friction. The Yukon River made me write an ALP (ok, having only 8 days did, too – after all, I could have developed the music after I got back, I suppose).

I am not in Alaska anymore, and I am just as susceptible to vanity and concern for what people will think of me as anyone else, and so, as the musicians and I rehearse the piece and as I think about how I will feel in the concert hall as the piece is played, I notice a lot of things happening.

I worry that the piece will not work, of course. It is actually fairly hard to play, not because it is technically challenging, but because it is, in many places, not particularly technically challenging. There is little complexity behind which I can hide any compositional failures, shortcomings, etc. In the last movement, there just aren’t very many notes, and the ones there are come slowly and are difficult to time.

I worry more that my new colleagues and friends at UT will not like the piece, or worse, that they will think I am not ambitious or that I cannot write more developed music or that they will think this piece is a typical one for me. I have to question myself here, and this is where the whole ALP/contemporary composition vs. the Yukon River comes up – what has more authority, presence, enduring realness: our thoughts about contemporary composition, or the Yukon River?

Like the dude, the river abides. I like knowing its out there. And (among other things), this piece tries to honor the raw fact of the Yukon River and of wild Alaska in general, while also sustaining at least some values of contemporary classical music, among them depth and complexity. I find that interesting and also somewhat scary. How You Found It also wants to satisfy those values of musical depth that a piece written in eight days might not be able to manage. Then again, it might, and that is maybe the most interesting thing of all. Looked at from another altitude, so to speak, putting this piece on this concert is an effort to further broaden the permissible or expected types of music that our new music concerts encompass. And I don’t mean in terms of ALPs, I mean in terms of wildness, immediacy, simplicity, roughness, and maybe even raw expression, which is a term that came up in a recent meeting of CLUTCH, our UT composers’ concert series group.

I will post the audio and video of the performance next week and you can decide for yourself, and I will also post the performance of the last movement as the soundtrack to the full video I took of that ineffable Yukon River powering by, and we’ll see if the music seems to be, to coin a phrase, “lying or trying,” by which I mean is it lying or is it (at least) trying to tell the truth.

Yours, in curiosity,


Farewell to The Bay Area Show June 5, 2015

Greetings everyone,

In the last few years I’ve been composing a lot (which is partly why I haven’t been playing too many shows). Next month I’ll be moving – and dragging my family – to Austin, Texas to get a doctorate at UT Austin’s Butler School of Music. This is a great opportunity and I am really excited about it!

To mark the occasion, and to say “until we meet again,” I’ll be playing a Farewell to SF show, presented by the great people at the Bay Bridged, at the Make Out Room on June 5. One of my favorite musicians, not to mention people, the one and only Jon Bernson (of Exray’s and more) will be opening the show. I’ll be playing with a band, and we’ll do a selection of songs from all of my records, it should be quite a night.

One key thing: this is an EARLY show. Jon will play at 7:30pm sharp, and I’ll be on no later than 8:30pm, and possibly earlier. The carriage turns into a pumpkin at 9:30pm, when the DJs will be taking over and you will have missed it! So if you’re coming, maybe plan to go tacqueria, or to have your dinner in liquid form at the Make Out Room bar.

The details:

The Bay Bridged Presents:
Michael Zapruder Farewell to SF Show
with Jon Bernson

June 5, 2015

Make Out Room
3225 22nd Street


Ok, Thanks for reading and thanks for listening to the music I have made so far. I’m looking forward to making much more – both scores and songs/records – in the years to come!

See you on June 5th at 7:30!


We’ll have a bunch of records and some t shirts at the show, which will be available at “I’m moving to Texas” prices.

Seattle Composers Alliance – Concert Tuesday Oct. 21, 2014

I am so pleased to find out that my very recent composition, Tritone Arch for String Quartet, is one of the winning scores for the Seattle Composers’ Alliance‘s International Call for Scores Competition. The Saint Helens String Quartet will perform my piece, along with the other winning pieces, on Tuesday, October 21, as part of the Wayward Music Series at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle. More details here.

Thanks so much to the Seattle Composers Alliance and congratulations to the other composers!

World Premiere of Fits on May 22

Glasow14I’m excited about this concert Thursday night on the California State University, East Bay campus, where my new chamber piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano will be performed. It’s called Fits. I’ve been working on it all year, and it will be fascinating to hear it – for real – for the first time. The concert will also feature pieces by CSU students, faculty and alumni Austin Graham, Paolo Terresani, Ryan Rey, and Jeffrey Miller, all performed by the great great great Redshift Ensemble.

I’m about to go rehearse the piece with them, basically for the first time. It’s a strange thing to spend months and months working on a piece, either at the piano, computer, or if you’re really good, at your desk, and really not know what you’re writing until you hear people play it for the first time. The real performance can be very difficult to evaluate at first, since it always sounds so different played by real people. It’s always better, but you have to listen as if you’ve never heard the piece before.

One thing I’ve noticed is that musicians’ tempos are often slower than the computer’s, but the nuances of a real performance bring so much energy into the music, that, even at a slower tempo, it feels just as fast. Or, to turn it around, the lifelessness of computer performance makes you crank up the tempos just to get the piece to feel like it has energy. I’m using the computer less and less these days, which I consider a huge leap forward for me. Hell, that doesn’t just go for composing, the less computer I use, the better, basically. But that’s another subject for another day.

I have to go start looking over the score, and getting mentally prepared for this rehearsal. We’ll make it good, I know. Those of you in the area, I would love for you to come hear my piece and the others on the program. Fits plays with questions of how things fit together, how individuals fit into groups, and more than anything, how a group may or may not fit the individuals it contains.

The group of people at the concert on Thursday night would like to contain you.



IMG_6653My most recent post is from November 2013, and it says “I’ll be doing this tomorrow,” which now makes no sense. Maybe it’s partly because of the sour taste that event back in November left in my mouth, or maybe it’s something else, but I haven’t felt any desire to post anything. It’s not that nothing is happening; I think I’ve just been enjoying keeping to myself lately.

Scott Pinkmountain and I had a conversation about ambiguity in which I artlessly referred to Lorde’s song Cities, among other things. It’s a hard subject, and plus I’ve talked so much about ambiguity in the past, mostly with friends like Scott or in other places, that my ideas seem pretty stale to me, but in case you’re intrigued (and if you want to read Scott’s really insightful comments), check it out here. It’s part of Scott’s “Surviving the Arts” blog on Pank. Scott is great, he’s doing so much cool stuff, look him up and check out his music and writings.

As for the event last November, I played some Pink Thunder songs at a TEDx event near Boston. I specifically decided not to give a TED talk. I don’t think anyone who speaks for himself as an artist can take on that whole breathless, technological-utopian TED talk thing. We have our own voices, and that’s how it should be. I played the songs and said a few words, like it was an annotated concert, rather than a talk with a few songs in it. The whole time I was performing, I felt like I was a mile away from the audience and the lights and cameras and the big timer ticking down etc. I stood on one of those red TED carpets.

IMG_6656I think they were expecting me to talk about digital music and technology, two subjects about which I can go on at length, but almost entirely in a negative direction, which, again, doesn’t really scream TED. I actually want to say some things about music, the internet, etc at some point (not right now – see above), but why go there to scold people? I stood there for new possibilities for songs. I’m happy with that. It felt bad but probably wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. I got two comments after I played, both of which were essentially of the “I don’t get it” variety. There is a video of the performance (you can look it up if you really want to, but I’m not sending anyone to it), and the only comment there (as of a few weeks ago) is “I don’t get it.” I think, all things considered, I can consider that a good thing.

I’m finishing a new composition for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. It’s called “Fits,” and after spending most of the past 9 months or so on it, I feel like I want to make it much simpler, which I can’t really do without totally changing its nature. I have a week coming up where I can totally focus on it and try to make all the parts as playable as possible. It feels like a luxury. It will be performed in May.

I’m also starting to think again about the record of new songs (technically) that I started back in 2011, or was it 1011? That’s going to happen this summer.

IMG_6737My studio partner Jon from Exray’s and I just moved to a new rehearsal/recording space, and I softened up the concrete walls in the back with this —>

It was a fun thing to be obsessed with for a minute.

Nate and Merrill aka tUnE-yArDs have the space next door to us and I’m sure everyone knows to be on the lookout for their new record Nikki Nack on May 5th. It’s nice when great musicians are also great people.

There, I posted. Play on, players. I’ll be back.




Event # 43:

43. Pink Thunder Presents…Ex Verba: Concert, Art Show, Happening

7:15 – 8:15 pm

Amnesia, 853 Valencia St.

A night of songs, music, art, and projections. Non-poems made from, with, around, and through poems.

Daniel Redman has been setting Walt Whitman’s queer epic Leaves of Grass to music for the last seven years.  He has set and memorized forty-seven poems to date, and he sings them.

Exray’s –  Jon Bernson and Michael Falsetto-Mapp specialize in lo-fi electronic pop made with precarious beats, short circuited melodies and voicemail vocals.

Pink Thunder Portmanteaus – Combination music-player / art-objects containing songs from Pink Thunder – songs made from unchanged poems by living American poets.

Jorrit Poelen projects distorted, noisy collages of animated images onto skin, screens, walls, and floors using “Pooks,” a custom-built visual instrument.

Michael Zapruder writes songs and composes concert music. His recent Pink Thunder fashions free verse pop-art songs from poems by eminent contemporary American poets.



SHOW: EX-VERBA – LITCRAWL Oct. 19th at 7:15pm sharp

thumbs_lcsmbugWe are thrilled to be curating this event at LitCrawl in San Francisco this year.

Ex-verba means “from words” (we think. roughly). So for LitCrawl we dreamed up this one-of-a-kind show of non-poems made from poems.


Jorrit Poelen’s projections of distorted, noisy collages of animated images – MADE FROM LETTERS OF POEMS! – onto skin, screens, walls, and floors using “Pooks,” a custom-built visual instrument.

Live performances of songs from Pink Thunder, Michael Zapruder’s project of songs made from awesome poems by living American poets. EX-VERBA

Daniel Redman’s settings of Walt Whitman’s queer epic Leaves of Grass to song. EX-VERBA

Exray’s live performance, based on their multi-genre Exray’s XII project. EX-VERBA


See some Pink Thunder portmanteaus, interactive music player/visual art objects that play one of the Pink Thunder songs and disply an object conjured from the world of that poem. EX-VERBA

Mark your calendrinos for SATURDAY OCTOBER 19th!


This Sunday!

Very excited about this event on Sunday! It’s Sylvie Simmons’ book release party for the paperback edition of her Leonard Cohen biography I’m Your Man. Lots of cool LC-related stuff (I expect Sylvie will do a reading), plus a bunch of people will sing Leonard Cohen songs.

I’m doing “Going Home,” from Old Ideas.

Here’s what the New York Times said about the book:

The major, soul-searching biography that Leonard Cohen deserves … Mesmerizing.

See you there!



Pere Lachaise in Paris

Some photos from my too-short stroll through this famous cemetery in Paris.

As I was walking there, it occurred to me to wonder whether Francis Poulenc might be buried there. He is, and his memorial was my first stop. The composer of some of the best melodies ever, including Le Bestiaire and Tel Jour Tel Nuit, gets first billing for me.



I stopped by to see Bellini, whose memorial was steps away, and made a commitment to investigate his music more thoroughly.


Went up the hill a bit to see Chopin’s grave. When I visited Kafka’s grave in Prague I left him a pen; I left Chopin a small piece of blank staff paper (if you click on the photo, you can see it rolled up in the fence there on the right).



Continue reading

Pink Thunder Review in Hinged Journal of Converging Arts

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Not sure how I missed this, but wow – thanks to Hinged Journal of Converging Arts for this review, which is not only very thoughtful and insightful, but which, in a dynamic that no longer comes as a surprise, is a much better music review than any of the actual music critics have written.

Pink Thunder in Hinged Journal of Converging Arts

Notable quotes:

“… a remarkable converging arts conversation piece. The friction between these two forms throws into relief the stark limitations we assign to poems and songs individually.”


“In the poem-songs, instead of a title the listener receives first a pitch and pattern of sounds composed of instruments and vocals that accompany the words of the poem. This composition colors the words a particular and limited spectrum of emotions. “Opera” as a song does not speak its own title, but instead begins with high piano key chimes that quickly shift into a minor-scale of uncertain and ponderous notes as the voice joins. An unmistakable element of loneliness exists in the spectrum of minor notes and the slow drop of each note.”

Thank you HINGED!

Gallery of the Portmanteaus

Song_Original_16x12_Adj_Web_Web2Ah, the portmanteaus. They are in boxes, currently somewhere between Chicago, IL and Oakland, CA.

I’ve been wanting to find a way to incorporate them into this website, but until now everything has either been impossibly awkward or too complicated to set up. I found a gallery hosting site (it’s called carbonmade, in case anyone’s interested – I am not affiliated) and so now there’s a portmanteaus page here.

Hoo ray! The new page has some info on what they are, and a link to the gallery:

See it at Portmanteaus.



Studio One in Oakland, TONIGHT!

Finally back home, and Kevin and I will be playing the Pink Thunder songs tonight with readers Matthew Zapruder, Jason Bayani, and Gillian Conoley!


Studio One’s Sheila Davies Sumner asked me some very interesting questions about Pink Thunder, and, although I don’t know if they are interesting or not, I gave her some answers here.

Come to Studio One tonight!



Chicago – Rational Park! Danny’s Tavern! Mission Creek Festival!

zapruder_3_images_new_11Tomorrow night, March 30th at 7pm! I will be reunited with the Pink Thunder portmanteaus and will get to see the Rational Park Exhibit for the first time. I’m excited.

We’ll all get to hang out, people can listen to the portmanteaus, and then I’ll be playing a bunch of songs from the record. This is presented by some of my favorite organizations:

Make Literary Magazine

Rational Park

Black Ocean

Danny’s Reading Series

And then, on Tuesday April 2, I’m really looking forward to talking about songs and poetry, and playing some songs, in dialogue with Billy Blake and the Vagabonds as part of the venerable Danny’s Reading Series.

And as if that’s not enough, on Wednesday April 3, Kevin and I will be performing at The Mill in Iowa City, as part of the fantastic Mission Creek Festival, which you should fly to Iowa for. We will be supported by Christopher the Conquered.

Midwest, come say hello!


Here’s all the info on the Chicago events from Make Magazine:

In celebration of Michael Zapruder’s Pink Thunder, a New Collection of Songs Featuring Collaborations from 23 Poets.

Performance: March 30, 7pm, Rational Park. FREE.

Gallery Hours to view the portmanteaus: March 22-April 12, M-F (by appointment)

Rational Park is excited to host 22 portmanteaus, each containing a song from the album Pink Thunder—a collection of free-verse pop art-songs, including contributions from 23 poets, three engineers, and a few dozen musicians. What began as a bus tour that brought together hundreds of American poets has been recorded and remixed into a potent collection of poem-songs. Pink Thunder features instrumental contributions from over forty musicians and poems from Noelle Kocot, James Tate (MAKE #10), Bob Hicok, Mary Ruefle (MAKE #9), D.A. Powell, Dara Wier (MAKE #9), Joshua Beckman, Travis Nichols (MAKE #6), Dorothy Laskey (MAKE #8), Matthew Rohrer (MAKE #2), and many more. The album was released on October 16, 2012 via The Kora Records, and the corresponding hardcover book of poems, with CD, it out now from Black Ocean.

  • Saturday, March 30, 7pm, Michael Zapruder and friends perform a full set of Pink Thunder songs among the portmanteaus. This special live performance is free! Refreshments served.

presented by Rational ParkBlack Ocean, Danny’s Reading Series, and MAKE Literary Productions.

For more information about the events, participants, and sponsors,click here.

Rational Park is located at 2557 W. North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647.

Tuesday, April 2, Billy Blake and the Vagabonds + Michael Zapruder in conversation and performance.

Tuesday, April 2, kick off Poetry Month by spending an evening with two poetry/music projects. Members of Billy Blake and the Vagabonds will join San Francisco-based musician Michael Zapruder and friends to perform a few selections from their latest albums, then discuss the process of writing songs around the framework of poems—for Zapruder, from his contemporaries, and for Reid Coker, Kennedy Greenrod, and Saleem Dhamee, the poems of Romantic poet William Blake.

Danny’s Tavern, 1951 W. Dickens Ave, Tuesday, April 2, 7:30 p.m.

Hosted by writer Fred Sasaki and MAKE Poetry Editor and Danny’s Reading Series curator, Joel Craig.

presented by Rational ParkBlack Ocean, Danny’s Reading Series, and MAKE Literary Productions.

For more information about the events, participants, and sponsors,click here.


Portmanteaus and Pink Thunder in Chicago! March 22-April 12

RP-9Rational Park, the wonderfully-named gallery/art collective in Chicago’s Humbolt Park, is showing the Pink Thunder portmanteaus from March 22 – April 12!

This is the second public exhibition of the portmanteaus, and the first outside of the Bay Area.

The opening party is Thursday, March 22 from 7-10pm.

I will be performing at the gallery at 7pm on Saturday, March 30.

The portmanteaus will be available for viewing/listening by appointment anytime until April 13.

Go to them. They are as friendly as they are strange.