Interview with Murray Hidary

On January 13th, 2018 Kaleidoscope will kick of the new year in partnership with the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA to perform the works of composer Murray Hidary at the iconic Theater at the Ace Hotel in DTLA. In one of the most harmonious and featured collaborations to date, Kaleidoscope is thrilled to be working with Mr. Hidary to showcase the world and west coast premieres of Emerging, With, Within, Without, as well as his globally acclaimed project titled MindTravel. Generously donating his time, I sat down to speak with him about his beginnings in music and his compositions, and unexpectedly had one of the most profound conversations of my life. What began as a way to explore and deepen his inner spiritual journey as a teenager, has ultimately gifted Mr. Hidary with a truly unique musical voice that inspires and encourages to “move others to greater purpose in their lives through music.”

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

Murray Hidary: My mom was my main influence. When she was a child she wanted to play an instrument but wasn’t ever able to, so she decided that when she had kids that they would all take lessons. I started playing cello when I was five years old, and at six I took up piano and played both during my childhood. We even had a mini ensemble between all my siblings.

CR: Wonderful! How did you get into composition?

MH: Halfway through high school I knew I wanted to compose versus performing other composer’s work. Even as a kid, I felt like I had something to say with my own voice because music served as an important form of expression for me. I was a pretty shy kid, and music was a real outlet for me, and when I got to high school that evolved into wanting to create my own music.

CR: If at all, how has your musical voice continued to evolve?

MH: Like most teenagers, my voice originally formed in expressing feelings of love, girls, relationships, heartbreak, youthful angst, yearning and all the stuff you deal with at that age. However, when I turned seventeen I started a spiritual journey and read everything I could get my hands on about Eastern philosophy. I got into Zen Buddhism pretty heavily, and reading all these incredible philosophies and ideas spoke to me in a way that my music and Eastern philosophy started to influence one another. I also studied the Japanese flute and music of Zen monks which has greatly influenced my work.

CR: I see. Specific to the the pieces that you're premiering with Kaleidoscope, how does Eastern philosophy influence these particular pieces?

MH: First, I should say that unlike most composers, most of what I do is perform my own improvised concerts rather than others performing my works. A large section of this concert consists of a solo piano real-time composition called MindTravel, which I consider to be a spontaneous, subconscious storytelling. I call it this because we can use music to access the deepest and truest parts of our self. And it's really important for me and it is the aspiration of the work to share that ritual with people in the hopes that it helps them grow too. This unique storytelling is also a musical experience that combines my study of minimalist composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, and my immersion in Eastern philosophy that I then share with audiences in an improvisatory, flow-state and meditative-like manner.

CR: Is this storytelling also part of your compositional process?

MH: Yes. Music was a particularly special outlet for me growing up, and what I do is a musical ritual for myself--it’s something I've done for years and years. It’s the way I not only find a emotional balance in my life, but allows me to have deeper connections with people and the universe around me. Part of my compositional process is to take recordings of the real-time improvisation compositions, document them, analyze them, and later use the raw material to develop into scored compositions. My other pieces on this concert, With, Without, Within, and Emerging are actually compositions that were created using this process.

CR: Why compose this way?

MH: On the one hand I believe that it gives my work a very organic feel, but it also allows for very consistent language within all my work. Technology affords me the luxury to compose this way, because it's tough to pick out all the voicings and layers if it was just an analog acoustic recording since most of my music ends up being thick, multi-layered soundscapes on the piano. Being able to capture it through MIDI, I can go back and analyze every single note I played. Ideally, I want to compose when I feel inspiration, but if a composer only wrote this way, he or she would probably write very little. Composers have to find ways to push through the lulls in the creative inspiration to find gems, and you need a process to do that. I once spoke at length with Philip Glass, and he said he sits down to compose at the same time every single day. My actual practice, and I use this word like one would use during a spiritual ritual, consists of sitting at the piano for 20, 30 minutes or an hour hoping that there is a moment that emerges I'm not necessarily conscious of. There are times where I listen back on recordings and I have no memory of what I just heard. It's just pure expression, where later on I can go back and use material to pull out and expand upon.

CR: Very interesting. So exactly what role will Kaleidoscope play during this musical ritual of MindTravel? How did this partnership come to fruition, and what kind of collaboration are you hoping will emerge from this concert?

MH: Essentially, the idea was to take this improvisation to the next level by involving an orchestra in the process. Sometimes I hear music voicings in instruments that I don't play, so the opportunity was to create this body of work that will create a complementary experience in the MindTravel world. This was the idea that Benjamin and I decided to partner on.

CR: Why did you choose to work with Kaleidoscope on this project?

MH: I've been to a couple of performances and was very impressed with how collectively they performed as a unit. Given that there is no conductor they engage in a deeper listening. It's inherently more collaborative and holds a collective responsibility--it just made sense.

CR: Absolutely. Since your musical compositions are heavily based in improvisation, how do you imagine it working with an orchestra? Not all, but most classical musicians are unfamiliar with improvising, especially in a performance setting.

MH: The orchestra will be fully scored from an earlier improvisation of mine as part of my process, and I will be weaving in and out of what they’re playing.

CR: I see. I know this isn’t necessarily polite to ask, but being that spirituality plays an important role in your life, is there a particular religion that you practice?

MH: No, I don’t subscribe to any religion as my spiritual path. I actually grew up Orthodox Jewish, and went to Jewish school for twelve years. While I culturally identify strongly being Jewish and think there are beautiful teachings and rituals in that religion, I felt that there was more out there I needed to explore. Throughout my life I’ve explored everything from Zen Buddhism, to Taoism, to Sufism, to Vedic teachings from India, and everything in between. Amazingly these religions all have musical traditions. I even studied the repertoire of the Zen Buddhist monks who play the shakuhachi, which is a wooden bamboo flute, and studied with two of the worlds greatest masters for many years.

CR: Interesting. I grew up Lutheran, and though Christianity is not as much of an influence in my life as it once was, hearing and performing church liturgy is still almost prayer-like and meditative for me. In a way, would you describe music and MindTravel as being a daily affirmation or a prayer?

MH: Absolutely. Traditional religious rituals for the most part just don’t speak to me. In MindTravel, I want to create a public experience for reflection and contemplation that anyone can come to and, much like one would come to church, temple, mosque, etc., and encourage others to participate in this music ritual.

CR: Do you encourage or expect audience participation at this concert?

MH: Yes, even though it can be somewhat challenging when it comes to a theater performances. The idea is that musicians and audiences alike are participating and engaging in this musical ritual. I’ve performed everywhere from Santa Monica Beach to Central Park in New York, and at every outdoor concert I play an electric piano and transmit the music to wireless headphones worn by audience members. That way they can enjoy the freedom to lie down, walk around, open or close their eyes, stare at the ocean, dance. That really is where this musical ritual is self-evident.

CR: Wow, that actually sounds refreshingly personal.

MH: Exactly. In a theater setting I still want people to participate, but mostly in their listening. There are two kinds of ways to listen as an audience member. One can listen passively or actively, and I invite audiences can become more active in their listening because it encourages the thought that they can participate, to make the experience their own and meet in the middle.

CR: Have you ever had difficulty getting audiences to open up in a theater setting? Or have you found that audiences are willing to buck tradition?

MH: Once you extend the invitation people are ready to jump in. If you don't extend the invitation, they're not even aware that that options exists.

CR: True. I have my own opinion on this, but what does audience participation add to your experience as a composer?

MH: Well, it removes separation. There's already many things that seem to separate us, like stages and lights - but when an audience participates it feels as though everyone in the theater is in this together, it's very inclusive and participatory.

CR: Speaking to inclusivity, Kaleidoscope’s mission revolves around being as inclusive as possible, both with the Los Angeles community and within itself by eliminating a conductor. Specifically, in what other ways do you promote inclusivity within music?

MH: Every one of my concerts has a Pay-What-You-Can option. For any reason, someone could be temporarily going through financial hardship, and it would be a shame for someone to not enjoy a musical experience, especially if they really need it. I've been using that model for several years, and I've never seen anyone take advantage of it; people use it in the way that it's intended. I work on the Aristotelian precept that if you extend trust, people respond in kind. In addition to that, I bring my work to the community similarly to how Kaleidoscope does, such as schools and other institutions. We're planning to bring MindTravel to senior homes as well.

CR: This sounds like a perfect pairing, because that's exactly part of Kaleidoscope’s mission. Speaking to you as a person, what are some of your hobbies outside of music?

MH: What’s great about this project is that it brings together all of my passions into one expression. It’s not just music--there's also visual art that is part of the show as well. I create all that art to attempt to express visually what I express musically.

CR: What visuals can the audience expect to see during this performance of MindTravel? How does visual art fit into your improvisatory style?

MH: The visuals are all new, and they're about how vibration creates the universe around us. The visuals also change with the music because there's a microphone attached to the laptop. The visuals ‘listen’ to the music, and when I hit a piano note the visuals will move in response to that--they are dynamically responsive to anything I create. Nothing is pre-packaged, it's all manipulated through the music which keeps on track with the improvisatory nature of my process. I also have a deep personal passion towards theoretical physics and that informs the ideas behind the work.

CR: No kidding!

MH: Yes! I read anything I can get my hands on that discusses physics. To this day, I study with a professor at Caltech so that I can keep my knowledge and curiosity sharpened. I use those ideas inside my music metaphorically. In the same way I'm trying to understand the universe through music, I can also gain a deeper understanding of it through physics.

CR: Fascinating! Is there a specific charity or cause that you want to use this interview to raise awareness you?

MH: I recently did a video shoot where the fires were here in California. If people could keep that in mind, there are some charities to give to people in need who have lost everything. I literally played in the ash of these ruins, and it was heartbreaking. I encourage people to donate to charities that are helping those affected.

CR: Absolutely. Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?

MH: Come with an open mind and an open heart so that you can have that experience right away instead of waiting until the end of the concert.  The format is different, the music is different from what you’ve heard before. It's a non-stop musical journey, and I want to give people the time to have their minds bloom, blossom, open up, and really get lost in what they're listening to. All so they can ultimately be in touch with their deepest selves.

CR: Great! Thank you so much for speaking and sharing your wisdom!

MH: My pleasure!

Carrie Rexroat