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An Interview with Electro-Acoustic Violist Martha Mooke

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By Joe Portes

Electro-Acoustic Violist, Martha MookeInnovative electro-acoustic violist, composer, and clinician Martha Mooke will appear at the Hand House Parlor in Elizabethtown on September 18th and 19th as part of the Rites of Strings concert series. Over the years, Mooke has developed a unique musical voice, blending classical music with modern digital effects. Her permutation in the field of five string viola/violin has led to numerous concerts, daytime and late night television talk show appearances, inclusion in the Broadway pit orchestras of Wicked and South Pacific, performing in the touring Star Wars in Concert show, and alongside such artists as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Tony Bennett, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Moby, Andrea Bocelli, and Luciano Pavarotti.

Mooke’s genre-bending debut solo CD, [amazonify]B000005BQC::text::::Enharmonic Vision[/amazonify] has garnered widespread critical acclaim. Aside from performing solo, she also plays in a guitar-viola duo titled Bowing and in The Scorchio Quartet. Martha Mooke not only spreads her love of music through performance, but also in the way of workshops. She is a clinician teaching numerous classes, such as “Violas on the Verge” and “Zen and the Art of Conceptual Improvisation.” She received an ASCAP 2001 Concert Music Award for producing and creating the Thru the Walls showcase which features work, not unlike her own, that defies genres and categorization.

The Free George: I read that you synthesize your classical music training with extended techniques, digital effects, and improvisation. Could you explain a little about your classical training? When did you start playing the viola/violin?
Martha Mooke:
I started playing viola when I was 10 years old, in the fifth grade. The music teacher from the Intermediate School came to my elementary school and offered classes. Everyone wanted to play the violin or cello because no one knew what a viola was – so I picked the viola! Usually students start on violin and switch, it’s a bit unusual to actually begin on viola. I discovered I had an affinity for the instrument and stayed with it. At that time the public schools I attended on Staten Island had string programs and orchestras, so I received a great initial training. I have two degrees in viola performance: a B.A. from the State University of NY at Albany, and a Master of Music from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

TFG: How did your current electro-acoustic violist style evolve out of your past training?
One of the points I like to make when I’m leading a workshop or demonstration is that you have to be able to speak a first language before you can speak a second. I was able to bring my skills as a traditionally trained violist to a non-traditional instrument. At first, all I had was the alphabet, and since they weren’t teaching anything like this in school, I needed to develop my own vocabulary and way of communicating with this new voice.

Martha Mooke with Iggy PopTFG: You’re billed as an electro-acoustic violist. Can you tell us a little about the instruments you currently have and play?
When I’m playing in an orchestra, normally I play “unplugged,” or acoustically. I have a pickup built into the bridge of my acoustic instrument, so that when I’m called upon to “plug in,” meaning if my string quartet, Scorchio, is performing with a rock artist at a club that requires us to be amplified, I can do so easily, and I’ll know it will sound good. When I play solo or with an “electric” ensemble, like my duo with electric guitar, or my new trio with bass and electric djembe, I use my electric instruments. I have an array of 4 and 5 string violins/violas. When I first began exploring the world of electric strings, there weren’t as many makers of these instruments as there are now.

Jean-Luc Ponty was a major influence on me, and one of the reasons I decided to pursue this unconventional route. A friend loaned me one of his albums, and on the cover he’s cradling a beautiful blue five string violin. After I listened to the album, I made my parents drive me to 48th Street in New York City, and I purchased the exact same model, an old Barcus Berry, which I still own. A few years later I heard a band called The Horseflies, they’re from Ithaca, and I befriended Judy Hyman, the violinist, who was playing a very sexy electric violin. Shortly after I was the proud owner of the first 5-string electric viola model from Ithaca String Instruments.

I was also experimenting with different effects units and delays around this time, and was developing my own sound and style of playing. When I began my affiliation with Yamaha over 10 years ago, they were designing their first line of electric strings. They sent me a prototype of their Silent Violin, and the next thing I knew, I was invited to consult with the design team in Hamamatsu, Japan on some new models, including a viola and a 5-string electric hybrid, which is my primary electric instrument these days. Each instrument has somewhat different features than the other, from tone to power, playability, headphone jack (which is great for practicing) to volume controls. Along with my instrument collection, I also have a rack of digital effects processors, including several digital delay units – I use loops and layers in my music, and a battery of foot pedals, similar to what an electric guitarist may use.

TFG: In addition to performing live and recording, you also teach Workshops/Clinics. Can you tell us a little more about this?
When I first began my journey as an electric violist and improviser, I was pretty much on my own. There were a few players out there and some recordings to listen to and play along with, but no one that I knew of, who could help guide me along the way. I started offering workshops when I performed at a school or university, working with the students to first introduce them to new concepts of playing and listening, and then to expand their vocabulary and sonic palettes. Over the years I’ve developed a number of clinics that cover the many ideas I incorporate into my music. To give you an idea: “The Power of Strings: Plugging In!”; “Zen and the Art of Conceptual Improvisation” and “Violas on the Verge” are a few of the workshops I offer.

TFG: What’s the best piece of advice you were given about music as both an art form and an industry?
That unfortunately they’re not mutually exclusive—you can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not able to “sell” it, then it’s pretty much like playing solitaire.

TFG: Do you have a particular lesson that you try to ensure everyone in your workshop takes home, something you want them to remember and keep in mind above all else?
I usually start off by telling them that you don’t know what you’re missing until you know what you’re missing. Basically, to allow new ideas and concepts to flow in, consider them, adopt and adapt and make them your own.

TFG: You compose; perform solo, in an ensemble, in a duo, and in Broadway pit orchestras; teach the workshops, and produce the music showcase Thru the Walls. You seem to wear many hats as a musician. Which of these roles do you enjoy most and why?
Hmmmm, it does make time management challenging at times. The key is versatility and the ability to keep evolving, yet it always comes from the fact that I’m doing what I love to do.

Martha Mooke with David BowieTFG: Your avant-garde string quartet, the Scorchio Quartet, has performed with such big names as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Trey Anastasio, Rufus Wainwright, Enya, Bon Jovi, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and so many others. Is there a favorite moment or collaboration you have that really stands out above the others?
I’d have to say that the first time we performed with Bowie (we weren’t even called Scorchio yet – David gave us the name during the Heathen recording sessions) at Carnegie Hall for the 2001 Tibet House Benefit Concert. We had rehearsed with him a few times, which was a thrill of course, but when he arrived backstage dressed for the show, in a long silver jacket with glittery black shirt, hair done and makeup, I think it really hit us that we were playing with DAVID BOWIE!  Of course when we took the stage with him the crowd went crazy and the first song we played was “Heroes,” with a wonderful arrangement by his longtime producer Tony Visconti. I remember Philip Glass was playing piano and Moby was playing guitar (with whom I had just played an acoustic duo version of his song “Porcelain”).

TFG: Going along with the last question, do you have a favorite overall moment in your entire career?
Well, it’s hard to beat the performances with Bowie, but I’ve also been privileged to perform with Barbra Streisand during her North American Tour in 2006 and European Tour in 2007. The thrill of sitting just a few feet away from her as she made her entrance through the floor of the stage still gives me goose bumps. The roar of the crowd as the spotlight hit her was like a wave of raw energy!

TFG: You’re playing at the Hand House Parlor in Elizabethtown on the 18th as part of the Rites of Strings Concert Series. Have you played this venue before, or any other in the area?
This is my first time playing in Elizabethtown and I’ve heard wonderful things about the venue.  I’m looking forward to a more intimate setting. One of things I love most about performing is establishing a relationship with the audience. It’s very personal for myself and each listener.

TFG: Do you have a favorite venue to play? And why is it your favorite?
Not one venue in particular, but I was just on tour for 11 weeks with “Star Wars in Concert” which is a huge multimedia production that played to thousands of people each night at arenas all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It was an 85 piece orchestra surrounded by lights, lasers, and a huge hi-def screen showing excerpts of the films while we played the corresponding music by John Williams.  Each scene was set up by our narrator, Anthony Daniels who was the droid C3PO in all 6 episodes. It was a really inspiring tour, because from my chair onstage I could look out on the faces of children, their parents and grandparents and see their expressions as they took in the live music and all the theatrics. That’s the consummate performing experience for me!

TFG: Lastly, do you have any advice to any young aspiring musicians?
Learn your craft; keep your mind, ears and soul open; versatility and creativity are key; and believe in yourself!

Martha Mooke will be performing at the Hand House Parlor on River Street in Elizabtehtown as part of the Rites of Strings concert series, with performances on Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 7pm & Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 3pm. Concerts are free to the general public, though there is a suggested donation of $15 for adults and $5 for children. For tickets and reservations, call 518-962-8539 or visit

–Joe Portes is an Assistant Editor of The Free George.

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