Conversation with Mischa Zupko (Part 1)

This year, Civitas Ensemble has the pleasure of collaborating with composer Mischa Zupko on a new work for the core members (violin, cello, clarinet, and piano) dedicated to Judy McCue, former Board Chair and a dear friend to the Civitas members. After meeting with Judy and Civitas violinist Yuan-Qing Yu over a Zoom call, Mischa was kind enough to write about his writing process during the time of coronavirus and how Illinois' shelter-in-place order has effected his compositional process:

"So, the day we had our lovely meeting on Zoom, I immediately had some inspiration thinking about Judy’s ideas of “healing” and our discussions about the voice.  I quickly went to the drawing board to sketch out what I was hearing and was quite pleased with the result.  The next couple of weeks were consumed with busy work meeting my Grant Park deadline, but as soon as I finished, I eagerly returned to what I had started.  Only now, it seemed too bare, and not getting at anything I felt I could nurture.  As I mentioned in our meeting, this often happens in the process; initial sparks lost in the ether.  So I sat and ruminated for quite sometime…nothing.  And that was just it….this sense of absence.  I don’t remember a time when it’s been this quiet and you can literally hear your heart beat some days.  I thought about how we are all experiencing that quiet.  For some at certain times, it must be a welcome rest and for others it can exacerbate a sense of loneliness.  I know I’ve felt both.  What is so beautiful about this quiet, despite its unsettling side, is the fact that one can be so aware and grateful for the simple gift of breath and life; the heartbeat at its core.  In this quiet, I heard that heartbeat in my own chest and in the pulsing of chords played by the violin and clarinet.  This heartbeat reacts to gentle figures played by the piano, which change the rate of the pulsing.  I think of the piano as “disturbances” in a still pond affecting ripples in the surrounding water.  The heartbeat is alive…it is aware of all of its surroundings and affected by the minute changes in the air. A cello melody emerges; a voice from within responding to the beauty of this heightened awareness.  

The initial sketches of Mischa's new piece.

These thoughts are stream of consciousness, but they are truly where my mind wanders when it creates.  When I step back, I realize all of the ideas that originally inspired me from our conversation are there.  The awareness and gratitude that come from the silence promote our healing in the face of the “unsettling” aspects of our present circumstances.  The “voice” of the cello responds to this healing; a form of rejoicing, even in its initial solemnity."

After reading Mischa's eloquent words, Yuan-Qing and Civitas' Administrative Manager Dan Hickey caught up with the composer again on Zoom to explore his unique ideas and perspective further: