Existential Pilot: A New Music Group That's Going Places!

I have to confess: I get a little jaded sometimes. I ask myself, “Is being a musician really worth it?” I mean, except for a very lucky few, it’s not glamorous, it doesn’t pay a lot, it can be very time-consuming and stressful, and the tax returns are a bear! (Being self-employed makes for a lot of red tape, paradoxically, as anyone who has ever floundered in a sea of 1099s can attest!)

But just when I’m about to chuck it all and learn how to be an accountant or dental hygienist or something, I have an experience that shows me that it really is worthwhile.


I recently made the acquaintance of a the new music group Existential Pilot when they visited Boston on their first official tour. The group’s members are current students and recent alumni of the University of Michigan, which has a very well-respected music program. The members are:

William Zuckerman, composer, pianist and electronic performance
Ezra Donner, composer and pianist
Claire DiVizio, soprano
Jonathan Lubin, composer, pianist and electronic performance
Zoë Aqua, violin
Mark Dover, clarinet

I met the group for coffee the afternoon of their performance here in town, at First Church in Boston. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the concert itself — it was a Wednesday night, and I had a choir rehearsal to run… But I did get to hear most of their dress rehearsal, and that was pretty cool, because it was like having a private command performance just for me!

While fortifying ourselves with coffee beforehand, we chatted about how the group formed, what the different members are up to individually, and this business of running a new music group in general. There’s no set playbook for it — no one has written a “Forming a New Music Group for Dummies” as far as I know. One thing that really helps is advice and encouragement from others who have already done it, and composer-pianist Ezra Donner mentioned a few composers and groups who have mentored them, including composer Joan Tower, the groups Eighth Blackbird, and Time for Three, who said to them, “You can do this!”

EPClDuo EP will certainly have no shortage of material to perform. The program they presented on this tour consisted entirely of music by the three composers in the group, but they intend to issue a call for scores sometime soon, and branch out into playing works by other emerging composers as well.

I admire this spirit of generosity and cooperation. When I saw that there were three composer-pianists in the group, I had visions of dueling keyboards, both the piano kind and the computer kind. But the embarrassment of keyboard riches seems to serve the group very well. In fact, I was sorry to hear Jonathan Lubin was on the injured list that evening, and was unable to accompany soprano Claire DiVizio on his song, This is the Garden. Ezra stepped in and learned the piece on just a few days’ notice, but I wouldn’t have guessed that from hearing their dress rehearsal!

I also got to hear Ezra play his own Sonata no. 1 for Piano, which had energy to spare, with driving rhythms and harmonies based on 4ths and 5ths. His Sonata Judaica for clarinet and piano gave clarinetist Mark Dover a chance to rock ‘n’ roll as well.

EPVlnDuoI heard two of William Zuckerman’s pieces: Sinuous Rills, for violin, clarinet and piano, and a movement from Music In Pluralism, for violin and piano. William mentioned that he was influenced by minimalism, and we had a playful conversation about that, because I had to confess not being a huge fan of that style. But I didn’t really hear minimalism in his music — it had plenty of arpeggiated chords in the piano and ostinato-like passages, but it didn’t stay in one place or try to evoke a meditative or trance-like effect the way minimalism does, to my mind. Actually, I felt his music was rather romantic, full of drama and sweeping gestures, conveyed quite effectively by violinist Zoë Aqua.

It was great to spend time with these musicians on their first tour — funded, incidentally, through kickstarter, which helped them harness the support of generous family, friends and beyond. I hope it’s just the first of many successful ventures for them!

You can hear several audio excerpts on the Existential Pilot site — just click “Listen” on the lower right.


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