Madeleine Shapiro

Asymmetry: You’ve been involved with new music since your college days. How did all that get started?

Shapiro: I was introduced to new music as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook by Paul Zukovsky, who was my mentor. I don’t know why he thought I would be interested, but he just said “You might want to play something new. I’ll choose and help you with it.” And he chose an amazing piece, which could have been a crazy choice but turned out, I guess, to be a brilliant choice for me. He chose the Davidovsky Synchronisms No. 3.

Asymmetry: Sounds risky, but a good risk to take.

Shapiro: Well, it was also a hard choice because, first of all, it’s a hard piece technically, and, to choose something right off the bat to play with tape…. And the way that interacts is so intricate…. But I just loved it. I loved playing with tape.

When I went to Manhattan School of Music for my graduate degree, the contemporary ensemble was run by Harvey Sollberger and Charles Wourinen. And I played all the time there. Of course, I did the other things I had to do to graduate, but that was what I did for two years. And directly from the contemporary ensemble came the New Music Consort. Some of us who were in school together formed that.

Asymmetry: You did some work for Voice of America, didn’t you?

Shapiro: I got into it through the back door in a really funny way, but it did wind up influencing my playing and my career, so it was very interesting. I had gone to do an interview about the Sonic Boom Festival that I was doing here in New York. I had always liked radio. At the end of the interview, I asked the fellow who was interviewing me, “So, how do I break into radio?” It turns out that they had an internship program there, so I became an intern. And it was a fabulous internship program because they didn’t just have you go for coffee. They used you. They taught you everything. And they wound up hiring me at the end for a short time as a sort of stringer for cultural pieces.

But how it influenced my career, actually, was because I got very interested people’s voices, in how people talk. I then developed this solo cello recital concept, called “Voices.” I’d tape composers talking about their music, just 30 to 60 seconds. Maybe one salient point about their piece. And then I play that clip in the recital before the piece. It’s good for audiences, because I find so much that audiences don’t read program notes before the concert.

I stopped doing that work after a while, but it was very interesting. I still have this fondness for radio.

Did you go to the Seamus Conference this year?

Asymmetry: No. But I sent my middle son to cover it.

Shapiro: I was extremely impressed with the Salt Lake City conference, where we met. How organized they were, and how smoothly it ran, and how terrific it was.

Asymmetry: That’s the first time I’d heard you play live.

Shapiro: That was where I met Robert Wechsler and Dan Hosken. Robert directs the Palindrome Intermedia Gruppe. The three of us later collaborated together.

Asymmetry: Oh, really?

Shapiro: Yes. He incorporated me into his show, Oklo. We set up a few, workshop master classes here in New York City and developed a very cool cello solo for the production that we did in the festival in Istanbul.

The piece is about change and what propels change. In my solo, which is improvised, I’m playing traditionally at first, then there is a section with processed sound. In the meantime, the sounds I’m making are being captured for me to control later by motion sensor with the movements of my bow. There’s a whole section where I’m not even making a sound on the instrument but am controlling all the sound by just air bowing.

So there’s this crazy air bowing that’s going on, and then, finally, I just get up and throw the cello at a dancer standing next to me and walk out in the middle of the stage with my bow, and all the sound is controlled just with my bow.

I like these conferences for the opportunity to meet other people and to see what they’re doing, and then to interact with them. It was a lot of fun.

Asymmetry: Tell me about The Nature Project.

Shapiro: Well, first of all, my parents were activists. So I was brought up in this environment of not just letting things happen, but of getting out and doing something.

And about 15 or 20 years ago I got involved in hiking and outdoor activities through the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club. It’s a strange thing, but most people don’t realize how accessible the outdoors is from New York City. So that was my start really, hiking. I got very involved in it, and then I got very involved in cross country skiing, which is a passion of mine.

I was on the board of the New York City group of the Sierra Club for three years and was active in environmental issues and running membership programs and such. And then, you know, life and work takes over, and you seem to have less and less time for things like that. And so The Nature Project developed out of me feeling that I wasn’t doing enough any more. You know, besides just signing petitions or passing the word around.

And it just so happened that I was invited to play at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville where they have an annual festival called TechnoSonics, and they were having an ecology theme that year. Two composers there wrote pieces for me. One was Judith Shatin, whom I’ve known since our college days, and the other was Matthew Burtner.

And that’s when it started. These two pieces were the foundation of the project. And it’s really grown a lot. People are very interested in writing for it. I have about 12 or 13 pieces all together in the repertoire, and they’re very different from each other.

Asymmetry: Was Paul Rudy’s Vastly Shrinking Space written for this project?

Shapiro: Paul’s piece was written with the project in mind. We had met at that University of Virginia festival, because he had been invited there to play the cactus piece. You probably know his cactus piece.

Asymmetry: Grandchild.

Shapiro: Right. Degrees of Separation: Grandchild of Tree. He and I met there. The first concert that I would consider part of my project took place about five months later at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, which at that time was across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. They were doing an exhibition called “Towards Green” of sustainable art – art made out of sustainable materials.

I had produced a number of concerts there along with the education curator Connie Wiesman. I just happened to mention that I had been in Virginia and had done these pieces which she thought we perfect for the current exhibition. So I invited Paul to come and play the cactus piece.

And from that came Vastly Shrinking Space. I had assumed that shrinking space was about the environment and what we’re doing to the environment. But, for him, it’s more a psychological thing, more how one’s life gets cluttered. And getting rid of clutter in one’s life.

But I list it on my website as part of the project, and it’s fine with him. He’s very concerned with the environment too. He’s a hiker, and a skier, and a mountain climber.

There is one piece now with video, and there’s one (Forms of the Wind) that was written for a specific place, which worked very well in that site, the Friends’ Meeting House down on Rutherford Place here in New York. That’s by the Italian composer, Walter Branchi.

My dream for Forms of the Wind is to go back to Istanbul and play it in the Cistern – the water cistern. I just think it would work really well there. Part of the idea of The Nature Pproject was not to just do performances in concert halls but in unusual spaces, and so far I have been able to do a few of those. The one in the museum was nice because it was keyed to an exhibition. We played in a gallery surrounded by the art, a part of the exhibition that we were connected to.

The composer Orlando Jacinto Garcia arranged for The Nature Project to be produced in the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens. That was very interesting. When we started the rehearsals in the garden house for the bird piece, all the birds from the outside started to chirp along, and that was fun.

I also went to Maine, to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. The school has a nature conservancy. There’s a house on the nature conservancy where I did an abbreviated recital, and then the next night I played the whole recital at the university concert hall.

One of the things about the project that I’m dying to do but it’s been hard to do is to connect up with people in the sciences.

Asymmetry: You’d think that would be easy.

Shapiro: I think they think we’re too weird.

Asymmetry: Now that’s weird.

Shapiro: I know. I’ve made some overtures. But the overtures haven’t really led to anything yet. I think that they could use us. Or we could use each other to further the environmental cause and to reach people. Just like people have different ways of learning, people have different ways of being touched.

Well, it hasn’t worked yet, but I’m hoping that as the project grows, it will.

Asymmetry: It might just be that most people are just really, really conservative. And afraid of new things.

Shapiro: I think that’s part of it. But in the meantime, people in the arts seem to be very interested in this idea.

Asymmetry: That was very sweet what you said in your article about the cactus piece.

Shapiro: That it doesn’t hurt it?

Asymmetry: Yes. You’ve had your cactus for –

Shapiro: I’ve had my cactus for a long time. I bought it at the Home Depot for this piece.

Asymmetry: That’s what Rudy said. Something like “I just bought this cactus at some store.”

Shapiro: Right. The cactus was bought when I had him playing the piece at the museum. But, of course, you can’t really travel with a cactus, especially if you play the cello. I mean Paul might have been able to travel with the cactus, but you don’t travel with a cello and a cactus. No way. So I went into Home Depot and found the exact right type of cactus.

We had it set up on a very elegant kind of table, because everything at the museum was very elegant. We also had it under a little spotlight, and it sat there throughout the whole concert. It’s always last. You can’t play anything after the cactus piece.

And a lot of people that I know who are really serious new music lovers thought it was a big joke. And I just said, no, this is a real piece. You’ll see. It’s crafted. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think after I played it, people realized. But it definitely adds a certain feeling to the concert. And you absolutely cannot play anything after it. It’s got its own aura, and it definitely is the end of the concert. There’s no doubt about it.

Asymmetry: You know, I met Paul right after he’d done his cactus piece. And I’d met Cage right after he had done his cactus piece, Child of Tree.

Shapiro: I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with Cage on a few occasions. Extremely lucky. He’s just one of these people that changes your thinking. He was amazing. When I ran the New Music Consort, one of our signature pieces was the Third Construction. We revived it many years after it had had a performance, and we did its first recording. We did some of the other Constructions, too, but that one is just such a very tight and remarkable piece. We also programmed the prepared piano pieces a lot. That was very difficult because you always had to have a second piano, and people had to be open to the idea of it being prepared, but we’d tour with it.

We performed a number of the aleatoric pieces at different times, and he came to rehearsals, and it was absolutely wonderful. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had that contact and extremely lucky to have that experience because he’s just extraordinary. I feel like those of us who grew up or were active around that time were lucky, because we can feel comfortable with improvisation, with silence. But it’s surprising how many younger players don’t feel comfortable with that.

Asymmetry: People can find silence really, really intimidating. At a concert of the Portland New Music Society, there was all of this eccentric, cool stuff with odd instruments and non instruments. And then as soon as a piece was over, the people at the club would immediately have the sound system going. So in between pieces, there’s not even a second of silence.

Shapiro: Unbelievable.

Asymmetry: And Bonnie Miksch, who was there, said, “What is it? Why are people so afraid of silence?”

Shapiro: I say that a lot to my students.

Since I’ve been doing the Voices recital I was telling you about earlier, just about every concert has started with a little fragment that I have with Cage talking about silence. And then I go into 4′ 33″, and then the next piece I play is by the phenomenal Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, who is one of my all time favorite composers, and this is probably one of my favorite pieces in my repertoire.

Asymmetry: He’s not afraid of silence either.

Shapiro: He’s not afraid of still sounds and he’s not afraid of silence, and they’re just miraculous pieces. And the small, soft palette. So I go into Ai limiti della notte, which is about five minutes long. That’s the piece I’ve played the most in my repertoire.

It works really well with 4′ 33″. In fact, one person came up to me after a recital and said it was really interesting because after 4′ 33″, the Sciarrino sounded like the whole orchestra.

I include Ai limiti della notte on The Nature Project. So much of that project is with electronics that I think it’s nice to have something that’s acoustic. I also include one of Orlando Garcia’s pieces without electronics, called Night Fragments.

When I first started performing 4′ 33″, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, it wasn’t as widely studied. It’s covered in a lot of music appreciation classes now. And so people know what it is. And the knowledge of what it is has made people very uptight it seems. So now when I perform it, mostly everybody just sits there.

And that’s kind of boring in a way. One of the best performances I did was in Brazil, when, mostly, people just sat around and talked. And when I did a question and answer at the end of the recital, and that’s all that anybody wanted to talk about.

Asymmetry: They looked like they were completely ignoring it.

Shapiro: Right. But one of my favorite performances of a Cage piece was of Music For Six at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, when it was across the street from MOMA, in their former building where all three of the floors were open to each other. From the mezzanine, you could look across at all three floors. I positioned people all over on the three floors, and we had three cellos, each positioned on a different level.

So you heard the sound floating out from all these different levels.

This was one of maybe ten concerts I did there (with my group ModernWorks), really adventurous concerts, which I could do because of Connie Wiesman. She was an artist and curator, not a musician, but she had a very strong interest in new music and was very knowledgeable. Unfortunately, she died recently. So I want to mention her name.

We also did an Italian concert with works by Sciarrino and Berio and others, wonderful pieces. To complement an exhibition of nearly 200 pieces of 20th century Murano [Venetian] glass. And that was amazing. Especially with the Sciarrino. It was like the piece was shimmering and the glass was shimmering. Those were really good days, and it’s so great when you can do things that are outside the traditional venues. That’s what I’m hoping for The Nature Project.

Another person who has been fabulous at this is Joel Chadabe from the Electronic Music Foundation. And his Ear to the Earth festival is fabulous. He’s done a really great job with that, and he also chooses unusual venues. When I did my Ear to the Earth – my nature program – I did the recital at Judson Memorial Church, which I have wonderful memories of from the counterculture days of the ‘70s.

The (traditional) concert hall is great musically, in the sense that all the technology can be set up. It’s hard to play in these alternative places. Hard to set things up, and sometimes hard to play. In the traditional hall you have the opportunity to have the best musical experience but you kind of feel like you’re separated from the audience. In the other kinds of venues you’re closer to the audience and there’s more of an interaction. Either way, I love every opportunity to play, and it’s a challenge, in a good way, to mold the recital to fit the venue.

Asymmetry: Well, I hope to hear you play live again soon, maybe next time I come to New York.

Shapiro: I’d like that too, thanks!


Madeleine Shapiro, cellist, has long been a recognized figure in the field of contemporary music. She was the founding director of the internationally known ensemble The New Music Consort and presently directs ModernWorks, an ensemble that performs and commissions recent chamber works. Madeleine performs extensively as a solo recitalist throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America, programming both acoustic and electro‑acoustic works, many of which were written for her. Madeleine’s first solo CD, Electricity: Works for Cello and Electronics (Albany Records) was greeted as Afocused and cohesive…a polystylistic collection of pieces that individually push the instrument and technology in unique ways. (Time Out New York). ModernWorks most recent CD, string quartets by Ge Gan-ru was chosen by The New York Times as one of the best CDs of 2009.

Madeleine is a recipient of three Encore Awards from the American Composers Forum, the most recent in support of her Nature Project, and a Barlow Award, all to assist in the premieres of new works. As director of the New Music Consort, she won First Prize in Adventurous Programming awarded by ASCAP‑Chamber Music America. Madeleine=s Nature Project is an ongoing concert program which is currently touring in both traditional and non-traditional concert venues, these have included the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens and the Shortridge-Mt. Morris Nature Preserve (Maine). Other recent appearances include five tours of Italy, including three Guest Artist stays at the American Academy in Rome; Logos Foundation, Belgium; A.M.B.A.R. Festival, Istanbul, Turkey; The Spark Festival, MN; TechnoSonics at University of Virginia, two appearances at the International Cello Encounter, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and regular appearances in New York City venues such as the Museum of Arts & Design, Le Poisson Rouge and the Knitting Factory.

She has also recorded for New World Records, CRI, Mode, S.E.A.M.U.S., and HarvestWorks. She directs the Contemporary Music Ensemble at the prestigious Mannes College of Music where she also teaches a seminar in new music performance practice. Visit her at

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