In the Club with: Zach Sheets
For our fifth episode, we are happy to welcome Duo Axis - flutist Zach Sheets and pianist Wei-Han Wu. First up, here's our interview with Zach!
Tell us about a recent musical experience that you particularly enjoyed.
I performed Kate Soper's Only the words themselves mean what they say with my friend Stephanie Lamprea several times in the fall. It was remarkable to think about and work on the theater of the whole thing the way a singer does. At one point, she turned to me and asked what emotion I was going to convey with my body on a particularly poignant note. I hadn’t been asked a question like that in a long time. The entire things becomes a real experience.
Click HERE to see a video of Zach and Stephanie's performance.
Who are some composers or ensembles you’ve been enjoying listening to lately?
I’ve been really into Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus (and related jazz):
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch and Live at the Five Spot
Charles Mingus, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
Dolphy/Mingus, Town Hall Concert
Also some out-there synth stuff, like:
boy harsher, careful
Boy harsher, lesser man
And some late 80’s / 90’s hiphop:
Eric B. and Rakim, Follow the Leader (the video is goofy)
Is there a moment or experience that got you hooked on contemporary music?
This was a pretty slow burn for me to become gradually immersed in the world. At first it was a compositional interest, and on the flute I was still playing traditional repertoire. Ligeti (the chamber concerto), Feldman (Rothko Chapel and Violin and Orchestra), and Lachenmann (the string quartets) were all big for me.
But, when I got to Eastman, they needed flutists to play a lot of work on new music concerts and composers' concerts. There aren’t any new music techniques on the flute that are so terribly hard if you’re good at regular flute. The trick, rather, is knowing what the effect and character should be. I had a really good handle on that from being around composers and doing a lot of analysis of contemporary music as an undergrad, so I got thrown into it fast—it was like a shared language.
There was also a remarkable community of this work at Eastman: a lot of people I still collaborate with all the time.
Are there any current trends in contemporary music that you’re particularly excited about?
Maybe I’m biased as a composer-performer myself, but I’m so excited to see so many composer-performers getting so much attention and investment! When I was younger I felt this was very frowned upon (see answer below), but now it feels like the hip thing.
Wet Ink has been a great example of this - Kate Soper, Eric Wubbels, Sam Pluta, Alex Mincek. Also a lot of improvisers, like Anna Webber, Ingrid Laubrock, Tyshawn Sorey, or Taylor Ho Bynum. And even more examples like Anthony Cheung, Enno Poppe, Erin Gee, etc.
There’s something special and three-dimensional about the music that I personally feel comes from a shared understanding of being on either side of the footlights—it’s like being both an architect and an engineer.
You play many different roles as a musician in performance, composition, and arts administration. Do you have any advice for other musicians who are seeking multifaceted career paths?
I got so much feedback throughout my life—either implicit or explicit—that one ought to just pick a thing and focus on that thing only. I was fortunate to be headstrong enough to follow my own path in many ways. And if you feel an urge to develop a skill or a craftsmanship that you feel passionate about and have ambition for, you should, too.*
*See below for a couple really important caveats.
I get that our field is extremely competitive and that trying to chase ten different things can often leave you with none. But there’s a very insidious undercurrent here: a lot of our institutions are averse to change and want to maintain the status quo, and pushing students to focus on a really orthodox and specific career mindset at the exclusion of everything else is a really good way to do that. But the world our parents and teachers grew up in doesn’t look like ours, and telling people they have to pick just one thing to be good at is really ignorant about the way the world is and looks and operates right now. If you feel like you’re the only person in your school, studio, etc., who has realized this, you are not wrong: everyone else is.
If you’re adopting some ivory tower artiste mindset to try to convince people to do only one thing, you’re invoking artistic practice to tell someone to... limit their artistic practice. And if you’re adopting some ruthless business-minded mindset about standing out most effectively in a given line of business, the fact of the matter is that none of this happens in a silo anymore and you need skills in multiple areas. Do some people step out of Juilliard and win a job in the New York Phil? Yeah, a few each year out of the thousands of conservatory grads. But even they need the soft skills and wherewithal to navigate workplace politics and get tenure.
I remember at least three schools where I applied as both a flutist and a composer. At some point in a conversation, some well-meaning person offered something like, “Well, you know, our flute/composition department is… very good. Like, very good. So, you can’t just, like, join the studio. You’ll have to… you know... get... in. So, just, I hope you’re not applying thinking you can do both, you know?” That advice is not useful for all the same reasons you could say it to anyone. The admissions rate is like 4% at conservatories. You’d be better served to just say what you mean: It’s unusual for someone to be at a high level in two different arenas. Can you tell us more about yourself? (I even got an acceptance letter that in the form letter they took an extra step to detail their surprise I was admitted to both departments).
Arts administration is generally much more open: there are hardly any formal training programs in this work, so all of us come from somewhere weird. But don’t presume that just because you’re good at flute you’ll walk into an arts nonprofit as the star leader. There are a lot of skills you will need to develop with patience and grace and tenacity.
*Caveat: I do acknowledge that getting good at stuff takes time! If you’re trying to be good at different crafts, you’ll need to reckon with some real questions about how to have enough time to hone your craft and artistic thinking. This is essential. And it may at some point become untenable to hold on to everything. That’s up to what you, re: what specifically you are seeking. I had one very dear teacher in particular who encouraged me to do less because she saw my craftsmanship was suppressed by a shortage of time to think. She was right; it was just that my exploration of my skills unfolded in a different order than usual. Her concern was well-taken because if I had, for example, needed a primo portfolio to get into a top PhD program that year, it would’ve blown up in my face. I just happened to be in a place and time where it was feasible for me to take a different path.
I also think it's important to remember who feels empowered to stand up and pursue multiple things and throw themselves into stuff. We have to be careful that we don't only give resources to the most assertive voices in the room—nor only to the people we're subtly biased to think have the most to assert! We all have different gifts to share, and it's important to look beyond the most extroverted voices. This is especially true in a field that involves so much self-advocacy and self-promotion.
Do you have any favorite extended flute techniques?
I love multiphonics. The best experience of them, really, is playing them and feeling them. You can hear all these complex difference tones and shadow tones that aren’t loud enough to carry into a hall. The act of exploring them is like learning to hear the resonance of your own body.
Outside of music, what are some other types of art, media, or entertainment that you particularly enjoy?
As I hinted at in the podcast, I like visual art and sculpture and often turn to it for inspiration. I love going to museums, especially with a bunch of really new or really old things.
I’ve also always been drawn to the outdoors--especially points north and points rural. My family is in Vermont and in northern New Hampshire, so when I was young I spent a lot of time just navigating these weird, tranquil, alien landscapes with lots of stones and barren, stark trees and unusual wildflowers. I love landscapes like that.
(I should say I also spent a lot of time inside playing video games and practicing scales, mind you. I think I sometimes accidentally lead people to believe I was a park ranger or something.)
I saw an Olafur Eliasson exhibit at the Tate Modern last summer that was just transfixing. A lot of the work has to do with aspects of nature, so it really merged both of the above. And there was sort of a specific way you had to move through it, so it was like an experience of visual art unfolding in time. There was also a whole room of Rothkos and a whole room of Richters (his 6 paintings that were a hat tip to John Cage). Music everywhere! Still thinking about it.
Thank you for joining us, Zach!
Zach Sheets is a flutist, composer, and advocate for the arts. He is currently a member of the [Switch~ Ensemble], Duo Axis, and the Cape Symphony Orchestra, where he serves as Principal Flute, Lyndon Paul LoRusso Chair. Freelance engagements include performances with Boston Ballet, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, Chorus Pro Musica, the New World Symphony, the Albany Symphony, the Portland Symphony, Phoenix Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Signal, Slee Sinfonietta, and more.
As a composer, Zach's works have been performed by the Ensemble InterContemporain, Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, and the International Contemporary Ensemble. In November of 2016 he completed a month-long residency with the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne at their renowned FORUM international des jeunes compositeurs, for which his new work,from cairn terrain,was awarded the 1° prix du jury and the 2016 Lorraine Vaillancourt Prize. 2016 also brought a new orchestra commission for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, as part of their 6-city "Made-in-Vermont" tour. Summer engagements include the Spoleto Festival USA, Aldeburgh Festival, Royaumont Voix Nouvelles, Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, ManiFeste-17, Klangspuren Ensemble Modern Academy, Colorado College Music Festival, Ritsos Project, and June in Buffalo Festival.
Zach currently oversees institutional giving for Community Music Center of Boston, the largest external arts education provider to the Boston Public Schools. With a portfolio of nearly $1M annually in gifts, grants, and contributions, his work helps over 4,000 students participate in youth performing arts programs each week. He has successfully acquired funding partnerships for a wide range of organizations with grantors like the National Endowment for the Arts, TD Bank Foundation, Boston Children's Hospital, Howard Gilman Foundation, MAP Fund, Doug Flutie Foundation, Pro Helvetia Foundation, and Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung. Zach is formerly the Managing Director of the Talea Ensemble, and has presented workshops and masterclasses at the National Guild for Community Arts Education, Mannes School of Music, New England Conservatory, Eastman School of Music, Missouri State University, Augustana University, University at Buffalo, and many more. BA, Harvard University. MM, Eastman School of Music. Mentors include Bonita Boyd, Ransom Wilson, Cynthia Meyers, Chaza Czernowin, Robert Morris, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, and more.
Photos by Justin McCallum Photography