Mulit-instrumentalist Mark Zelesky's avant-garde sensibilities inform not only his musical arrangements but also his original compositions. As a university music librarian, he's entrusted with curating the sheet music collection at Rowan, which also gives him plenty of opportunities to rediscover art and artists.
A well-traveled artist in his own right, Zelesky discusses his creative influences, musical performance projects, and how Collingswood is a novelty that makes him feel like he's lived here all his life.
Collingswood Patch: Tell me about your education and how it affected your musical career.
Mark Zelesky: I went to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. I got degrees in literature and saxophone performance. I studied 20th English literature and a lot of the music I was performing was from the 20th century as well. So I felt like it really enriched my understanding of culture.
I also went to school in Baton Rouge, LA, for library science.
Patch: How does living in Collingswood compare with places like those?
Zelesky: Well, I [also] lived in Washington, DC, for two years, and the downtown here reminds me of Old Town Alexandria. The little shops....somehow I wonder how it still exists the way it does! All these small store fronts. So many vintage shops, it's surprising.
And the music store! I went there and I bought like three instruments. I go in there all the time just to look at what they have. And they have a sitar! Who has a sitar?! So, I would say there was no culture shock. When I came here it was like I was restarting my life, honestly. I felt comfortable here the day I moved in.
Patch: In your day job, you work in the Rowan University music library. Tell me about the collection there.
Zelesky: It's a fairly small collection, but growing. There are a lot of compositions by Rowan faculty that aren't [found] anywhere else in the world. Apart from that, it's just a small collection that['s] trying to serve the undergraduate students.
It's all sheet music. We're in the music school, so we're where you can go to get a score, what ever you're looking for. It's mostly classical music, but we have a quite a bit of pop music as well.
The person who's doing collection management, she bought all these interesting people's music. Like, we have Laura Nyro's Greatest Hits, Aerosmith, Spiro Gyra, and just a lot of the big pop performers of the '70s, we have their piano anthologies.
I'm using something from the collection for a recital I'm doing, we have The Piano Works of John Cage. It's meant for toy piano that has eight keys. It's amazing.
Patch: What instruments do you play?
Zelesky: I play a lot of keyboards. A lot of toy piano, I have two toy pianos. I've got an electric reed organ from the Magnus company from the 60's.
I have a Wurlitzer electric piano from the 60's, lime green; it's my prized position. I have a lot of synthesizers. I've played a lot of synthesized harpsichord in my day. I once covered Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" with a baroque harpsichord sound.
There's something called a stylophone which is a synth that uses a pen; David Bowie used it in "Space Odyssey". I've got one of those.
Then there's the woodwinds; that's what I mainly do. Saxophone is what I went to college for, and I was also principal oboist in high school. I play the clarinet, too. I also play the recorder a lot. I'm trying to use it in a lot of contemporary contexts. It can really add a nice color. I did a Nico cover recently, "Fairest of the Seasons," and I used a recorder trio instead of strings to add a really nice pastoral feeling.
I've used my bed in recordings in place of a timpani because it's actually pitched in D. Oddly enough, my mattress, when I pound it, is D. It's a low D. So I used a vocoder to transpose it to different notes around it for this ballet that I did.
I guess that's it!
Patch: Tell me about some of your current music and art projects.
Zelesky: I'm trying to get a salon started in Philadelphia where it would be artists of all kinds getting together who are interested in the avant-garde, in pushing forward the arts. And it would be a workshop situation where it's for the artists instead of being a performance.
So you would go there, and say you have some ideas about a dance and you think it might go well with music, you start talking to people and you say, “I have this dance. Here are my ideas.” And then you can just share ideas and work on it right there. The idea is to really cross-pollinate all the arts.
Also, I play with the band Beta Test (play one of their tracks above—ed.). We play a lot of video game music and other geek music. We do Zelda, Final Fantasy, Tetris, Pokemon, and Sonic. And we do the Dr. Who theme. They're centered in Philly; with them I mainly play soprano sax. But it's all brass instruments right now with a drummer, so it can be quite raucous. It's a French horn, a trombone, a tuba, and a saxophone.
Then there's also Murmuration, which is classical improvised music. The word murmuration actually means, “flock of starlings.” They all move like a cloud without any communication. There's no noise. They're just all flying and you see a cloud just shifting and forming these shapes.
So that's kind of how we view the music: we don't dictate much beforehand. We might say, “Let's start out being very atonal and let's move to something tonal.” We just start wherever and then we come together.
Or we could start and say, “Each player must be silent for 40% of the time.” And that will be the only criterion. And it's amazing what we come up with. There's a tenor, he often takes words from the audience, or from dating profiles and sings them in this operatic way. Then there is a violinist and cellist, they're kind of the backbone, they just blend together really well. I play mainly clarinet.
Patch: Who are your biggest artistic/musical influences?
Zelesky: Cyndi Lauper, very much so. She's been through so many phases where no one’s cared what she's doing, but she still manages to consistently put out these cutting-edge things even though nobody knows.
Steve Reich, he's a minimalist composer. He's one of the most inspiring composers. His music just has this feeling of the city. You listen to it and you feel like have to go!
Patch: What are your impressions of the music/arts scene in this area (South Jersey/Philly) as it compares to say Baton Rouge, or Illinois?
Zelesky: I do notice that more restaurants in this area have live music than any other area I've been in. And Philly is like a whole other world from any other place. It's so experimental!
What I've talked about with a lot of people is that it's so cheap to live in Philadelphia that you can have six people that are age 22-25 living in a place together, spending $200 a month on rent, and just making art. So, this is where the fringe of America is, I think.
Patch: Do you have a particular mission as an artist?
Zelesky: I think what my mission is is to completely expose myself through my art in order that other people may have the opportunity to see that in somebody. So that maybe it will inspire them to have a little more transparency in themselves.
And, I always think of it in terms of, "What new sounds can I bring to the music?" "What haven't I done in an arrangement that I could do now?" "What does this piece call for?" I always try to incorporate something new, some new texture, so that it's something nobody's heard. That's my goal, I want to play music that nobody's ever heard before.