Martha Mooke

Martha Mooke
(Photo: Tina Fineberg)

Acclaimed for her electrifying performances and compositions, pioneering electro-acoustic violist, Martha Mooke is highly regarded for her artistry, educational programs and music advocacy. She transcends musical boundaries, enhancing classical training with extended techniques, technology and improvisation.

A Yamaha Artist and leading clinician on electric and progressive string playing, Mooke has toured with Barbra Streisand, Peter Gabriel, Andrea Bocelli and Star Wars in Concert and performed with David Bowie, Philip Glass, Elton John, Trey Anastasio, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson, Tony Bennett, Patti Smith and many others.

Mooke is Founder and Artistic Director of the Scorchio Quartet featured on David Bowie’s Heathen CD. Scorchio is the house quartet of the annual Tibet House Benefit Concerts at Carnegie Hall produced by Philip Glass.

Mooke's critically acclaimed, genre-defying recordings, Enharmonic Vision and Bowing’s Cafe Mars (with guitarist Randolph Hudson), include her latest CD, No Ordinary Window, produced by multi Grammy winner Cynthia Daniels.

Mooke received the prestigious ASCAP Concert Music Award for creating and producing ASCAP's new music showcase THRU THE WALLS featuring composer/performers whose work defies categorization. She serves on the Grammy Career Day and Advocacy Committees of the Recording Academy and on the Composers Now Advisory Board.


Why do you make music?

For me, making music is the way I feed my creative spirit. It’s a reverse form of nourishment. I give out to take in. This takes many forms: playing viola in an orchestra or string quartet, premiering a new work for electric viola, improvising (from free improv to soloing with a rock or fusion band), leading an educational workshop and composing.

What music do you make?

I make music. Mostly instrumental, usually including improvisation and some form of electronics, although I have composed works for ensembles that are either all acoustic or the ensemble is acoustic and the soloist (usually me) is playing an electric instrument with electronic processing. The three recordings I have released featuring electric viola, Enharmonic Vision, No Ordinary Window and Cafe Mars (duo with electric guitarist Randolph Hudson) do not subscribe to any preconceived genre.

How do you make music?

As a performer, usually playing my viola or one of my electric violas, either acoustically or processed through effects. I also make music for others to interpret - in the role of composer. One of my favorite ways of making music is a combination of both.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

I suppose that is up to each person’s interpretation of what ‘music’ is, or is not. Some may say if it doesn’t have a melodic, harmonic or rhythmic structure it isn’t music. Many composers have been accused of their work not being ‘music’ because it didn’t fit into previously established rules for organized sound.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engineer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I would say I am all of the above. I started out as a performer and as my horizons broadened and musical palette expanded I became an improviser, composer, then, mostly out of necessity as I was delving into the world of electronics, I became a technologist and engineer. Except for formal viola studies, the rest is pretty much self taught - many hours of experimenting and trial and error!

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are somehow (consciously or unconsciously) influenced by what we’ve heard or experienced. Regarding my work, rather than cultural context, I would say ‘conceptual context’. I tend to think conceptually when working on a new composition.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

Most importantly, I would/could not be doing what I do if not for the viola as my primary instrument. Sitting in an orchestra and experiencing music from inside (the inner voices) out has been invaluable. Mastering the electronics I employ in my music, to the extent of the “gear” becoming an extension of my instrument has been very significant in my creative outflow. Beyond those skills, having an open mind and healthy curiosity to explore new sonic realms is extremely important for one’s musical evolution.

How do you relate to your extended instrument?

This is from a blog I wrote for Eventide: “When composing the title track of my new solo electric viola CD, "No Ordinary Window," I considered the Eventide H9 to be a member of my ensemble, a collaborating player/instrument. Although technically written for a solo instrument, the work is essentially chamber music. On the recording, and perhaps better illustrated when played live, the music on the page takes on a multidimensionality, incorporating harmonization, rhythmic complexity, as well as expanding and enhancing the natural sound of the viola.”

In what ways do controllers and/or software contribute to your live music-making?

When I perform live, all the sounds are created real time - no pre-recorded tracks or sequences. I use a selection of multi effects processors (typically stomp boxes or foot pedals) and a stereo looper. I connect volume and expression pedals to modify settings on the fly. I’ve used MaxMSP, mainly to control multi channel audio for a large scale work like “Dreaming in Sound”.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

One of my most popular workshops is called “The Power of Strings: Plugging In!” I suggest all musicians plug in, or at least give it a try! I would also add: be inspired by, but really try not to let the technology drive your creative output. Use the technology as a tool to evolve and be part of the creative process, being mindful that if the power fails, YOU are the musician, not the technology.