By Joel Silverstein
Marimbist Simon Boyar lives in what crafty realtors call a "studio-one-bedroom" off Dekalb Avenue near the Brooklyn-Queens border. His 10-foot-long Yamaha marimba gets the "bedroom," flanked by sound blankets, condenser microphones, and a mountain of mallets. A monitor speaker rests atop a djembe drum.
When he's home, Boyar sleeps on the couch.
Boyar, 29, is at a threshold of sorts. At home in his studio in January, he took a break from travailing over his computer monitor to speak with me. He'd been working on his first in a series of four element-related record releases, entitled "Water." The record - pieces from which will premiere at the YBNY Launch Party on April 14 at the Knitting Factory - will be Boyar's first original release.
A few years back, Boyar was in his mid-20s, teaching at Juilliard and NYU, and had been a soloist with symphonies around the world, including Harold Farberman's concerto for marimba and violin - which Boyar debuted in 2007. He had everything.
"I could have easily just rested on my laurels for the rest of my life just based on my technique," he said. "But I was unhappy."
Here was this great player - a relative of late jazz sax player Stan Getz - with no creative outlet. He blew off steam at clubs like the Avalon and Twilo, staying out until 6 or 7 a.m. before rising a few hours later to rehearse a piece. He was conflicted because, though he wanted to have the freedom to create his own compositions, he was afraid to put his work out to the masses. With classical pieces, he could push ownership away from himself, he said.
Boyar had also become disillusioned with the Juilliard establishment's rigid idea of what music was. He recalled one faculty meeting where, after becoming fed-up with the school's denial of whole genres - hip hop and rock - Boyar, who grew up in central New Jersey listening to rock and rap, openly questioned the school's ambivalence toward new music. He equated hip-hop to the "Opera Buffa" of Mozart in his time. They'd only, in the past couple of decades, started to recognize jazz.
One long-time faculty responded, stating that regardless of the popularity of such pop genres, Julliard "had to preserve excellence in music."
"Why can't we do both," he wondered. "How can you think M.I.A. is not a real artist?"
So, at 26, after having been at Julliard for 10 years, first as a student, then as a pre-college percussion instructor, Boyar left the school.
Looking back, he's grateful for his experience at Juilliard. "My hands come from Juilliard," he said. And he remains a fervent supporter of classical music.
"Any artist is like a tapestry," he said, "all these little patches make the quilt. At the middle of the quilt, is classical." Boyar's patches include stints accompanying hip-hop and folk acts, and more recently a partnership with genre-pushing trumpeter and Juilliard classmate Joey Pero. In a show at Joe's Pub with Pero in early January, Boyar accompanied Pero on three tracks, including a lively interpretation of Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo." Along with the live shows, Boyar also produced several of the tracks on Pero's debut release, " Resonance."
At Joe's Pub, Boyar wore a suit with a metallic sheen - a shining metaphor for his stage presence. Boyar and Pero appeared, at times, to become children on a jazz playground, smiling at each other during transitions.
Pero's manager and former Broadway baby, Charles Ressler, who also assists Boyar with certain business related tasks, called Boyar a virtuoso with the potential to turn "marimba" into a household word. And as a producer, Boyar has the ability to "jump into your mind, and listen to what you say," Ressler said.
Back in Brooklyn last week, Boyar discussed other recent triumphs on stage, including the world premiere of a Frank Zappa Concerto last month with an NYU student orchestra. Boyar had to meet with Zappa's second wife - and Zappa Estate executor - Gail Zappa to get the rights to the piece.
"I try to champion him as a composer," Boyar said of Zappa, "not just the 'Titties and Beer.'" He also has an upcoming gig alongside former David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson.
In some ways, "Water" is a representation of Boyar letting go of Juilliard-induced snobbery. It took years for Boyar to get comfortable singing, he said. On the song "Rain," Boyar sings harmonies, beat boxes and plays marimba and other percussion. You've gotta "embrace the rain," he sings. It's his concession that some things are out of his control.
"You can't predict where the raindrops are going to fall," he said last week, looking out to the East River from the Williamsburg waterfront. He hopes to have the entire "Water" record mastered by summer. "Until it's out there and it's alive, you don't have an album." Sometimes, it's best to step away, play a few gigs and "pay the rent," he said, then come back to the recording process fresh.
"This is how you make it," Boyar said. "I've seen big shots who were supposed to make a million dollars fall flat on their face."
The fundamental key, he said, is setting yourself apart.