Using effects pedals and an improvisational approach, electric five-string viola virtuoso Martha Mooke pushes the boundaries of her instrument.
Martha Mooke has always favored the path of most resistance. In elementary school, a teacher from the middle school band came to her class to give the students a test. They could choose to audition for the violin, cello, bass or viola.
Everyone gravitated toward the former three; they weren’t sure what the latter was. Naturally, it was her first choice.
“It really resonated with me, deep in my soul,” says the New York City-based musician. “At one point, the teacher wanted me to switch to the violin. I took it home for the weekend, but I just didn’t connect with the sound. The viola grabbed me, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
This Sunday, April 2, Mooke joins the Pops Orchestra of Bradenton and Sarasota — along with her instrument of choice — in a concert titled “Out of This World!”
Featuring music from pop culture, including “Star Wars,” and “Star Trek,” the concert is aptly named, but for more than one reason. Mooke’s early fascination with straying from the beaten path led her to carve out her own performance style — also described as otherworldly.
In high school, Mooke discovered the music of Jean-Luc Ponty. The French jazz violinist was experimenting with electronics and five-stringed instruments. Inspired to test the boundaries of classical instruments, she picked up the electric five-string viola.
“In high school, I started exploring,” she says. “It took quite a while to really discover my musical voice, because there was no reference point in school. We learned classical and music theory, and I explored on my own. There was nobody really playing five-string electric viola. I started using effects pedals, toying with different sounds and creating my own material by improvising and composing.”
She’s earned a reputation for her unique style, in which she uses effects, including harmonizers, which electronically create harmonized lines to accompany her playing; loopers, which repeat a played portion of music indefinitely; and expression pedals that control the amount of each effect being used.
Amplifying her custom instrument, she blends her classical training with elements of jazz, avant garde — even rock ’n’ roll. She’s performed with musicians Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Trey Anastasio, Patti Smith and more, and she also shares her improvisational knowledge with students and teachers as a clinician.
Robyn Bell, conductor of the Pops Orchestra of Bradenton and Sarasota, says she was drawn to Mooke’s cutting-edge approach to music.
“If you think about the way someone like Eddie Van Halen approached the guitar, you can see similarities in the way Martha approaches viola,” says Bell. “Imagine that same approach with an orchestral instrument and a symphony orchestra behind you. It’s pop art meets classical art. My responsibility as a conductor is to show audiences new music.”
The program will feature two original compositions by Mooke, including the three-movement “X-Ing” and the orchestral premiere of the ordinarily solo piece “Virtual Corridors II.” Pops members will also join her for improvisational passages.
“I hope it defies any expectations,” says Mooke. “Sometimes people are hesitant to attend a new music concert, but my music can take audiences to a place within themselves they may not have known they had access to. It’s more than going and listening to concert; it’s an experience and a whole new way of hearing music.”