Payton MacDonald is a composer, improviser, percussionist, singer, educator, filmmaker, ultra-distance mountain biker. MacDonald was a founding member of new-music chamber orchestra superstars Alarm Will Sound and has also toured internationally as a solo marimbist and as a member of various chamber ensembles including Galaxy Percussion, NJPE, Present Music, and Verederos. He has commissioned many works from today’s leading composers, including Charles Wuorinen, Don Freund, and Elliott Sharp. He studied music at the University of Michigan the Eastman School of Music. He also studied Dhrupad vocal with the Gundecha Brothers. MacDonald spent nine months in India as a Senior Fulbright-Nehru Fellow. He is currently a full professor of music at William Paterson University and is a Co-Artistic Director of SHASTRA, an organization that brings together the music of India and the West.

This interview has been edited for length and concision.

Annie Corrigan: I’m a huge fan of the ensemble you helped form, Alarm Will Sound. Acoustica is still on my regular rotation of albums. Can you briefly describe the process of forming that group?

Payton Macdonald: We were all graduate students at the Eastman School of Music, and we had founded a student-run organization called Ossia. (Ossia is still in existence several generations later.) When we all got close to graduating we realized that there was a powerful musical and social bond within the core group of musicians and we decided to turn it into a professional organization. At the time there were no other professional chamber orchestras in the U.S. solely devoted to contemporary music, so it was exhilarating. We all had a passion for the unknown and an adventurous spirit artistically, and the great music of our time beckoned to us.

AC: Bicycles and percussion seem like a match made in heaven. How does your riding influence your music?

PM: It’s like a Venn Diagram. There are aspects of each discipline that are separate, but there’s a large central area where they overlap and are virtually the same. The similarities are in the experience of flow state, of doing things under one’s own power, discipline, balance, rhythm, and exploring the unknown.

AC: What did you learn about yourself and your music while in India? Why does that music speak to you?

PM: Indian classical music is the most elemental form of music I have yet discovered. We explore the very fundamentals of sound, of vibration, at its most basic level. The principles are quite simple and can be explained in a few minutes, but the processes for developing those principles are infinite and allow for many lifetimes of exploration and growth. The mystery of improvisation, the power of justly tuned intervals, and the fact that Indian music (and Dhrupad in particular) is a form of yoga, Naad Yoga, or the yoga of sound, all speak to me. I need it. We all need it. The world is a much better place with Indian music in it.

AC: An overly-broad question… What do all musics have in common?

PM: Vibrations. The world is made of vibrations, and since music is fundamentally made of vibrations, the world is inherently musical. There are different styles and cultures and traditions, but ultimately it’s all vibrations.

Payton MacDonald At Sound Symposium XIX*

  • Concert — Monday, July 9 at 8:00pm (LSPU Hall)
  • Film, Sonic Divide — Monday, July 9 at 10:30pm (NIFCO)

See the complete list of SSXIX artists, as well as the full schedule and ticket information.

*Times and locations subject to change.