In 1969, William Zukof helped found The Western Wind, a vocal sextet that continues to spread an appreciation for acapella music throughout Manhattan and the world.
A New York native, he began his musical career as a child on the West Side, studying under esteemed choral director Earl Robinson at the Metropolitan Music School. Highlights on his accomplished resume include performing under Leonard Bernstein at the Vatican and having one of his ensemble’s songs nominated for a Grammy Award.
The Western Wind also holds workshops on ensemble singing for both children and adults, which according to Zukof, participants call “life changing.” As for the future, he said his focus lies in being able to “share the joy of ensemble singing with as many people as we can.”
How did the ensemble come about?Originally it was a collection of young singers who were really interested in early music. That means music of the Renaissance, early Baroque and Medieval music. We were all studying with various teachers.
Explain what The Western Wind is and its purpose.It’s a vocal sextet, acapella. We generally work without instruments, but occasionally we will bring some to play with us. And one of our members plays guitar sometimes with us on certain pieces. But basically it’s six voices, acapella. And the repertoire that’s developed from our additional interest in Renaissance music has expanded to include early American. This is music from the time of the American Revolution and it came out in a very timely fashion in 1973, 1974, when the American Bicentennial was in the air. So we did an LP called “Early American Vocal Music” and lo and behold it was nominated for a Grammy. We’re still performing it. We just performed it at our concert on March 12.
What does the name of the sextet refer to?Well, we all lived on the West Side of Manhattan. It was 1969. Rock groups had names like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Monkees, The Grateful Dead. We wanted a name that was kind of cool. The Western Wind is also a song from the 1500s and a poem. You can see the poem in a lot of poetry anthologies. It was even on the subway’s poetry series. It’s beautiful poem and a beautiful melody goes with it. It just seemed like a great name and we were also living on the West Side. And the name allowed us to expand into contemporary classical music with new works written for us by living composers as well as pop and jazz arrangements. So we do everything now from early medieval music to Billy Joel.
What have been some of your favorite pieces to perform through the years?That’s really hard to say. You know, there’s nothing like Renaissance Italian. We also do some wonderful music by Salamone Rossi, who is a Jewish composer who lived in Mantua. In the Renaissance, music was written by singers for singers. All the composers were singers. So it’s just a wonderfully vocal experience. But then, my other favorite stuff is contemporary, written by living composers. We have a new piece by Meredith Monk called “Basket Rondo” along with Eric Salzman’s “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love.”
You’re a New York native. How do you think Manhattan shapes musicians?I’m from Manhattan. I used to live on 103rd Street and 105th Street. I still have the same ZIP code. I lived on 108th Street, off of Broadway. There’s an incredible mélange of cultures here both musical and in every other way. So we’re all exchanging cultural DNA.
How did you first get involved in music? Did you begin at a young age?Yes, as a child. I went to music school and the choral director was a guy named Earl Robinson. He wrote “Ballad for Americans” and “The Lonesome Train” about Lincoln’s funeral. He also wrote “The House I Live In” and Frank Sinatra sang that. He also wrote, “The ink is black. The page is white. Together we learn to read and write,” after the 1954 desegregation decision of the Supreme Court. He was a politically active composer. And I was in his kids’ choir in the Metropolitan Music School on 74th Street.
Tell us about the members of the ensemble. Is there an audition process?The group ranges in age now from mid-30s to early 60s. People tend to stay with the ensemble for a long because the singers have a lot of input and autonomy. When we needed new members, we would reach out to the singing community, mostly through personal connections. We didn’t have a mass call because what we do is fairly specialized. And New York has a wonderful community of people with great skill. There are a lot of wonderful voices and great musicians but it had to be somebody who wanted to work collaboratively who we would be comfortable with driving in a car with for five to six hours. That’s important.