Melding Music

Mark Zaki first performed this mixed media composition “no one can hear you dream” in 2012 as part of his Fulbright Scholar award at the University of Sheffield in England.

By Sam Starnes

Mark Zaki was only 4 years old when a musical instrument caught his eye—and his ear. “I wanted to play trumpet because it was shiny and loud,” said Zaki, an associate professor of music at Rutgers University–Camden. But his father, a teaching physician with a love for classical music, had other ideas. “He stuck a violin under my neck.”

Zaki excelled at the violin as a child in Minneapolis and later learned guitar in high school in New Jersey, where he became enamored with electronic musical sounds from a synthesizer. His musical interests progressed at Rutgers–New Brunswick as a dual major in music and electrical engineering. He dropped engineering studies, but went on to earn a doctor of musical arts in the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers–New Brunswick and a Ph.D. at Princeton University in music composition. At Princeton, he met noted Hollywood composer Paul Chihara who introduced him to scoring screenplays. “I got hooked on this idea of film and music,” Zaki said, adding that he found it liberating. “The nice thing about film is that I could channel Brahms if I wanted, or I could go more experimental and do Radiohead.”

Chihara encouraged him to work in Los Angeles, and from 1997 through 2008, Zaki lived and worked in the heart of the film industry, earning credits on more than 50 films, TV programs, and theater productions. His credits include scores for companies such as PBS, Disney, and others. Notable projects he was involved in include Martin Scorsese’s The Key to Reserva, the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet, and the American release of the Japanese anime Kiki’s Delivery Service. While in Los Angeles, Zaki also composed the score the Peabody Award-nominated documentary The Political Doctor Seuss for Independent Lens.

Scoring music for film, however, is only one aspect of Zaki’s musical resume. He has released three albums and continues to compose and perform, and his music has been presented frequently at festivals in the United States, France, and other countries. Many of his compositions are electroacoustic music—an experimental, cutting-edge art form of music—and mixed-media compositions that meld computer-generated sounds, violin and other instruments, images, and words. “It’s a way of putting all my hats on one head,” he said. “It’s satisfying because I get to tell a story and I get to draw pictures and I get to score my own movie.”

Zaki, who lives in Princeton, joined the Rutgers–Camden faculty in 2008. In his classes, which cover music technology and composition, he often introduces electroacoustic music to students. “It’s a fertile field,” he said. “You can define your own aesthetic. You don’t have 300 years of tradition sitting on your shoulders.”

Zaki also curates the Electric Café, a series of noted electroacoustic musicians and composer who perform free concerts in the Black Box Studio on the Rutgers-Camden campus. His performance on April 22 will be the last of the spring 2019 series. While electroacoustic music is unlike anything heard on FM radio, Zaki encourages fans of music to give it a try. “If you are uninitiated or it’s a new world for you, it may be hard to listen to,” he said. “You can’t listen to this with the same ears that we use to listen to traditional music. It’s challenging. Some of the performances are fun, but none of the concerts are pop music, which is what many people’s worldview is. My goal is to make that worldview bigger.”

To see and hear Zaki’s compositions, visit

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