Music director’s influences range from Bach to Zappa


By Albert Amateau

The journey that brought Menon Dwarka to Greenwich House Music School as director earlier this month started in Toronto with a teenage interest in rock guitar and Frank Zappa that grew into a passion for modern classical music. Along the way, he composed electronic music and sound design for TV commercials and then directed music education at the 92nd St. Y and later at the Harlem School of the Arts.

For Dwarka, born in Georgetown, Guyana, into an Indian family that moved when he was a baby to Toronto, music is a unique way to connect with world culture over the ages.

“It’s really about integrating music into a broad survey of what the world has to offer,” he told a visitor to the school at 46 Barrow St. two weeks ago. “If you study most other arts, you don’t really have the hand of the master guiding you. But if you study music, you could be playing pieces by the great masters. Mozart, Bach and Beethoven wrote pieces that a one-year piano student could play. All you have to do is spend some time at a place like Greenwich House Music School,” he said.

With a faculty of about 50 instructors, Greenwich House Music School has 520 students ranging in ages from 3 years old to seniors — from beginner to advanced — in classes and private lessons, in piano, voice, violin and viola, cello, clarinet, flute, guitar, five-string banjo, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, harp and the Chinese qin, a seven-string plucked instrument.

When he was in the ninth grade, Dwarka recalled, he had read in a rock magazine that Frank Zappa’s favorite music was something called “The Rite of Spring,” so he asked his music teacher if she knew about it.

“She asked me if I could read music, and I said, yes. She gave me the score of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ — schools in Toronto had music that students could borrow — and she told me to go home and listen to it and follow the score. I did, and I knew that I wanted to be a composer,” he said.

Dwarka went to the University of Toronto where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He then went to SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island to study electronic music. But before he finished his Ph.D., Rocket Music, which produced electronic music and sound designs for commercials, offered him a job. Someone in the company had heard a piece he composed at Stony Brook and the job was too intriguing to pass up.

“They gave me a studio with all this equipment and told me I’d have to learn it on my own and that I would be competing with other people on the staff,” Dwarka said. “I won my first spot, but there were a lot of misses,” he said. Among his “hits” were a sound design for a Pepsi commercial and music for a Super Bowl spot.

Some of the work involved electronic versions of orchestral music with real acoustic instruments.

“The sound of the instruments is not the problem,” he said. “But it’s hard to make it sound like it’s being played by real musicians and not like a computer with just the right pitch and tempo. Your ears get tuned to the subtleties and you have to keep adjusting the sound until it tastes right.”

But after Sept. 11, 2001, the business market declined and so did advertising budgets, and Rocket Music petered out.

In 2003, Dwarka got a job directing music technology at the 92nd St. Y, and in 2004 became director of music education at the great Upper East Side cultural institution. Dwarka said that he became frustrated because, while the Y emphasized its renowned lecture and concert programs, it did not seem serious about teaching music to children. Dwarka accepted an offer from the Harlem School of the Arts to direct its music program in 2006.

Organized in 1964, the Harlem school was a beloved institution in the community and had a great faculty, Dwarka said. Unfortunately, the school began showing financial weakness and frequently delayed making its payroll; Dwarka reluctantly decided to leave after three years. Earlier this year, a friend told him about the Greenwich House Music School opening and he got the job.

“Being here at Greenwich House in the Village with its great tradition as a center of the arts is wonderful,” he told The Villager. “We’re living in a time of change in technology, the arts and education and this is a great place to meet the future.”