Features & Columns

Trip to Banff Center Inspires a SJSU Nonconformist

The anti-man-about-town takes a trip to the Banff Centre, a world-renowned multidisciplinary arts incubator in the Canadian Rockies, where he reflects on his days at SJSU.
Banff Centre PEAK EXPERIENCE: The jagged granite looming over the Banff Centre conjures up Mt. Hamilton's aerie over Silicon Valley.

The anti-man-about-town is starting to grow up. Instead of his travel providing release from repressed high school suffering in San Jose, his travel is now inspiring him to banish the repressed misery from his college days in San Jose.

A recent rampage through the Banff Centre, a world-renowned multidisciplinary arts incubator in the Canadian Rockies, convinced him that he should not grovel over squandered Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees. At SJSU, he had been one of those punks who refused to function in a specific discipline—you know, like music composition, UNIX hacking, visual art or creative writing.

Instead, he occupied the routes between all the pigeonholes, peeking inside each one enough to take what he needed, all the while knowing in his heart that it would probably ruin his chances of ever remaining in academia to teach anything.

At that time, in 1995, he first visited the Banff Centre, while working with one of his SJSU professors and committee members, Allen Strange, in order to help administrate an annual International Computer Music Conference, a job he performed for the last half of that decade.

Even then, he found the Banff Centre to be a wildly inspiring place, a creative mountain vortex where artists of every discipline showed up to do residencies and inspire each other. Everyone seemed to operate outside of traditional academic compartmentalization.

Not to dismiss specialization; rather, the Banff Centre seemed to attract those traveling the routes between the pigeonholes. The anti-man-about-town felt at home in such a place, even if it was a temporary visit for a conference as part of his job at SJSU.

As that conference did every year, the 1995 Banff installment provided all the flourishes of art-and-technology crossover he desired: Electronic music composers collaborated with modern dancers. Audio engineers joined forces with violinists. Music professors got hammered with LISP programmers. Our pals from Stanford delivered scientific papers with exotic titles like: "Digital Waveguide Modeling of the Non-Linear Excitation of Single Reed Woodwind Instruments." Or: "Toward a CLM Sound Localization Instrument Employing Modified Wavefront Reconstruction."

Most of the folks involved were experts in their fields, but still seemed to reap more inspiration exploring the routes between the academic pigeonholes, a phenomenon already exemplified by the Banff Centre itself. The interdisciplinary creative spirit exemplified by the centre anticipates/mirrors/reflects the dialogues of San Jose's ZERO1 Biennial, which comes back in mid-September.

Somehow, I survived that era with a Master of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, which actually said "Art & Technology," on a piece of paper, although there was no possible use for such a degree. That is, until I started writing. Then it all came back.

So when I returned to the Banff Centre earlier this month, it was my first time since 1995, and the campus was even better than 17 years ago. Craggy mountain peaks and a crisp summer breeze enveloped the place. Deer walked around everywhere. I felt like the natural environment was just as much of a creative guide as were my professors, way back in college.

On my visit this time, so much was transpiring that it was impossible to keep track of it all: opera, sculpture, critical theory, jazz, dance, leadership seminars and film sound design were among the activities in full force. The anti-man-about-town felt more than inspired to write down his experiences. He felt like everything had come full circle, like all that rebellion against the pigeonholes was a good thing and he needed to write it all down. He no longer felt alone.

There's a saying out there in nature that when the student is ready, the teachers—all of them—will reappear. I feel like right now is one of those times. I write this because I know there exist readers who feel disenfranchised from previous parts of their lives, wondering if they wasted their SJSU years obtaining a degree they never used for anything.

To them, I say, explore. Through travel and writing this column, there is no longer any need for the anti-man-about-town to consider whether he wasted those college years. He has found a way to utilize the routes between the pigeonholes. He thinks there just might be a redemptive power in storytelling. Try it. If it helped this punk from SJSU, it can help you, too.