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Classical Sauce

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LAST WEEK, I preached punk rock, and now let me sermonize on classical music. When Brent Heisinger, an old music-theory professor of mine, invited me to a Meet the SJSU Music Faculty soiree in the Almaden hills, I just couldn't resist. The event was the first in a series of fundraising endeavors for the School of Music and Dance at SJSU. Heisinger said that since the California State University system is pretty much broke, the campus can no longer rely solely on state funds. So he's pounding the pavement on a mission of philanthropy. He says the department needs about a million bills.

I was by far the youngest person attending the event, which took place at Alex Stepovich's gargantuan house in the hills above Graystone Avenue in south San Jose. It was a classical music "salon" just like one might have attended in Paris, circa 1910 or so.

SJSU piano faculty member Gwendolyn Mok specializes in the music of early-20th-century French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, so she gave the audience of 50 an in-depth look at the interdisciplinary nature of those composers and their inspiration. She played Ravel's Ondine, part of his masterpiece, Gaspard de la Nuit, based on sinister phantasmagorical texts by the macabre French prose-poet Aloysius Bertrand. She read the poem and then performed the work, the story of which features a water nymph trying to seduce the author. Pretty dark stuff, might I add.

Mok did the same for Debussy's piece, The Island of Joy, inspired by Watteau's painting Embarkation for the Island of Cythera. She performed the piece to soaring applause. The presentation really made one want to further research the pieces, and the audience took away an in-depth feel for what salons in early-20th-century France really were about: avant-garde artists of different disciplines influencing each other.

After all, when it comes to eras like Paris the 1920s, Berlin in the 1930s and Greenwich Village in the 1940s, you saw scenarios where composers boozed it up with painters, dancers traded ideas with poets and everyone was familiar with each other's work. Sadly, those types of interdisciplinary creative exchanges don't really exist anymore. The Pacific Art Collective is accomplishing the equivalent in underground urban youth circles; in fact they've even taken it on the road to promote Silicon Valley, but you don't see it in the art-music circles at all.

With all due respect to the SJSU School of Music, I along with many other students tried to encourage just such collaborations while we were there, but the music faculty shafted us at each and every turn. They were irrationally against multidepartmental collaboration.

What Pacific Art Collective does now is exactly what we tried to do in the School of Music in 1993—to stage a series of multidisciplinary art "happenings" in the style of the '60s where artists of any discipline could show up and do whatever they wanted. We actually pulled it off once, and it blossomed into a 10-hour overnight party in the Music Building Concert Hall. But the faculty put a stop to the whole idea because, simply, we were having more fun than they were.

That was a decade ago, and I can't speak for what's going on there now, but wouldn't you just love to see Silicon Valley known for something else besides Intel and eBay? You have a university that's trying to become a metropolitan entity, so its artistic endeavors should be a full-force factor in that equation. The university is finally trying to reconnect with the Silicon Valley community, and classical music salons like these are wholly representative of that. You learn a lot about what the music professors are up to these days. Some of them are pretty bloody famous.

And no, classical music is not just for stuffed shirts. Gaspard de la Nuit exuded more black-magic punk rock in its time than anything the Vans Warped Tour will ever come up with.

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From the April 27-May 3, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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