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Mock-Speed Recital

[whitespace] Gary Singh & Ryan Torchia
Lauren Barack

Take a Bow: Musical anarchists Gary Singh (right) and Ryan Torchia with one of their creations.

SJSU music students seek to offend with experimental noise

By Lauren Barack

SOMEONE IS ripping down flyers for the next recital by the Gas Chamber Orchestra as fast as San Jose State University music student Gary Singh can put them up. It's not just the group's provocative name. "The pictures of the babies offend them," figures Singh, 29, one of the orchestra's founders.

It's actually a dead baby on the flyer--and being offensive is exactly Singh's plan. The group's first show took place right after an execution by the state of California, and it adopted the name Gas Chamber Orchestra to "offend" and mock the more formal offerings of SJSU's music department. As a result, the orchestra counts few fans at the school.

For the past six years, Singh and his ragtag bunch of SJSU music students have irritated almost all who come within hearing range of their performances. Lawnmowers, pasta makers, power tools and cars have all played a part in their "experimental noise" sessions, during which audience members can join in and are encouraged to bring ear plugs.

Many of their instruments are constructed in a workshop tucked down a long hallway at the school. Inside, Singh points to a washing-machine engine duct-taped to a piece of wood. A metal horn protrudes from an empty Yuban can, and a missing piece is designed to shoot "things" at the audience--what exactly, Singh can't remember. It's the motor that provides the sound. "The horn is just there to look musical," Singh says. "It makes no difference if we really play music."

"But it does makes an interesting noise," adds Ryan H. Torchia, 27, the second member of the orchestra. Torchia is the theorist of the two--interested in how people perceive the group's music. Singh is the showman, with a deep booming voice, a nervous laugh and an irritating habit of repeating himself. In fewer than 10 minutes, he describes himself as the "Howard Stern of experimental music" four times. The third member, Mark Grey, has already graduated, but is coming back for the group's last show; Michael Andrade, the fourth, died two years ago.

"It's a rehash of the '60s," says Allen Strange, one of Singh's thesis advisors and a professor at SJSU for 30 years. "I was doing the same thing at his age." But Singh and Torchia aren't sure they claim that era as their primary influence and instead mention everyone from Laurie Anderson to John Cage. For them, it's just easier to describe the shows--one in which they cooked eggs onstage, one to which no one came and one during which a woman suffered minor hearing loss. "That was an accident," Torchia insists.

Yet accidents are the root of their music. "Like jazz," says Royal Hartigan, 51, who is a lecturer at the school and who will play drums during the performance. "It's very creative. They've got the same risk mentality," he explains. "But [the show] won't sound anything like that."

The Gas Chamber Orchestra's last performance is Thursday (May 14) at 7:30pm in the Music Concert Hall, San Jose State University. Admission is free.

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From the May 14-20, 1998 issue of Metro.

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