February 14-20, 2007

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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

SJSU, Part 2

By Gary Singh

AS I WROTE last week, SJSU is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Since my life would have taken a radically different trajectory had I not set up shop at that university, I feel obligated to further regale y'all with more romantic legends from the bowels of the place.

I told you about the experimental music ensemble called the Gas Chamber Orchestra, an ever-evolving gig we had in the '90s at SJSU. We caused nothing but trouble and I couldn't even begin to count the many instances where certain regulatory officials removed our fliers from the walls. Professors would go out of their way to yank down fliers before every one of our shows because we were having more fun than they were.

One professor who did understand our shtick was a guy named Royal Hartigan. On a trap set, Royal could play four different rhythms at one time, with each of his hands and feet, while simultaneously reading the newspaper and discussing the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. On a piano, he could knock out any '30s swing tune and he also could tap dance with the best of 'em.

You see, much of academia is like being stuck in a fish tank: you have a lot of professors who give up learning once they hit their 50s and they're just waiting around to retire, so they function like dead fish floating on top of the water. Royal was one of the fish who blew up the fish tank, so we naturally hit it off.

Music is the most conservative of all the arts disciplines and some professors think that nothing should be studied except dead Western European composers. That was not the case with Royal. His specialty was World Musics and his plight was the mainstreaming of it all, whether that was Indian snake charmer sounds, West African percussion or Korean court music. He would invite anyone off the street to join together and hear the band. Or hear the band and join together. He was a truly original person in these days where it's so hard to find a truly original person. He influenced many, many students in that place, including me.

For one class, the final was to go bowling in the halls of the music department, with Royal standing there at the end of the hall as the sole bowling pin. We wound up busting a few holes in the walls before the smog cleared on that one.

For a gig in one of Royal's other classes in 1996, I made a motor-driven skateboard and rode it through the classroom while drinking a glass of wine, crashing into several desks in the process. The motor broke down and filled the entire classroom with smoke, as everyone else escaped. I had stuck an eggplant on the spindle of the motor and it sprayed everywhere. All this while two other members of the group blasted out a beautiful racket on analog synthesizers.

For that performance, we distributed an elaborate document describing our aesthetics, based on the ideas of poststructuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Royal completely got it, but the students were dazed and confused.

They just didn't understand that the best way to approach our performances was to read them as a challenge: "Pry open the vacant spaces that would enable you to build your life and those of the people around you into a plateau of intensity that would leave afterimages of its dynamism that could be reinjected into still other lives, creating a fabric of heightened states between which any number, the greatest number, of connecting routes would exist." In other words, heist an element of the performance that you either like or dislike, and incorporate it into whatever you want. We stole ideas from everywhere else and were more than happy to return the favor. In fact, that's pretty much my attitude with this column as well.

And it all began at SJSU, so I have them to thank. I wish that institution a long, prosperous future—may it last another 150 years.

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