Creating the 21st Century Musician at DePauw in the 20th Century

Still from "le violoncelle de Silpayamanant" Experimental video short from 2001. First shown during a live multimedia installation performance by Jon Silpayamanant at the Emerson Art Gallery, DePauw University in 2002.
Still from “le violoncelle de Silpayamanant” Experimental video short from 2001. First shown during a live multimedia installation performance by Jon Silpayamanant at the Emerson Art Gallery, DePauw University in 2002.

In yesterday’s Indianapolis Star there was a piece about my alma mater, the DePauw University School of Music: $15 million gift to DePauw University to revamp music school for 21st century. (see also Dean McCoy’s post and Greg Sandow’s post) From the School of Music website we have a description of their new initiative:

The 21st Century Musician Initiative is a complete re-imagining of the skills, tools and experiences necessary to create musicians of  the future instead of the past—flexible, entrepreneurial musicians  that find diverse musical venues and outlets in addition to traditional performance spaces, develop new audiences and utilize their music innovatively to impact and strengthen communities.

I wish this would have happened while I was there, but also, in a way I’m glad it didn’t.  While I was a student there, and despite the more traditional conservatory-like experience which often felt a bit stifling, I was invigorated while I discovered a world of possibilities.  I’m pretty sure I was a frustrating student to many of my professors (including my cello prof, Eric Edberg) but I think most of them survived me–hah!

I thought I’d take this opportunity to blog a bit about my overall impressions of my undergrad music school experiences (and some beyond) since I’ve been reconnecting with it in various ways recently.

The DePauw Symphony Orchestra (Orcenith Smith)

While I’d had the opportunity to perform some contemporary orchestral works before my college years with the Floyd County Youth Symphony (where I’m currently a staff sectional coach) where we performed a premiere of Jim Stanton’s “Midwest” and Sammuel Addler’s “Summer Stock Overture” (with the composer at the baton at California State at Wayward), it was really my Freshman year at DePauw which opened my eyes to some of the wonderful contemporary repertoire for Symphony Orchestra (1990-1991 season) written by living (or recently deceased) composers.  The DePauw Symphony Orchestra performed a new composition or 20th century work on every program, including one concert that was all 20th century works.  The Orchestra won an ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming for that year.  Here’re the works:

James Hirt “Reflection” (1989), Christopher Rouse “The Infernal Machine (1986), Orcenith Smith “An Odd Moment” premiere (1990), Morton Gould “Flourishes and Galop” (1983); John Adams “Tromba Lontana” (1986), Mark Phillips “Turning” (1986), David Ott “The Water Garden” (1985), Joseph Schwantner “New Morning for the World” for Narrator and Orchestra (1982)

These were on the six full orchestra concerts we performed.  These concerts also included more standard 20th century repertoire by Stravinsky, Bernstein, Copland, Rachmaninoff, Prokofieff, Menotti, Vaughan Williams, and Kabalevsky as well as some older chesnuts.

The two joint end-of-semester Orchestral/Choir concerts featured Benjamin Britten’s “St. Nicholas Cantata” (1948) and Maurice Duruflé’s “Requiem” (1947) and the touring DePauw Chamber Orchestra’s program 912 concerts) included a program of early twentieth century works (Henry Cowell, Ravel, Berstein, Copland, Stravinsky) bookended by Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” Overture and Beethoven’s first symphony.

So, in the 20 orchestral concerts I performed in my freshman year nearly all the works were 20th century compositions, and many of those were works composed within ten years of our performances.  The DSO went on to perform many other premieres and works by Dr. David Ott (composition professor and composer-in-residence with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra) though none of the programming quite matched that 90-91 season.

Maximum Security Chamber

This was probably my first band–a composer formed ensemble led by Eric Chesney, a composition major.  We organized and performed a few shows in music school as well as at The Broken Spoke (a “pub” type restaurant found in the campus Student Union Building).  We also, informally, performed Eric’s senior composition recital in 1993.  Our instrumentation included saxophone, flute, strings, as well as a Fender Rhodes which was a bear to haul around!

DePauw Contemporary Ensemble

This was the resident ensemble of the 20th Century Music Literature Class taught by Dr. Carla Edwards.  Obviously the roster rotated by class but many students were allowed to be involved in the concerts the group put on and I often sat in on classes and occasionally gave talks about what was then the latest trends in new music and the intersection between performance art, dance, experimental theater, and non-academic experimental music.  While I participated in the concerts I performed works by Harry Partch, Cathy Berberian, John Cage, and text/sound pieces by Fluxus artist Jackson Mac Low and Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters.  We also premiered one of my compositions, “Tao of Mu: Better Living Through Non-Lexical Communication” (for amplified horn, keyboard, voices, turntables and electronics, found percussion, magnetic tape) in 1999 which I had written for Robert Garcia.

Premiere of Jon Silpayamanant's "Tao of Mu: Better Living Through Non-Lexical Communication" at DePauw University, 1999
Premiere of Jon Silpayamanant’s “Tao of Mu: Better Living Through Non-Lexical Communication” at DePauw University, 1999

Here’s an excerpt of the group performing Terry Riley’s “in C” (1964):

Chamber Vocal Music

Barbara Paré started offering a Vocal Chamber Music class.  I had started working with a mezzo-soporano student, Kate Haynes by that point as I wanted to explore repertoire for cello and vocals (of course now I get to do that alone as I sing and play the cello quite often).  We did end up performing a recital in May of 1996 which included one contemporary work by James Mulholland– his “Four Love Songs” (1983) for voice, cello, and piano.  During the Vocal Chamber Music, we did have the opportunity to work on other older standards as well as Berstein’s “Dream with Me” (1950) for voice, cello, and piano as well as doing some readings of my composition, “Recueillement” (1996) for voice, cello, and french horn (played by Jeff Radcliffe) and based on text by Charles Baudelairre.

Jeffrey Radcliffe

I said above that I’d been reconnecting in various ways with my DePauw experience above and here’s one of the reasons.  My new music group, the Mothership Ensemble, just performed Jeff’s “Mandala” this Wednesday at Lisa’s Oak Street Lounge.  We’ll be repirsing the performance again next month at Classical Revolution Louisville and on a full concert we’re giving at Decca with other compositions by local composers (Rachel Short, Chris Kincaid, and me) as well as other newer-ish works by Andriessen, Denisov, and Ian Clarke.

Jeff was also a regular member of the DePauw Contemporary Ensemble and had written a couple of other works for me.  We’re all looking forward to performing more of his pieces in the near future.  He is also one of the brightest and most talented and adventurous people I’ve ever met and someone who attended a few of my Chello Shed events (about more later) as well as writing a spoof on Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach” (titled “Einstein at the Hub”) which we performed at the DePauw Playwright’s Festival (1997) which featured 10 minute plays by DePauw students in the new Elizabeth Kerr Black Box Theatre.  Using texts he surreptitiously acquired by a handheld recorder while in the Hub (another restaurant in the Student Union Building) and from the prices of items for sale he constructed three vocal lines which the three readers (I was one) spoke aloud in random and monotonous fashion while a customer (played by Matt Kingston) wandered around confused by the dizzying number of items for sale all while the “Spirit of the Hub” (played by ICE‘s Eric Lamb) danced around and tempted him to purchase more.  Jeff played the keyboard in Glass style.

Jeff also introduced me to Bang on a Can, and I am forever grateful for that, especially as I recently got to see former BoaC cellist, Maya Beiser, live a couple weeks ago.

Chello Shed

The Chello Shed was a brainchild of mine that was a concert/lecture series and alternative venue that I created in 1996. It’s been revived at various locations since many of the events took place in the various places I lived in Greencastle.  Sometimes other music students requested I do an event in their dorm room and often events would be “site-specific”–taking place around Greencastle or on DePauw’s campus.  For example, for one performance installation, I gather a couple of railroad ties (you would not believe how heavy these are) and dragged them to the Emison Art center and used wire hangers to create limbs in a makeshift tree adorned by packing materials I acquired at the University Bookstore (where I worked at the time).  It was an audience participation piece.

The Packing Tree: a performance installation piece with audience participation. Pictured is Jon Silpayamanant and Lauren Scott (ca. 1997)
The Packing Tree: a performance installation piece with audience participation. Pictured is Jon Silpayamanant and Lauren Scott (ca. 1997) photo by Joanna Smoak

Sometimes I would give more “formal” performances of new compositions, text/sound/art works, multi-media and performance art.  Other times I would give “lecture/performances” focusing on particular composers or artist I had an interest in at the time.

"Reciting the Muse of Music: Text-Sound Art, Phonetic Music, and the Avant-Garde" presention by Jon Silpayamanant on October 17, 1999
“Reciting the Muse of Music: Text-Sound Art, Phonetic Music, and the Avant-Garde”
presention by Jon Silpayamanant on October 17, 1999

Often I would simply do performances of John Cage lectures.

CAGE: A reading of John Cage's "Lecture on Nothing" followed by discussion of the Cage phenomenon by Jon Silpayamanant, November 1, 1996
CAGE: A reading of John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”
followed by discussion of the Cage phenomenon by Jon Silpayamanant, November 1, 1996

I would plaster the campus and School of Music with flyers for the events, such as the ones above, and almost invariably included a printed program with more detailed notes, some quotes, and other supplementary materials.  I also published a handful of “…from the Chello Shed Newsletter” which featured other DePauw students and Greencastle community members’ art, scores, text as well as an accompanying cassette tape of experimental text and sound works.

I’m in the process of archiving the early activities as the Chello Shed was most active between 1996-1998 (well over a hundred events) with more intermittent activity from 1998 to 2002.  In the show I mentioned at Lisa’s Oak Street Lounge I’ve revived it and presented the concert under its auspices.

The Chello Shed Presents: A Night of Alt-Classical.  October 9, 2013
The Chello Shed Presents: A Night of Alt-Classical. October 9, 2013

Art Criticism

Mitch Merback graciously allowed me to sit in on his Art Criticism class a couple of years.  By that point in time I was already heavily into Performance Art and how the visual arts world intersected the other arts and had started doing the Chello Shed events.  For a while I was actually a double major in studio art and music performance but had since dropped the studio art major as I found I wouldn’t ahve time to complete the requirements.  During that time I’d also recently attended the Performance Art, Culture, Pedagogy Symposium at Penn State (November 1996) and had many wonderful discussions about the arts with the other students and Mitch.

In 2000 I would attend the follow-up symposium at Penn State: Performative Sites: Intersecting Art, Technology and the Body where I’d reconnect with a number of performance artists and meet new ones.

After a performance with Roberto Sifuentes, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Jon Silpayamanant, Juan Ybarra after a performance of "Aztechnology" @ the Zoller Gallery (Penn State University) in October 2000
Roberto Sifuentes, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Jon Silpayamanant, Juan Ybarra after a performance of “Aztechnology” at the Zoller Gallery (Penn State University) in October 2000

Mitch would also invite me back to do performances at the Emison Art Center at DePauw (in 2001 “Dada da Babylon” and 2002 “in vitro mudra”) and later in 2002 at the new Peeler Art Gallery on campus was invited to participate in a tribute retrospective performance of Fluxus artist and composer, Dick Higgins, curated by Hannah Higgins called, “Betwixt and Between.”

Jon Silpayamanant performing a score by Dick Higgins on a toy piano at "Betwixt and Between: The Life and Work of Fluxus Artist Dick Higgins" At the Peeler Art Gallery September 5, 2002
Jon Silpayamanant performing a score by Dick Higgins on a toy piano at “Betwixt and Between: The Life and Work of Fluxus Artist Dick Higgins” at the Peeler Art Gallery, DePauw University, September 5, 2002

World Music

Despite having spent most of my early life growing up in bi-lingual environment (the first songs I learned how to sing were in Thai) I didn’t really explore world music until I got to DePauw.  Occasionally world musicians would be brought in for performances and to do workships.  I’ve had the pleasure of doing workshops and seeing performances by the late Prince Julius Adeniya, Srinivas Krishnan, Chirgilchin, and others I can’t recall right now.  As most of you know I’ve spent the last ten years often playing with world musicians or sharing bills with world musicians from all over the world as well as fusion world groups from all over the US.

David Ott, Composition, and his Concerto for Two Cellos

As I mentioned above, the DePauw Symphony Orchestra often performed David Ott’s compositions as he was on the composition faculty at DePauw and composer-in-residence of the ISO.  I’ve had many interactions with him as a student of his but also with him performing piano accompaniment for his Concerto for Two Cellos which was commissioned by Rostropovich for two cellists of the National Symphony Orchestra.  I got to hear so many great stories about that process and his interactions with the late cellist while having rehearsals with him.  I performed the slow movement with my cello professor on a faculty recital one year and in 1994 another student, Eric Amidon, and I were winners of the DePauw Concerto Competition.  We performed the first movement with the DSO–here’s an excerpt of that:

Not long after Dr. David Ott left DePauw the Music School phased out the Composition program much to my dismay.  While they had a composition professor they never really filled the full time position.  I must have performed and premiered several dozen student works while I was a student (as well as a while after) and that was one of the greatest experiences–working with young and budding composers, some of whom are still doing great work.

Eric Edberg and Improvisation

Last, but not least, I have to mention Dr. Eric Edberg.  He’s probably still one of the biggest inspirations and mentor in my life and I probably owe as much for my current career trajectory to him more than anyone else.  While I was in school he was getting heavily into improvisation and often worked with his cello students in various techniques he was learning.  Eventually he formed an improvised chamber music class that has since become very popular.

I’ve often done some impromptu recording with other students who attended those improv classes (including Jeff Radcliffe).  Here’s an excerpt from an hour long session that I recorded with pianist, Joanna Smoak, one day in the choir room (152) at DePauw:

Eric also occasionally had cello class parties at his house and after he acquired a Lexicon JamMan looper he let us all play around with it.  Here’s an excerpt from my very first attempt at using that looper at one of those parties in 1996:

These are some of the things happening at the end of the 20th century at DePauw that have helped to shape what I am as a 21st century musician.  I now run a new music ensemble, the Mothership Ensemble, with two other wonderful composers (Rachel Short and Jacob Gotlib) and a great group of students, community members and professionals; I have an interactive video and cello project, Camera Lucida, with video artist Roxell Karr which works in close collaboration with dancers and movement artists; I still run my solo experimental noise project which had its roots back in Greencastle, Noiseman433–I’ve since branched out more into found instruments (such as my fishtank performance) and incorporating world instruments (like my erhu); I regularly perform world music with my group il Troubadore as well as with other world musicians and with other instruments and my voice; I perform on baroque cello with Bourbon Baroque and modern cello with local classical musicians and community orchestras; and I perform amplified cello with a local rock group, Mercy Academy, and often work with local bluegrass, folk, hip hop musicians, and poets.

About the only thing that’s changed is all the Geek related activities.  Every new and interesting project I do I keep telling myself “I never would have thought I’d be doing this when I went to music school” but that rings a little hollow everytime I get on my Klingon gear

Jon Silpayamanant with Orion dancers after the Klingon Opera-Ballet "wa' SaD ram wa' ram je" at TrekTrax Atlanta. April 21, 2013
Jon Silpayamanant with Orion dancers after the Klingon Opera-Ballet “wa’ SaD ram wa’ ram je” at TrekTrax Atlanta. April 21, 2013

or the Wookiee costume

Jon Silpayamanant ffter the Louisville Philharmonia  Summer Pops Concert as the Wookiee Cellist (June 13, 2013)
Jon Silpayamanant after the Louisville Philharmonia Summer Pops Concert as the Wookiee Cellist. June 13, 2013

or Steampunk outfit

Secondhand at the White Rabbit Cabaret opening for Frenchy and the Punk on October 26, 2012. Indianapolis, IN
Jon Silpayamanant performing with his Steam Noir project, Secondhand, at the White Rabbit Cabaret opening for Frenchy and the Punk on October 26, 2012. Indianapolis, IN

for a show.  I guess, in a way, all these things are “out of this world” (and century, for that matter), but I’m still excited about future possibilities since there’s still a whole universe of music to be explored and I thank all those mentioned above (and those I haven’t mentioned) for helping me map this musical journey.


  1. Dear Jon,
    Thank you for all of the kind words!! It is a very exciting time and we are all ready to take this new leap forward. We have waited a long time to get this going. See you soon!


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