Friday, October 25, 2013

John Bergamo

I note, with great sadness, the passing of John Bergamo. John was the percussion instructor at CalArts when I was a student. Here's a picture I took of him the last time I saw him (at the memorial service for Arthur Jarvinen in 2010).

If you're not familiar with John's musical abilities, I highly recommend that you read John Bergamo, Percussive Renaissance Man by B. Michael Williams, an article about his many interests, written when John was added to the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

Although I didn't study percussion I was in several ensembles that John conducted. One memorable piece was the Quartet for tenor sax, trumpet, piano and percussion by Stefan Wolpe.  Less memorable was  Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble (all brass and percussion) by Alvin Etler.  More memorable was spending the summer of 1976 in Newhall CA watching John and his fellow members of The Repercussion Unit rehearse.  (I just sat and listened.)

In a 1989 LA Times article about The Unit: One Man's Junk is Another's Music John is quoted on the subject of finding new musical instruments:
Members are on a never-ending search for new instruments. Sometimes they turn up during pilgrimages to junkyards ("I usually end up getting ripped off because I'm so excited they can tell I really want it," Bergamo said).
Sometimes they're simply lying in the street. Bergamo found his favorite "bell," a broken pipe fitting, on the ground. "I threw it down and heard it and knew I had to have it," he said, happily tapping it with a mallet.
"I'm so excited" and "Happily tapping it".  No one who knew John would be surprised by such expressions of enthusiasm for exploring the world of percussion.

Here's a 1991 video about The Unit going on tour to Germany.  Lots of shots showing John and also Lucky Mosko, who passed away in 2005.  The other members are Larry, Gregg, Ed and Jimmy.  Here's Part one:

and Part two:

Another music group which formed around John was the Hands On'semble, seen here playing John's own piece Piru Bole:

Here's a picture of John way back in March 1965 (second from the right), part of a group performing György Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes.  That's when he was a member of Lukas Foss's Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I found this picture in the book by Renee Levine Parker, This Life of Sounds. Evenings for New Music in Buffalo. (available as a pdf)

I had a lot of teachers during my professional education as a musician.  Only two stand out for having consistent positive attitudes towards music and music making.  John was one of them.  John Bergamo will be missed by many but his memory will stick around because he had that rare ability to share his own positive attitude with so many others.

One more thing about my personal relationship with John Bergamo.  After my graduation from CalArts John set the course of my entire career as a musician by recommending me, as a music copyist, to Frank Zappa. I told the story in my online interview with Alt.Fan.Frank-Zappa:
BL: How exactly did you hook up with [Zappa] in the first place?
DO: I was a student at Cal Arts in Valencia CA. Ed Mann was a student at the same time. His teacher was John Bergamo (who I also worked with). John had been hired for some session work with Frank (I think he's one of the nameless musicians on Greggary Peccary) and had gotten Ed the chance to get in the band and Frank hired Ed. Frank was looking for someone to be his "musical secretary" and both Ed and John recommended me to him. Then they both told me that I would be getting a call from Frank Zappa. "Sure" I thought "when pigs have wings."
Bergamo had played the Black Page and had lost a copy of the music which Frank had given him. So John hired me to copy the Black Page to give it to Frank. I figured they had showed that to Frank.
One Sunday afternoon (this was June 1977 - as I was eating a pancake breakfast with my roommate) the phone rang and it was Ed Mann saying "Frank Zappa wants you to work for him." so I called Frank and he told me to come right over. I thought it was a job like all my other work at the time (i.e. "come right now we have music that needs to be recorded at 8 o clock tomorrow morning"). When I got there he took me in the house and showed me piles of music. He started handing me things from the piles and giving me instructions to work on stuff. I asked him if he had seen the copy of the Black Page - he hadn't.
So I had showed up to my interview without the one piece of music that was sure to get me the gig.

Thanks to Steve Layton for the link to Percussive Renaissance Man.

Buell Neidlinger, another member of Center for Creative and Performing Arts and close friend of John's, told me this little annecdote about the performance of the Ligeti:
At the Carnegie Rectal Hall performance, Don Ellis purposely wound his metronome ten extra turns, so the piece became interminable with a single clicking for about 4 mins. extra.

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