Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 14, 2010

Schoolhouse rock

When Stanford profs and students jam with their band, classics get a soulful spin

by Janet Silver Ghent

Creating a rocking finale for their Introduction to Humanities class two years ago, Stanford professors Dan Edelstein and Robert Pogue Harrison pulled out their guitars and bowled over their freshman students with a musical spin on the classics.

With new lyrics, the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" transmogrified into a song about Dante's descent into the inferno. Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" metamorphosed into Dido's lament to Aeneas.

The collaboration between Edelstein and Harrison ultimately created a rock band, Glass Wave. And with help from friends, relatives, musicians and Stanford sound engineer-producer Jay Kadis, the band has released a self-titled CD. The album of original music, bearing the name of the group, adds a novel dimension to Homer, Ovid and Shakespeare, among others.

Some lyrics have a deliciously wicked edge. The nymph Echo, who loses Narcissus to his own reflection, sings: "i love you boy / and you love you, too," and a weary Helen of Troy gripes: "life was such a bore / so i started a war."

But with soulful singing by Christy Wampole, and music with elements from '70s progressive rock as well as jazz, "Glass Wave" is more cerebral than satirical. Narrated from the point of view of such women as Nausicaa ("The Odyssey"), Ophelia ("Hamlet") and a regretful Lolita suffering an identity crisis, the literary ballads take on a plaintive dimension. For comic relief, there's Mrs. Bennet (the ditsy mother in "Pride and Prejudice"), but the overriding tone of the album is pathos. Even Mary Shelley's Frankenstein creature moans and groans because he's "all alone."

"When you have academics doing a rock album, the self-protective thing is to make it a parody," Harrison said during a recent rehearsal at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). "I wanted to avoid falling into this easy category of irony, parody and humor."

With four literary scholars among the six band members, the cerebral element is a given. Harrison chairs Stanford's department of French and Italian, where Edelstein is an assistant professor of French. Wampole, who learned the art of French chanson and cabaret music while living in France and later performed in Bay Area and Dallas nightclubs, is pursuing a Stanford doctorate in French and Italian literature.

The bass player is Harrison's brother, Thomas, a professor of Italian literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. Rounding out the band are jazz drummer Colin Camarillo, a student at West Valley College; and CCRMA sound engineer and audio-recording teacher Kadis, who doubles on guitar and percussion.

The band took the name "Glass Wave" from Ezra Pound's "Cantos." It echoes the sea-and-water theme that permeates the album, which begins with the wordless "Balena," and includes the actual sounds of a humpback whale. The album concludes with "Moby Dick," which tells Melville's whale tale from the perspective of the great white.

While they're not about to give up their day jobs to cash in as rock stars, and they laugh at the idea of making money from the album, the scholars in the band were musicians before they were academics. The Harrison brothers, who are the sons of an American father and an Italian mother, spent their high-school years in Rome. With their blond hair and American looks, they made "decent money" pretending to be touring rock musicians who had just flown in from the States. But if they inadvertently lapsed into fluent Italian at the end of a concert, they had problems getting paid.

"I would have liked to be a musician," Thomas Harrison said. But when he entered Sarah Lawrence College, where his intention was to major in music, he said, "I was surrounded by people who were so much better." Deciding to reinvent himself, he "became a literary person." But the dream of playing in a band stayed with him. It also seems to have inspired his son Alex, who improvised on guitar with the band at the recent rehearsal.

While many composers begin with the lyrics, Robert Harrison composes first and then decides which story would best fit the music. He described his style as "slightly progressive rock, but ... the progressive rock of the 1970s, when "instruments were allowed a lot of leeway to do their thing." He added: "In the songs I've written, I've tried to let these instruments breathe a little bit, and that's where this guy (Camarillo) fell out of heaven into our laps as a jazz drummer. When he came on board, we saw his talent and said, 'Just go into the studio and let it rip.'"

Even with a drummer, authentic whale wailing and a vocalist, one component was missing, a viola, so they asked Stanford dean Stephen Hinton, a musicologist, for suggestions. Then they remembered that Hinton himself plays the viola, and Hinton ended up making an appearance on the CD.

However, Hinton is not the only classically trained musician on board. Edelstein's first instrument was classical piano, and he trained in the United States and Europe. He also studied jazz trumpet for eight years. While in Geneva, where he attended a conservatory and completed his undergraduate degree at the university, Edelstein picked up guitar, played in a band called Google Plex and "learned to finger pick from a Swiss-German hard rock guitarist who'd done way too many drugs."

On the "Glass Wave" album, Edelstein also plays keyboards, sings backup and performs a haunting trumpet solo in "Helen." Citing the influence of Sting as well as classical jazz, Edelstein said he enjoys "playing around with dissonance," oscillating between major and minor in Helen of Troy's melancholic soliloquy.

"Dan made her into the first Stepford Wife," Harrison joked. Edelstein, however, sees her as "Grandma Helen," looking back.

The idea for producing an album took root when Wampole happened to be sitting in Harrison and Edelstein's final class. The three put their heads together and the composers decided to create original music that would showcase Wampole's voice, envisioning the classics through the lens of a female narrator.

Wampole, who learned the art of cabaret while living in France, closes her eyes as she experiences the music. Her voice is deep and throaty. "I think I'm actually a tenor, if you look at my range," she said. Although she's never studied voice, she played alto sax and was a drum major in high school.

When the musicians first got together, they used Garage Band software, with mixed results. Then they got together with Kadis, who not only has a background in audio recording and production, but has also been a band musician. They credit him for turning their homespun efforts into an album.

"He was incredibly patient," Harrison said. "Without Jay, the whole thing wouldn't have happened. His role was to guide us through."

Kadis said: "If I didn't think they had a chance (of succeeding), I wouldn't have done it. ... I could tell they could play."

Info: The "Glass Wave" CD is available for $12.97 at http://www.cdbaby.com , where the songs are also downloadable. Downloads are also on iTunes and Amazon. For more about the band, go to http://www.glasswave-band.com .

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