From Place Comes Culture – An Interview with Cellista

Freya Seeburger is Cellista, a cellist and San Jose Arts Commissioner. Read her thoughts on her latest performance piece and how making room for every member of our community is tied to the future of arts in San Jose.

Photo by: Rama Sivamani

 There are a few things you find out about Cellista real quick:

1. She is a talented cellist dedicated to the mastery of her instrument.

2. She is deeply invested in the development of San Jose arts and culture.

3. She is all about mixing things up and collaborating across genres and disciplines

I’m not kidding about number three either. Among her many musical collaborators there has been a beatboxer, a contortionist and breakdancers. In addition to performing and recording music she is also a San Jose Arts commissioner and founder of the local arts organization Juxtapositions.

Her latest performance piece was less multidisciplinary mash-up and more dark apocalyptic masterpiece. I’m not exactly what you would call a classical music aficionado, but I was impressed by Cellista’s presentation of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet For The End of Time,” part of a dual exhibition with painter Barron Storey, presented by the Anno Domini gallery. 

The story behind Messiaen’s “Quartet For The End of Time” is as interesting as the piece itself. The French composer Messiaen wrote and performed this composition while captive inside a prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany. The work is inspired by the Bible’s book of revelations and is a contemplation of the literal end of time as well as musical time.

Cellista joined by the Juxtapositions Chamber Ensemble including clarinetist James Pytko, violinist Ishtar Hernandez, and pianist Naomi Stine brought this hauntingly dark and beautiful work to life inside Anno Domini. The music itself is jarring and confrontational. Sometimes achingly sweet and other times chilling in its sonic rendition what the end of time would be like. As I listened I couldn’t help but reflect on the current political climate and how the intolerance and fascism that helped to birth Messiaen’s work was still alive in the world.

Why did you choose the piece “Quartet For The End of Time” ?

In some ways I was better suited to research than to performance. I was struggling in grad school; struggling with the cello. I realized I may not have been equipped for a standard career as a professional classical cellist. I took too many years off, had always been inconsistent in practicing, and was perpetually scrambling to catch up and feeling constantly overwhelmed.

We had to pick a subject in musicology, something like the evolution of the piano, or performance practices in left-hand piano technique since Brahms. Somehow, I picked Messiaen. I can’t remember why. Prior to that class, I’d never thought of his quartet. I knew it, since it’s a staple of chamber repertoire, but I don’t have any remembrance of why I chose it for my class project. It changed me. It altered how I view the world, my creative process, my identity as a creative. It provided an intersection for all my interests to come together: Politics, performance, history, aesthetics, and community.

Do you feel like the piece has connections to the current political climate?

The narrative of the quartet seemed to have immediacy to the San Jose of now. I think in many ways it makes apparent San Jose's connection to the past and illuminates a way to the future. The parallels are found especially in the legacy of the premiere performance. When it was first performed, the audience was not at all unlike the population of San Jose. Messiaen noted in later interviews after he left Stalag VIIIA (the POW camp) that the audience was diverse with an array of social classes and nationalities.

I guess when I think of the political climate, I first think about our cities and what their responsibilities are to their citizens. I like to think of politics at a local level.

While I am certainly not linking San Jose to the circumstance of the POW camp, I do see the connections between diversity and society coming together during a time of upheaval. I also see that artists are symptomatic of the health of a community. That being said, San Jose during the past couple of years has certainly gone through a huge boom, felt especially in our downtown. I have seen a lot of money thrown at the arts to "revitalize the downtown." However, I haven't felt that there has been enough in the way of conversations related to the need to provide affordable housing, and provide for truly inclusive and community-building urban development. The problem with regard to artists in San Jose is that when we don't make room for every member of our community to live (this includes people at every point of the socio-economic bracket) then in some ways artists are being asked to be a part of their own displacement and also being asked to help displace community itself. It's the same old story of gentrification. I wish San Jose could look to the past to ascertain what is working or not, now, in the present. That is the only path to any real future that is not just a dead repetition of what used to be alive.

Tell us a little about Juxtapositions?

Juxtapositions is my company, to put a name on all that I do as a working artist and formalizing that work. When I started it, it was simply a name I had put on a curated variety show I was running simultaneously in San Francisco and San Jose. It was very events-based until I realized that events and the focus on events as art is undermining many artists. The truth is events are expensive and unsustainable. Getting my head out of the events cloud enabled me to see that what is sustainable in arts has more to do with the nature of art making. That the very artistic-creative process itself can serve as an important economic driver in our community, and a model for businesses in other industries.

Where is the future of arts & culture in San Jose?

The future of arts and culture in San Jose is with individual artists rather than organizations. The future of arts in San Jose may have little to do with art as such, because above all the future of art, here as elsewhere, lies at the level of politics, and requires serious general policy and legislative changes.

I think the key to sustainability in the arts means a significant cultural shift must occur within our community. A re-focusing, rather than thinking bigger which seems to be the pattern in San Jose. I would love to see a shift to thinking locally and scaling down. San Jose has a pattern of going too big too fast. We have taken startup culture and tried to interweave it into every aspect of our community. This is a problem.

Applying this business model to arts is detrimental to artists and the art they produce. Arts culture is a better model for business than most people would like to admit. Arts requires consistency, regularity and more than a just a sense of place. It requires an owned space in which to cultivate and implement ideas. It requires a long-term vision and planning. It is the opposite of start-up culture that is meant to be fleeting and requires little in terms of community because it is not meant to last.

We should stop looking to the tech industry for any sort of salvation. Tech was never invested in the arts and likely will never be. This isn't a bad thing, what it points out is that we, the community of San Jose are self-reliant. Looking to an industry that can at any point just up and leave, as some sort of cash cow is unwise.

So again, the future of arts and culture in San Jose comes down to some very punk rock ethics. It comes down to artists having owned places to live and cultivate their craft, to have a long-term process. It comes down to the City of San Jose making policy and legislative decisions to retain the very people who have been here all along and give this town a genuine sense of place; from place comes culture.


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Upcoming shows:

  • April 16th, 7:30PM House Cabaret show

  • April 17th, 8PM Solo set for Red Light Lit

  • April 20th, 8PM Solo Cabaret set for Haus Serpens at the Golden Bull, Oakland. 

  • June 5th, 7pm, Red Poppy Art House, SF  Cellista & the Juxtapositions Chamber Ensemble performing Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the end of Time 

About Demone Carter

Demone Carter is the 2016 Silicon Valley Artist Laureate, Hip Hop Emcee, Community Organizer, and Social Entrepreneur from San Jose, California. Follow him on twitter: @lifeafterhiphop.

This article is part of the categories: Arts & Culture  / Community  / Music  / Politics  / San Jose//South Bay 
This article is part of the tags: Anno Domini  / Cellista  / Juxtapositions  / San Jose arts 


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