San José Rotunda Concert Takes SJSU Compositions to New Heights

by | Apr 8, 2024 | Community Engagement, Featured

On April 20, SJSU musicians, composers and faculty members Christopher Luna-Mega and Pablo Furman will host a special performance of their original compositions inside the San José City Hall Rotunda. Photo by Derick Truong.

During one of last winter’s atmospheric rivers, Pablo Furman observed a peculiar noise being emitted from the Adobe building in downtown San José. Furman, who serves as the associate director of San José State’s composition program in the School of Music, as well as the area coordinator for music theory and keyboard, routinely walks from the Diridon train station in downtown San José to campus. On this particular morning, the sound of wind whipping between and through the building’s exterior facade created a haunting B minor chord. Ever the composer, Furman recorded the moment and set it aside for when the time came to create a new piece.

Members of the public will have the opportunity to hear the evolution of that sound — and others like it — at the San José City Hall Rotunda Concert and Sound Projection on April 20, when Furman, along with an ensemble of SJSU music faculty members, will play his piece, as well as a piece by SJSU Assistant Professor of Composition and Music Theory Technology Christopher Luna-Mega.

The ensemble will include Furman on percussion; Coordinator of Jazz Studies Aaron Lington on baritone saxophone; Professor of Flute and Chamber Music Ráyo Furuta on flute; Woodwind Area Coordinator Michael Hernandez on soprano saxophone; and String Area Coordinator Catalina Barraza on violin. In addition, they will amplify some electronic music created as part of both Luna-Mega’s and Furman’s 30-minute compositions, incorporating recordings captured downtown. 

“Our sources of inspiration are real, physical, acoustical elements from the street that we pass in the city and belong to all of us in a way,” says Furman. “It’s not ‘happy music’ or ‘sad music but deliberately affirming.’ It reflects the idea of the public, which includes education, art, the splendor and vibrancy of the city and sometimes difficult societal issues.”

The composers are also playing with the space itself, both by assigning musicians their own spots in the rotunda, and by encouraging  audience members to move about during the performance. They hope the effect will leave a lasting impression on those who come to participate.

Reflecting on the concept of public works, adds Luna-Mega, prompted him to explore the idea of a “common vibration.”

“At some points, my piece can be very chaotic, and at others, it’s very harmonious,” he says. “It reminds me of the Pythagorean concept of the harmony of the spheres. I found this very meaningful connection to public works by relating the idea of harmony of the spheres to the harmony of a city.”

Seeking a “common vibration”

San José City Hall Rotunda

The sound projection performance will occur inside the San José City Hall Rotunda (right). Photo by Robert C. Bain.

The project, funded by the College of Humanities and the Arts’ Artistic Excellence Programming Grants, will feature five musicians spread out through the Rotunda’s floors, playing in conversation with an electronic score and in juxtaposition with screen projections of artwork created by Andrew Blanton, associate professor and graduate coordinator in the Computers in Art, Design, Research, and Education (CADRE) Media Labs at SJSU. 

“Choirs have sung in rotundas and cupolas from time immemorial,” says Furman, who has wanted to compose a piece for the City Hall Rotunda for years. “They have unique acoustical properties that intrigue us. So while we are are exploring technical ideas in terms of composition and sound, our philosophical background is in response to the College of Humanities and the Arts’ description of ‘public works.’

Luna-Mega adds that they are interpreting the idea of public works through the music as part of a general soundscape that includes traffic, high rises, unhoused encampments, sacred spaces and places of education and knowledge. 

“I imagine the city — and the Rotunda — as a sphere,” he says. “These things create vibrations together, so we are exploring how things vibrate from the perspectives of music theory and acoustics. We’re thinking about the vibration of the city, but also about the overtones that vibrate with resonant bodies.”

Though the two composers each embody their own creative processes for creating new music, their shared vision for the performance is to provoke conversation about music, the sounds we absorb, hear and engage with every day, and the ways in which we communicate in and around the spaces we inhabit. 

“By funding the concert through the AEPG initiative, we are signaling that this is one of the premiere events coming out of the College of Humanities and the Arts,” says Katherine D. Harris, director of public programming for the college. “This project was specifically intriguing because it is situated in City Hall, one block from our campus and it represents the strong bond between San José State and the City of San José.”

Learn more about the San José City Hall Rotunda Concert and Sound Projection on April 20.