In the News
Scientific American featured appetite-suppressing research by Rob Doyle (chemistry).
America Magazine profiled Mary Karr, Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature (Creative Writing)
The Chronicle of Higher Education featured an op-ed piece by David Yaffe (English) on 20th-century American poetry
A Success magazine feature on primatologist Jane Goodall extensively quotes Dean Emerita Cathryn R. Newton.
Tunes and Toons: Banjoist Tony Trischka, New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee explore intersections of art and music
Honors course unites unlikely pair
“Tony was one of our instructors, and was pretty amazing,” recalls Diffee. “But to put me and him in the same sentence as banjoists is kind of ridiculous. I just play for fun.” Trischka is quick to return a compliment: “I know very few people who can draw and play as well as Matt. He’s a real renaissance man.”
Last fall, College of Arts and Sciences professors Cathryn Newton and Samuel Gorovitz invited both men to participate in HNR 250, “Linked Lenses: Science, Philosophy and the Pursuit of Knowledge,” a popular course they team-teach for the Renée Crown University Honors Program. For nearly two hours, Trischka and Diffee explored the cross-pollination of music and art, showing how one form influences the other. Diffee drew. Trischka played. At one point, Trischka drew and Diffee played. “I imagine that Syracuse students don’t sit around all day checking out bluegrass on their iPods, so I commend them for exploring other cultural intersections,” Trischka says. A return to alma mater was bittersweet for Trischka, whose late father, John Trischka, taught physics there. “Leading a class made me realize just how much I miss the whole intellectual environment,” he says with a trace of emotion. “For a moment, I was my father’s son.”
Some students, including sophomore English major Nicole Peters, were initially skeptical about the pairing, but doubt gave way to enthusiasm once Trischka and Diffee launched into their bit. “It was intriguing to see how they took two professions and combined them into something new,” recalls Peters. “Their performance showed me how nothing is disconnected from anything else and that there are infinite connections to be made in the world. We just have to open our minds to them.”
Sophomore bioengineering major Alex Weiss ’12 echoes these sentiments and says the performance was one of the highlights of the fall class. “It was a pleasure to watch them play off of one another’s abilities, as they joked, sketched and performed,” says Weiss, adding that both men exemplified the “inspirational joy” of lifelong learning. “They clearly love their arts.”
The interdisciplinary connection was not lost on Gorovitz and Newton, who extended an invitation to the pair last year. “They are a remarkable combination of virtuosity and intellectual scope,” observes Gorovitz.
Newton agrees. “Each of them pursues an unusually wide range of interdisciplinary collaborations across the arts and is energized by working with emerging artists,” she says.
Locals remember Trischka as the star banjoist of the Syracuse-based Down City Ramblers. As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Trischka—eternally three credits shy of an Arts and Sciences degree—left home to make a big noise in bluegrass. He hung out in Bob Dylan’s hotel room, broke bread with Bill Monroe, and opened for Earl Scruggs. Trischka later carved an impressive niche for himself as a bandleader (Skyline and Psychograss), film musician (“Foxfire” and “Driving Miss Daisy”), radio star (“A Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage”) and banjo teacher. “Wherever Tony goes musically, he always keeps it interesting,” declares Grand Ole Opry star Del McCoury.
Since that big splash, Trischka has kept busy: touring in support of a new album, “Territory” (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2008); creating a website devoted to banjo scholarship; and writing a Civil War-inspired album. In May, he joined Béla Fleck onstage at Madison Square Garden for Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday bash. “I remember sitting next to Béla and looking out and thinking that this is really cool,” he recalls with pride. “How often do two banjoists get to play for 17,000 people?”
Despite its deep African roots, the banjo—and old time and bluegrass music, in general—remains the province of white, mostly Southern musicians. “A lot of Northerners like me started getting into bluegrass in the ’60s because it had a certain mystique to it,” says Trischka. Still, the instrument is not without some unfair stereotypes. Two that come quickly to mind are “The Ballad of Jed Clampet,” the Flatt & Scruggs classic that help put the banjo (and “The Beverly Hillbillies”) on the map in the early ’60s, followed a decade later by “Dueling Banjos” in the movie “Deliverance.”
“Steve Martin talks about that ‘happy banjo sound,’ but he’s really saying it with tongue in cheek. The instrument also has some darker tonalities,” Trischka points out, making reference to the comedian’s acclaimed solo album, “The Crow” (40 Share Productions, 2009). “It’s a complex instrument that is easily misunderstood.”
Diffee echoes these sentiments. Part of the impetus behind “The Steam Powered Hour,” he says, is to bring together farmers and lawyers alike. “I noticed that as I went around and did different New Yorker and bluegrass events, the audience was mostly the same,” explains the Texas native. “You’d have this smart, urban crowd, respectful of rural traditions, and then you’d see this guy wearing a John Deere cap. I think there’s room for both audiences.”