One thing that sucks about getting older AND being a “people person” is that I care so much about so many people who are also getting older. I also pride myself on my relationships with amazing people. It’s a blessing and a curse; knowing amazing people who get older, and older, and like all of us, eventually die. Today, I’m tired. I have to admit it: I’m getting tired of writing memorials to great men and women who pass away. But, I have to do this because something in me wants to help keep memory alive. It’s sort of my “thing”, I guess.
In the Autumn of 1978 I sat on the floor of the Main Gallery at the California Institute of the Arts. I was a surprisingly unworldly 18-year-old.
I had just started college, working toward my degree in music. I had managed to take solfeggio placement tests that confirmed I did not even need to take ear training classes. I was hard at work with Theory, composition lessons, music history, and critical studies. I had yet to meet John Cage or Morty Feldman. Aaron Copland had been (or was about to be – I forget) my first “guest composer” experience. I had a good ear, I knew a lot about the “new” discipline of electronic music, and I was studying my way through the annals of Western music theory. About anything “non-western” I knew absolutely nothing.
Sitting before me, on risers, at one end of the Gallery were 4 men. Amiya Dasgupta on Sitar, 2 students on Tambura, and a short bearded white guy on Tabla. I grew up in California in the 60s and 70s but I had never heard real Indian music. I’m almost embarrassed to say this but the problem with a Alap and 22 shrutis for a guy who did not know what the hell I was listening to is that I did not even know when they stopped tuning up and started playing the “real” music. Still I was mesmerized. The Sitar was a million times more amazing in the hands of Amiya that in the intro to “Norwegian Wood”, that was certain. It was astonishing. But even more amazing was the bearded white dude. He did not get to play much at the beginning. But by the end, his fingers moved so fast I could barely see them. His name was John Bergamo.
It goes without saying that I was changed that day. I knew that I needed to learn about things that did not come from the west and did not have voltage controlled oscillators on them. I knew that I had to know the bearded white guy and to learn at least a little of what he knew. John Bergamo was the reason that I spent 3 years studying tabla with Pandit Taranath Rao, the reason I wrote a solo percussion piece for Amy Knoles, the reason I could get 3 absolute percussion masters (the “Antenna Repairmen”) to play my percussion trio, the reason I got to take “independent study in percussion” with one of the greatest living percussionists, and the reason I fell in love both with India and with percussion.
John Bergamo was also the owner of the coolest percussion instrument I ever got to play. David Tudor was supposed to come to town and we were going to get to study with him. But something happened and Tudor could not come out. I was honored, however, to be able to work with a really amazing group of fellow students to create an homage to Tudor which we called something really creative like “An Environment for David Tudor”. John loaned us some instruments, one of which was the front cowling from a 747 jet engine! I remember exactly where we hung that thing, although I have not got a clue how we did it.
In case you did not know John personally, you may not know why I call him a Renaissance Man of percussion. So, consider this: In his long career, John Bergamo worked with some of the most diverse composers and performers in the known universe, Just to name a few: Lukas Foss, Gunther Schuller, John Cage, Ringo Starr, Charles Wourinen, Lou Harrison, Ali Akbar Khan, John McLaughlin, Morton Feldman, Herb Albert, Percy Heath, Robert Shaw, Max Roach, and Frank Zappa. He played with several other friends of mine (and my beloved mentor Lucky Mosko) in the Repercussion Unit and he played on the soundtracks of 18+ Hollywood films. He did a lot of percussion overdub work for ‘The Mothers of Invention” and, after studying with him I know I’ll never listen to Zappa’s “The Black Page” without thinking of him. Finally, after all of that, in 2012 John’s dedication to percussion and to education earned him election to the prestigious Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.
I suppose I need not really say this but I’m very sad that the world of percussion, the CalArts community, and my personal circle of friends has lost the great John Bergamo. I’ll miss him.
John Bergamo was born in Englewood, New Jersey, May 28, 1940 and passed away on October 19th 2013.