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McGill Reporter
April 5, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 14
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Mauro Pezzente: Almost famous

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

Mauro Pezzente is a member of one of the hottest bands around, but he could probably walk down any street in the city without drawing a second glance -- which is exactly the way he wants it.

Pezzente plays bass for Godspeed You Black Emperor!, a Montreal group that recently earned prominent mentions in both Spin and Rolling Stone.

Spin named the band the 16th most important musical act of 2001, ranking them ahead of Macy Gray, Beck, Johnny Cash and some woman named Madonna. Rolling Stone, in its annual "cool" issue, listed GYBE as "too cool" along with actress Christina Ricci, film director Lars von Trier and Iceland.

Pezzente is relatively non-plussed by the attention, though he will fess up to one thing: "I'm quite pleased about beating Madonna."

Pezzente is also a PhD student at Macdonald Campus, studying whether a certain type of fungus can improve the performance of trees planted in the downtown area, trees that typically live for only three to five years.

And, for a little under a year, he has been a small business proprietor, running the vegetarian restaurant/showbar Casa del Popolo, located on St. Laurent, with his girlfriend Kiva Stimac, a trained cook.

The two had been looking to open a small restaurant for a while. "A place would be vacant for five years, then the day we called, it would be rented. We thought we were cursed."

Then Pezzente heard that an acquaintance who operated a small concert venue was looking to get out. Moving quickly, he and Stimac signed a lease and set up shop.

"I didn't know about all the permits you need to get. We didn't know how many glasses we would need, how much food, how much beer." They learned by doing. "Customers would yell, 'Hey, you need more glasses!"

With its tiny stage, battered wood floors, art from local creators and plum and cream walls, Casa plays host to range of events. A friend and former GYBE member regularly selects silent films to screen at Casa, accompanied by live, improvised music. "Comics jams," where cartoonists create on the spot, often take place. Right now Pezzente is excited about a jazz fest that will run from June 15 to July 22, featuring, among others, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, a frequent collaborator of John Coltrane's.

Media interviews are rare for GYBE members; they turned down a request for the Spin piece, for instance. Musicians, typically, want to be quoted in Spin.

There is no million-dollar marketing campaign behind GYBE, no bombastic music videos, no Pepsi commercials. The music, which features no vocals apart from a few short samples (an in-store announcement for mini mart shoppers, a New Yorker reminiscing about Coney Island), is often disconcerting.

And yet the band is fielding concert requests from around the world, has drawn critical praise from The New York Times, The Independent and The (London) Sunday Times and, according to one report, counts members of Radiohead among its fans.

Pezzente and GYBE members do their best to stay anonymous. You won't find photos of them, or even their full names, on their CDs. Still, people are clueing in to who he is and it's awkward sometimes.

"People come in [to Casa] and they can be so shy. They look at me like I'm a superhero. They ask for all kinds of advice. The only thing I can give them advice about is playing the bass, and even then, I'm not so sure."

As for his research, it concerns mycorrhiza, a fungus that's known to help plants cope with stressful conditions. But even if the fungus helps the downtown trees, Pezzente says the point is largely moot.

"If we increase growth by 10 percent, we'll probably decrease the tree's life by 10 percent." That's because most trees downtown, especially those planted in sidewalks, have a meager one-metre cube to grow in.

"City planners need to change the way they plant," he says, pointing to Complexe Guy Favreau as one downtown site that gives its trees enough underground space to allow their root systems to stretch out.

Pezzente's PhD supervisor, natural resource sciences professor Chantal Hamel, says Pezzente is "very bright, he understands things very quickly." She notes he won an award for best presentation at a scientific meeting.

She has mixed feelings about Pezzente's multiple interests. "It's not always so good for his research supervisor. It doesn't always make her so happy."

Pezzente and GYBE are scheduled to get together in July to plan their next move.

"None of us really thought it would get to this point," Pezzente says of their popularity. "At some point people will get tired of us and move on to the next band."

He seems to look forward to that. He says industry people apply plenty of pressure. "If you play to 2,000 people, then you're supposed to play to 3,000 next time, then 5,000. If you're happy playing to smaller crowds, there's something wrong with you."

Still, he says, "Maybe one night, I'd like to play in front of 40,000, just to see what it feels like."

To see what's going on at Casa del Popolo, check out its home page. The official web site of Godspeed You Black Emperor! offers more information about the band.


I think the position of most universities is that students are welcome to [take part in political activism]. They're encouraged to do it. That doesn't mean we should reorganize the University to accommodate it any day of the week.

Principal Bernard Shapiro commenting on the Senate vote against allowing students to delay their exams in order to take part in the upcoming protests in Quebec City at the Summit of the Americas. Shapiro spoke on CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup.

Caring counts

Photo Professor Marianne Stenbaek
PHOTO: Owen Egan

That being a professor is a two-sided coin with teaching on one side and research on the other, we hear frequently. But there's another side to being an academic: supporting students.

It's a role that receives scant recognition. But that will no longer be the case -- at least where the Faculty of Arts is concerned.

Last week, the Arts Undergraduate Society presented its first Award for Support of Student Interests and Initiatives. And the winner was ... Marianne Stenbaek, English professor.

What is understood by "support" is the time given to students outside of class to answer needs that vary from course advising to choosing a graduate school, from lending a shoulder to cry on to listening to an idea for a particular project, from writing letters of recommendation to "pointing students in the right direction for financial aid, mental health care, or the other services."

Those are Stenbaek's words, and she feels that "we have so many students and so often they feel lost, especially in the first two years so it's nice to have a professor who listens to them." Her response is to have an open office door and a number where she can be reached any time -"in emergencies only and students respect that."

Nick Linardopoulos, vice-president academic of the AUS initiated the award and can testify to Stenbaek's commitment. "Without Professor Stenbaek, I wouldn't have graduated."


We are not by any comparative standard even close to our capacity and this suggests that there's a lot of room for growth.

Sociology professor Morton Weinfeld, an expert on immigration, telling The Globe and Mail that Canada has plenty of room for a larger population. He cited the Netherlands, a more densely populated but peaceful and prosperous country, as a model.

A star is born

Photo Frédérique Vezina
PHOTO: Robert Etcheverry

Opera in Concert, the people behind a new Toronto production of Handel's opera Ariodante, faced a crisis, a key cast member was pulling out, with only a little more than a week to go before opening night. What to do?

Call McGill.

Opera in Concert chief Guillermo Silva-Martin, a theatrical co-ordinator for Opera McGill, knew of an undergraduate in the McGill program with the pipes and the presence to get the job done.

Frédérique Vezina, who played prominent roles in McGill productions of Die Fledermaus and Le Nozze di Figaro, received the call. Most of her coursework was done and her teachers, including opera area chair Dixie Ross-Neill, gave her their blessings. She sped to Toronto for a week's worth of rehearsals. "For a production like this, you would like to have a month," Ross-Neill comments.

How did Vezina do?

The Toronto Star raved, "Quebec's Vezina, a late cast addition, is a startling find, delivering the lines of her highlight-reel performance with ravishing sensuousness... She drew golden threads from the part, singing confidently and endearingly of love and torment with beautifully shaped notes..."

The National Post declared that "Vezina was the discovery of the evening. Her rich soprano and radiant characterization conveyed the princess's nobility and innocence... It was hard to believe that Vezina is an undergraduate at McGill University, and was filling in on short notice."

Ross-Neill says part of her job is to prepare her students for unexpected breaks. "We teach them how to go about learning a role. These are the kinds of things singers have to do."

Still, "there are singers who can do it and singers who can't. She is very skilled and a very quick study."

Vezina is finishing her bachelor's and will soon begin a master's at McGill. "She is one of the most talented young singers we've had at the school," says Ross-Neill.

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