“Quite honestly that’s what we try to do here in the SSRC — we’re really trying to make sure that academia does not diminish passion,” says Carlos Alomar, Distinguished Artist in Residence, professor, and director of the Sound Synthesis Research Center (SSRC), as well as David Bowie’s former guitarist.
From a 30-year career playing with Bowie, to playing the studio guitar for Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” to coming to Stevens 10 years ago, and becoming the Distinguished Artist in Residence, to his recent appointment as director of Stevens’ SSRC, Almoar has had an illustrious, bright, and eventful career.
The SSRC enables students to engage in groundbreaking sound research and development, as well as enable creative and artistic expression and performance of electronic music. “It is very difficult to stay in those classrooms and learn, and learn, without ever having a chance to apply it. The students here are fortunate to have a space like this that’s dedicated to their exploration and experimentation,” Alomar says. “Remember, they can teach you things, but they can’t define your direction. You’ve got to leave the classroom and come in here and press a few buttons and see what they do. Why? The SSRC is dedicated to the fact that, more than likely, everything you learn might be outdated by the time you leave here in four years. We have to make sure that these students are able to see technology in its best form, so that they can learn how to control it.”
As these burgeoning musicians go out and get themselves careers in the music field, they’ll be exposed to equipment and technology that they may have never seen before, and the SSRC gives them a chance to use advanced technology and equipment to prepare them for the road ahead. “You take engineering, you take music, you take electronics, and you take all the courses that the College of Arts and Letters allows you to. I want you to build the next generation,” Alomar says.
At 10 years old, Carlos Alomar was given his first guitar. By age 14, he was playing professionally. Before his father passed away, he gave Carlos his blessing to pursue music as a profession, and Alomar did just that at the Apollo Theatre. “The next thing I knew, I found myself in this little workshop in the basement of the Apollo Theater, and there I began my music education. I started getting after-hours gigs and touring with James Brown and working with Wilson Pickett and Edwin Starr and Chuck Berry and all of that. Then when I was only 22 years old I met Bowie. After that, well, it’s history.”
Alomar’s primary driver was his immense passion for music. He says, “Passion is that which won’t let you go to sleep, and passion is what wakes you up in the morning. It’s a burning fire in your soul. I really had no choice. Once I got my father’s blessing I could never get enough of music. I would learn the top ten songs of the week, or of the month. All the guitar parts, all the saxophone parts, all the horn parts, everything. Then I would go and play at little after hour joints with a four or five piece band.”
When Alomar first met Bowie, he was a session musician for RCA Records. He describes their first meeting: “I was told that a lady called ‘Lulu’ was coming to record. I really wanted to work with her, because I had seen her in a movie called ‘To Sir, with Love’ with Sidney Poitier back in the day. I was really enthusiastic, but she wasn’t there. It was just her rhythm section, and the producer was Bowie. He had just left Spiders from Mars so he still had that pasty white skin, that orange — orange, not your Mamma’s orange, some crazy orange — bright orange hair, but the sweetest guy. I told him ‘You know what, you’re pretty thin, why don’t you come over to my house and let my wife make you a nice home cooked meal?’ Next thing I know, his limousine drives up to my home in Queens we had a great time. We talked about my doing the Chitlin’ Circuits, and my working with all these people. Next thing I know, a little while later he asked me to tour with him, and I said yes.”
Since Bowie’s passing, Alomar has been asked for numerous interviews, and speaks very highly of participating in these interviews. He says, “He has allowed us to not only look at life as art, but he’s also allowed us to look at death as art. By treating death the way that he did he allowed us all to interpret what we feel and express it in as many individual ways as possible.”
As such, he’s now faced with the dilemma of expressing his exaltation of Bowie’s teachings in musical form. “The way that I do it is by getting to work with my students and getting them to express it. I’ll help them to do songwriting. I’ll give them the linear teachings of Brian Eno, and show them how to look at electronic music the way that we did. I’ll give them courses on what are the components for electronic bands. These are things that you’re not being taught. Why? Because of the new millennium of technology there are events that are happening all the time and we have got to stay on top of them. Not only stay on top of them, but also we’re responsible for teaching the next generation how to maneuver those waters. And that’s the purpose of the SSRC.”
The SSRC is located on the second floor of Morton, and is chock-full of state-of-the-art equipment, and intuitive teaching methods by which students can teach themselves how to operate this equipment, and express their creative selves. Eventually, Alomar plans to move to a larger space, and open the SSRC up to the general Stevens populous.
Alomar urges those mourning Bowie to create, to be passionate, and to continuously learn and improve. It’s what Bowie would have wanted.