[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
All apologies to Mr. Holland, but our opuses have gone electronic. Orchestras still abound, but the most groundbreaking compositions often are created with computer and keyboard. And within Southern California, Steve Nalepa may be the closest approximation to Richard Dreyfuss' famed music teacher in the Academy Award-nominated 1995 film Mr. Holland's Opus.
In February three of the billed guests at Low End Theory — L.A.'s vaunted hub of brain-crumbling beats and obscene bass — boasted an affiliation with Nalepa, the Chicago-born composer, former Chapman University professor and onetime wide receiver at Yale.
From 2006 until last spring, Nalepa's music-technology courses ranked among the most popular at Chapman, the liberal arts school in Orange. His intro classes taught students the history of music technology, from the player piano through Ableton. His advanced class required students to bring in new compositions each week, and before it was over they had to furnish a mini-album, complete with art, bio and tech rider.
“It's been a nice experiment to introduce talented young musicians to crazy new computer composition programs,” says Nalepa from his home in Mount Washington, which overlooks the shoulders of Chavez Ravine. In his late 30s, Nalepa looks like he just left the Ivy League, wearing cargo shorts, flannel shirt and a partially buzzed head (no Skrillex).
Under Nalepa's aegis, the Chapman conservatory yielded several of the region's most gifted young artists, including St. Andrew, Fuzz and Virtual Boy. The latter released a haunting debut LP this month on Alpha Pup, the label of Low End Theory co-founder Daddy Kev. This sort of thing is to be expected when your college courses include guest lectures from people like astral producer Nosaj Thing and British radio royalty Mary Anne Hobbs. Oh, and then there was the time Nalepa took a class on a field trip to Low End Theory to see the top-secret DJ set from Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
“I told the class that if anyone ruined the secret by posting it on Facebook or Twitter, I'd fail them,” Nalepa says. “They flipped out but managed to keep it a secret. The second that class ended, everyone headed north en masse.”
Nalepa's education career followed a slate of jobs so random and diverse that a conversation with him is like attending a one-man career fair. He was the publisher and co-founder of the award-winning art book imprint Dilettante Press, and he's played Barney at children's birthday parties. He's promoted weekly audiovisual and DJ parties and directed music videos. He instructed Damon Wayans Jr. at Crossroads and taught science to Jason Schwartzman at Windward. More recently, he handled VIP customer support for M-Audio, where he taught Ableton to the likes of Seal and other celebrities. He even almost won $1 million on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? before going for broke and missing the final question: What was the first American satellite to orbit the Earth? Answer: Explorer 1.
Since his first organ lessons in the first grade, music has been Nalepa's chief constant. His own compositions reveal a strong ear for melody and structure, but his most significant contribution might be the wisdom he's imparted to his pupils. Since departing Chapman last summer, Nalepa has devised a curriculum for Dubspot, a bicoastal music production and DJ school. He's also tutored a 12-year-old electronic prodigy named Subjection (né Frankie Eder), who looks no older than Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone but lit up the dance floor at Low End last month, making him the youngest performer to play the famed weekly club night.
“[Nalepa] knows exactly what needs to be done to make my music get better,” says Eder, who lives with his parents and sister in Tustin. “He points out when my tracks start getting boring and helps me think of new and interesting things.”
Eder adds that since he began working with Nalepa, the number of people listening to him on Soundcloud has increased dramatically. By now, this seems to be par for the course — should you have been fortunate enough to take it.