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Davis, California

Friday, April 12, 2024

Three UC Davis faculty named Guggenheim fellows


Professors Pelo, Rosen, Venkatesan will receive grants for creative work

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation named three UC Davis faculty members as Guggenheim fellows on April 5. Associate professor of music Mika Pelo, professor of art Annabeth Rosen and associate professor of religious studies and comparative literature Archana Venkatesan are three of 175 scholars who were selected out of a pool of nearly 3,000 candidates.

The Guggenheim Fellowship is a grant given to fellows for a six to twelve month period. It is designed to offer fellows a period of unrestricted creative freedom so that they may pursue a project in their field. The fellowship is awarded to individuals who have made exceptional contributions in the fields of creative arts, humanities, natural sciences or social sciences. One must apply to be considered for a fellowship, and only citizens and permanent residents of the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean are permitted to enter the contest.

Mika Pelo is a composer who teaches music composition at UC Davis. He received a fellowship in the category of creative arts in honor of his work in the field of composition.

Pelo earned a doctorate in composition from Columbia University and also holds several other degrees in music from five institutions of higher education in Europe. Pelo has been commissioned to compose music for the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Swedish Arts Council and the Prague Moderne, among other ensembles.

The composer draws inspiration from French spectral composition, which involves using technology to visualize the spectra of sound in order to determine the timbre of acoustic or synthetic music.

“Spectral music is much more sensual [than modern music] in a way,” Pelo said. “It’s not afraid of being beautiful. For me, when I heard it, it provided me with a kind of, ‘Okay, this is where I belong.’”

Music from other countries similarly influences Pelo’s artistic inspiration. Pelo himself is from Sweden, so Scandinavian music, specifically lyricism, shapes his compositions.

“You’ll find a lot of folk music influences in classical music in Sweden,” Pelo said. “That’s what I was brought up with, and that’s still influencing me.”

Currently, Pelo is working on a composition for an orchestra in Latvia and making preparations for his project as a Guggenheim fellow: writing an opera. This task is of an immense scale with many complexities and components to visualize and create, so Pelo is unsure of how long it might take to complete the entire project.

“There are so many moving parts to it,” Pelo said. “It’s not just the music, it’s the drama of it, it’s the staging, and it’s very expensive to do.”

Pelo’s opera will include several modern and traditional operatic elements and music. Similarly to how he uses computers to assist his music composition, he intends to integrate technology into his proposed opera.

“There are so many possibilities these days with using big screens to project stuff — maybe dream sequences could be projected on screens,” Pelo said. “You can involve electronic music as well, it doesn’t just have to be traditional instruments.”

Although other writers and composers have incorporated modern music and technology into their operas, Pelo is focused on making the simultaneous existence of classic and modern components as seamless as possible.

“Very often, it comes off as quite gimmicky, and I would like to try to make it feel integrated,” Pelo said. “I think in a successful opera, all of these things are integrated.”

Rosen, a co-chair of the Department of Art and History at UC Davis, was honored by the Guggenheim Foundation for her ceramic sculptures. Her art has been shown across the country. Most notably, some of her pieces are currently on display in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1992, Rosen was named a Pew Fellow, and in 2016, Rosen was honored as a fellow by United States Artists, a Chicago-based philanthropic organization that supports American artists.

The artist’s sculptures are very intricate, and many of her pieces center around combining small, often unrelated objects into larger structures.

“I make my own found objects, and then pack them together to make shapes, to make sense of disparate things,” Rosen said. “Even with disparate things, things that don’t have logic or belong together, sometimes their sheer proximity makes a kind of logic because you comprehend and see them in the same field of vision.”

Rosen noted that as an artist, she draws from new wells of inspiration every day, and that it can be challenging for her as an artist to constantly find unique sources of inspiration for her work.

“You know what you did yesterday and you kind of know what you’re working on today but you can’t say, ‘That worked yesterday, so I’ll do it again,’” Rosen said.

Rosen intends to use her fellowship not for an upcoming project or proposed creation, but to find inspiration and knowledge abroad. She will be traveling to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia to learn more about Asian art. Rosen may also hold a lecture or art show while abroad.

“I’ve had a long term interest in certain Chinese artists who I’d like to talk to,” Rosen said. “I may go once, I may go twice, I don’t quite know yet.”

Venkatesan is an author, researcher, translator and associate professor at UC Davis. She earned her Ph.D. in South Asian studies, which is closely related to her current research interests into South Indian literary texts.

Most specifically, Venkatesan translates and researches texts in the Tamil language. Her interest in this language stems from her undergraduate study at UC Berkeley, where she took a life-altering class on Tamil literature and translation.

“It was like a whole world just exploded in front of me,” Venkatesan said. “I had no idea that there was poetry and there was literature and drama and all of these kinds of things. It just changed my life.”

Venkatesan has devoted nearly 10 years to her research into the Adhyayana Utsavam, or the Festival of Recitation. The 20-day festival revolves around the recitation of verses from a revered poem in Tamil as well as a dramatic and complex visual performance of the text.

“I started this project interested in one temple, but this temple is actually embedded in a network of other temples,” Venkatesan said. “It’s taken me ten years to actually understand what’s happening in this festival, like what is going on.”

She described the festival as exciting and intoxicating to experience. Even after having attended the festival for 10 years, she believes there is still more to learn about the festival itself as well as its implications and effects on its audience. Her research details several components of the festival, delving past the literal form of the poem and into the meaning of the poem itself.

“There are some very deep patterns that reveal themselves, sort of very complex ritual things,” Venkatesan said. “The poetry has all these dimensions, so it’s poetry that is visualized; it’s poetry that is shown through the ornamentation of deities, it’s poetry that’s used to transform space — just by reciting this poetry, this ordinary space is transformed into Heaven for that duration.”

Venkatesan intends to use her Guggenheim Fellowship to continue her research on the festival. The grant will support her annual observation of the ceremony.



Written by: Jacqueline Moore — campus@theaggie.org



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