By Anthony Lewis, Staff Writer
Professor of music Steve Pane, who is in the midst of a semester-long sabbatical, returned recently from a month spent abroad in his ancestral homeland of Italy. Between February 24th and March 18th, Professor Pane lived with a host family in Venice, the jewel of northern Italy, studying the language, the work of modernist composer Alfredo Casella, and the condition of being the only stranger in a room full of friends.
A conversation with Professor Pane is a bit of a trip. His manner of speaking fluctuates wildly in speed; he’ll go from slogging his way through a sentence like a spoon through molasses to speaking so quickly keeping up is next to impossible. From time to time, he lets his eyes fall shut midsentence, as though he’s thinking on what he’s saying as he’s saying it. Like any good Italian, he speaks with his hands, with the fluid, effortless movements of someone who’s obviously conducted his fair share of orchestras. Nursing a steaming shot of espresso and some manner of berry scone, he recalled the details of his time abroad.
“The trip was good! Almost life-changing, actually,” he said, fidgeting with the buttons on his shirtsleeves. “It wasn’t a tourist trip, you know? I didn’t see the sights, or go out the to restaurants or anything like that. I was looking at music from the World War I period in Italy, and I also went to, you know, master Italian the best that I can. And, you know, it’s not really about learning vocabulary, it’s about learning about culture, another way of thinking. Language is really a door into another way of seeing the world in some truly amazing ways.”
After a few minutes of conversation, it became clear that Professor Pane went to Venice with a very foggy idea of exactly what he wanted to accomplish on sabbatical.
“I went to Venice to study this period, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do,” he said. He mentioned a movie screening he attended on one of his first nights in Venice, a 1916 silent film directed by Febo Mari called Cenere. “This was totally a coincidence, but when I saw the film, I decided what I wanted to do was find another silent film from Italy, from this period, and put the music of Casella to it. I’m gonna do a soundtrack to it [one of the silent films], a live performance, using Casella’s music. This is gonna be more modernist, which is not usually what you hear when you see a silent film.” He flashed a devious grin, his goatee curling slightly at the tips. “This’ll have more of a bite to it.”
Professor Pane spoke at length about the trials of being surrounded by a language you don’t fully understand, eventually lapsing into musings on the nature of traveling, taking time off, and finding a niche that could use filling.
“One question you ask yourself when you go on sabbatical is ‘what do you really wanna do?’” he said. “I mean, for some it’s to write a book, for some it’s to create a piece, and I’m somewhere in the middle. Because I write, but I’m also a performer. At the core, I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew I would do something with Alfredo Casella. I knew that I would do as much as I possibly could to develop my understanding of the language.” Eyes shut again, hand drawing long, slow circles in the air. “What I didn’t know was what form it was going to take. I was wary about just writing another article. What I really wanted to do was something more creative.”
“It’s interesting, I came away from the sabbatical – and this is part of what makes sabbatical so important – really recommitted to teaching,” said Pane. He described attending an academic lecture conducted entirely in Italian, and having to struggle just to keep his head above water. “And in a sense, I had to put myself where I’ve asked so many of my students to go, where I’m in situations where I had very little idea what was going on.”
“Those are the moments of failure you have to laugh at,” Pane said with a sheepish grin. “Because, at the end…I mean, the only way to achieve anything is to just throw yourself into situations where you really are lost. And, as faculty, we get so used to being comfortable, and not having to do that, that to just suddenly do it again makes me appreciate so much more the difficulty of being a student. But also, more than that, the joy of—when you finally get it—” the grin creeps back over his face. “It’s a really good feeling, but it takes incredible perseverance.”
As the conversation came to a close, Professor Pane offered a bit of advice for students or faculty looking to spend time abroad. By that time, his hands had fallen limp on the table, one crossed over the other, exhausted from an hour of intensive storytelling.
“Know that there’s a tourist barrier, where you can go to a country, and it’s almost like you’re not really in the country,” he said. “You’re in a part of the country that’s designed for people visiting, and if you can push past that barrier…it’s the restaurant that’s not right in front of the main attraction, but the little place in the back where they only speak Italian. Try to get to know the people who are there. I think that’s the main point of what a sabbatical, or really any trip, should be. To throw yourself completely into areas of the unknown.”