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Spot On: Dan Schwarzlose (M.F.A. ’06)

Dan Schwarzlose (center) with Cambodian musicians Phoeun Sreypov (left) and Nhok Sinat. They performed at the Cambodian Association of Illinois in Chicago on April 20. Photo: Rachael Strecher (B.A. ’08)

A two-week vacation to Cambodia in 2008 changed Dan Schwarzlose’s life—and perhaps many others’ as well.

While there, Schwarzlose visited some traditional music classes. He learned that during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, which targeted anyone suspected of being educated or intellectual, roughly 95 percent of all Cambodian musicians were massacred. Today, just 15 traditional master musicians from that time remain, many of them elderly or in poor health.

Schwarzlose, a classically trained musician and artist who earned an M.F.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts and Media from Columbia in 2006, knew what he had to do. He returned to Chicago and gave notice at the Public Interest Law Initiative, where he had been working for six years.

“I do important stuff in Chicago, but I’m done,” he decided. “I intend to go to Cambodia and save the music … I plan to be there for decades. I will not stop.” He is working to raise money and worldwide interest in Cambodian Living Arts, a group that is attempting to save Cambodia’s traditional music from extinction by training young musicians at the feet of the few remaining masters. He has invested thousands of his own dollars in the cause, but hopes to secure grants and outside funding.

“So many people know Cambodia for the horrible things the Khmer Rouge did,” Schwarzlose says. “There is no way I'm going to let those horrible people win 35 years later just because they almost wiped out the music. [Cambodian Living Arts] is something really beautiful and really positive.”

Schwarzlose’s work in Cambodia is the latest chapter in a consistently fascinating artistic life. In 1998, he helped found the Elastic Arts Foundation, a Chicago-based musicians’ cooperative that produces live music, readings, art, theater, and multimedia events. And while a student at Columbia, his work took another interesting turn. He has always been interested in multisensory art, so a friend suggested he check out Moto—the groundbreaking, surrealistic Chicago restaurant run by chef Homaro Cantu. He had dinner there and became fast friends with the chef.

“That meal literally changed my life,” Schwarzlose says. He wound up spending four years with Cantu, touring the world and making videos of Cantu’s amazing creations. He helped create and write the first season of Cantu’s new reality show, Future Food, which began airing in March on Planet Green. He hopes to continue working with Cantu while living overseas.

“I’ve fallen in love with Cambodia,” Schwarzlose says. “I’m studying the language and I’m committed to learning it and being fluent.” He now makes his home in Phnom Penh, and is struck by how welcoming the people are. “They love me and I love them.”

—Heather Lalley

Slide Show: Saving Cambodia's traditional music. Photos courtesy of Dan Schwarzlose.