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All the bells, whistles and 111 bikes

Concert to re-create sound of wind with 111 bicyclists, array of instrumentation

By Sam Sessa | sam.sessa@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter

July 12, 2009

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Brian Sacawa and Erik Spangler see themselves as sound guerrillas.

The co-founders of the Contemporary Museum's off-kilter Mobtown Modern concert series don't just perform experimental music - sometimes they like to sneak up on people with it.

That's the case with Mobtown Modern's latest project, a rendition of Mauricio Kagel's Eine Brise (A Breeze), subtitled "Fleeting Action for 111 Cyclists."

No, that number's not a typo. The piece features a troupe of 111 bicyclists, who whistle, ring bells and make whooshing noises with their breath while riding to re-create the sound of a breeze. Sacawa and Spangler are organizing a performance of Eine Brise on Saturday in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, which will coincide with Artscape.

The stretch of Charles Street from Mount Royal Avenue to Lafayette Avenue will be closed for Artscape, the country's largest free arts festival. That will give the cyclists some elbow room on an otherwise crowded street. The festival also features exhibitions by hundreds of artists, performances by an eclectic array of musicians, including Cake, Dionne Warwick and Robert Randolph and the Family Band, as well as countless craft and food vendors.

But the duo aren't disclosing many specifics of the event - namely, where the cyclists will be riding - because they want it to have some shock value for unsuspecting Artscape patrons. The only certainty is that participants will gather outside the Metro Gallery at 3 p.m. From there, it's anybody's guess.

"People who don't live in the city might not be expecting it," Sacawa said. "We want it to be a bit of a surprise and have a little bit of a 'What the hell is that?' quality to it."

Outsiders to the world of experimental contemporary art and music might ask the same question of many Mobtown Modern concerts. The series began in January 2008 at the Contemporary Museum with performances centered on former President George W. Bush's final State of the Union address. Since then, Mobtown Modern has won praise from music critics, and recently moved to a new location, at the Metro Gallery in Station North.

"Contemporary music tends to be a little scary to some people," Sacawa said. "We want to make it as interactive as possible. A lot of our shows make it so people can be part of our performances."

Several months ago, one of Sacawa's friends suggested he stage the 111-cycle extravaganza, since it brings together two of Sacawa's passions: cycling and music.

"I like cycling for some of the same reasons that I decided to pursue music and got four degrees in music performance - it's something you can do for your entire life," he said. "There's never a time in music or cycling when you can say, 'I'm the best in the world. There's always room for self-improvement."

So far, a number of people have signed up to perform Eine Brise, Spangler said. But have they hit 111?

"I'm hoping we get to that number," Spangler said. "I'm not sure if we've gotten there yet or not."

Even if Spangler and Sacawa fall short of the 111 cyclists, the show will go on, they said. And if they get too many people, they won't turn anyone away. Any extra participants can tag along with the rest of the pack.

Music professor and saxophonist Michael Ibrahim will be making the three-hour drive from West Virginia to Baltimore to participate in Saturday's performance. That's a six-hour round-trip for a five-minute show. Even if Sacawa and Spangler decide to repeat the performance a couple times - which is pretty likely, they said - that still amounts to less than 30 minutes of cycling, whistling and whatnot. But Ibrahim is undeterred.

"It seemed like an obvious thing to do for the summer," Ibrahim said. "I'm happy to say this will be my first Kagel work on a bike."

In terms of eccentricity, Eine Brise is par for the course for Kagel. The German-Argentine composer, who passed away last year, penned many such scores, with the idea of bringing together music and theater in an unconventional, almost absurdist, performance. He composed Con Voce, (With Voice), a piece in which three masked musicians mimic playing their instruments, and Match, a tennis game performed by cellist with a percussionist playing the role of the umpire.

"All of his works are really interesting," Ibrahim said. "He's really important within the 20th century. I think he's quite underrated and overlooked."

Even with some knowledge of Kagel's works, Ibrahim is not entirely sure how Saturday's event is going to come off.

"I think it will make for a really haunting effect, actually," Ibrahim said. "I'm curious to see how it's going to piece together. ... I imagine it's going to have a haunting, zombie like [feel], with people on their bikes making sounds."

This kind of performance art is nothing new for Sacawa and Spangler, either. For the past three winters, Sacawa has organized a holiday performance of Phil Kline's Unsilent Night, where a large number of boom box-toting participants take to the streets. The result is a cacophony of sounds, which can echo off the buildings and down the street.

Spangler teaches a sound class at the Maryland Institute College of Art. As part of a class project, every semester he and his students pick an area to record sounds, put the recordings on a boombox, hide it in a public space and hit 'Play.'

"Guerrilla sound art creates a magical experience for unsuspecting audience members in a public space," Spangler said. "It's also music that's in a dialogue with the surrounding soundscape."

Though Spangler and Sacawa might have plenty of experience doing guerrilla sound events on their own, this is the first time they've done this kind of performance as an official Mobtown Modern concert, Sacawa said. In fact, it's the first in a yearly series they're calling the Summer Spectacle. Much like Eine Brise, next year's event, while still under wraps, also has a large cast of participants.

"It involves 80 trombonists," Sacawa said with a laugh. "We'll have to start rounding them up now."

Artscape highlights
With scores of performances and exhibits, this year's Artscape Festival has plenty to see and do. Here are five events you don't want to miss.

Sondheim semi-finalists

See works by the 25 semi-finalists, who vied for the $25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize. The pieces will be on display at the Decker and Meyerhoff galleries of the Maryland Institute College of Art, 1300 W. Mt. Royal Ave., during the festival weekend.

Billie Holiday Vocal

Competition, 12 p.m. July 19

In this annual singing competition, 10 semi-finalists show off their mastery of Holiday's unique vocal delivery at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Dionne Warwick, 8 p.m. July 17, main stage

Warwick, one of the more successful female singers of the past 50 years, is a veritable legend of R&B. Here's a chance to see her perform - free of charge. The main stage is near the intersection of Cathedral Street and Mount Royal Avenue.

DJ Culture at the Windup Space

This year, the Windup Space, 10 W. North Ave., hosts more than 15 DJs over the course of July 17-18. The list of performers includes King Tutt feat. Ultra Nate, DJ Booman, Will Eastman and more.

The Play's The Thing

The Theatre Project, at 45 W. Preston St., is a hub for Artscape plays, live poetry and other performances. Artists include Drop 3, Diane Ligon's Puppet Theatre, The Missoula Oblongata and more. Many of the productions center on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

•For more information about Artscape and a full roster of this year's events, go to artscape.org.