North Avenue on Sunday afternoon seemed to be under attack by bees.
But not just any bees. These would have to be big ones, equipped with electronic amplification and reverb effects, and something to make it sound as if they were flying through a giant echoing drainpipe.
As it turns out, it was not any of that, but a sidewalk show at the Megapolis Audio Festival, which variously buzzed, clicked, murmured, thrummed, chirped, plucked and drummed through three days of experimental performance, workshops, lectures and exhibits. More than 70 artists, musicians, documentary makers and radio producers gathered at seven venues along North Avenue and Charles Street Friday through Sunday to celebrate the craft of what they call "DIY" or "Do It Yourself" audio.
Katherine Gorman, a producer at WYPR-FM and the festival's regional director, called it a "gathering for people who are interested in sound and creative sound."
Justin Grotelueschen, the managing director, said he helped get the first festival going last year in Cambridge, Mass., as a way to bring artists of varying skills together to share ideas and find support amid hard economic times. Those who gathered for Baltimore's version of the event — from around the country, up and down the megalopolis between Washington and Boston and as far as Hamburg, Germany — were mostly "trying to push boundaries" of using sound.
The Echo Gallery on North Avenue was echoing Sunday afternoon with a performance by Baltimore artist Neil Feather and three other players on instruments that might have been guitars in their previous lives but now were rigged to play music indifferent to any tonal scale known to man. They were joined by a series of five mechanical contraptions Feather created and called "Thunderwheels," which use magnets and bicycle wheels to bang drums.
"I find these instruments … kind of calming," said Feather, a Baltimore man with a shaved head, a white soul patch/goatee and black jeans. "It tends to slow my heart."
Feather said he considers himself "sort of old school when it comes to this stuff" because he uses mechanical rather than digital means to create much of his sound. He said he counts avant-garde composer/instrument maker Harry Partch and composer John Cage among his inspirations.
When they got going, the four ex-guitars and the Thunderwheels made you think of John Cage. Or perhaps John Cage tuning up during a 9.8 earthquake at the Gibson guitar factory.
The buzzing on North Avenue was a whole other story.
That was actually Nelson Loskamp, who otherwise is a painter and a hair stylist at a shop on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, where a haircut — just a haircut, mind you — starts at $125. But that wouldn't include extras such as highlights.
There he was in the more humble surroundings of North Avenue, on the sidewalk outside The Windup Space without a barber chair, but heavily equipped nonetheless. On his back he wore a small amplifier, and around his waist he wore a leather tool belt — the sort you'd see strapped to guys climbing utility poles. Only this one was loaded with scissors, electric hair clippers and four sound-effect foot pedals that one might expect to find on the stage floor at a rock concert.
The scissors, the clippers and the pedals were all rigged up to the amplifier and the whole works was juiced through a single orange AC cable.
On the metal grate behind him, he'd created his own makeshift sign with red electrical tape: "ELECTRIC CHAIRCUT BY NELSON." He set up a plain chair as a barber chair, and invited a series of volunteers to sit down and be draped and taped to the chair, including tape over the eyes and mouth, giving the performance a bondage frisson.
The idea is to create "sound compositions and hair compositions at the same time, " said Nelson, who also wore the required black jeans and, with his shock of blond hair, bore a striking resemblance to Andy Warhol.
The sounds bore a striking resemblance to, well, it's hard to say exactly. The scissors, for instance: Try to imagine a pack of starving mechanical Doberman pinschers eating aluminum siding during a Pink Floyd concert. The electric clippers, well, that's where the gigantic bees come in.
"It's hard to describe," said Gina Hey of New York, who had her short light-brown hair cut. "I guess it was just kind of resonating around me … I was kind of frightened, actually."