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With a little style and flair, Mobtown Modern opens up the avant-garde

Brian Sacawa (left) and Erik Spangler present "new music" in a new way.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 9/9/2009

The new season of Mobtown Modern opens Sept. 16 at the Metro Gallery.

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What most critics and academics refer to as "new music" occupies a strange space in the world, and especially in Baltimore. Somewhere between the lingering notes that seep out of concert halls and conservatories and the dissonant, bohemian sounds produced by avant-garde improvisers and noise-rockers, it exists in a sort of amorphous vacuum where it's not clear how and where it ought to be performed, who should listen to it, and whether to sit or stand or dance or chat and sip beers while watching it.

Enter Brian Sacawa and Erik Spangler, the curators of the Mobtown Modern series. Poised to open their third season Sept. 16 at the Metro Gallery, the two have produced two wildly successful new music series, with the patronage of the Contemporary Museum, and have excelled at what they do by neither biting off more than they can chew nor conforming to anyone else's idea of what "new music" should be.

"The new music scene is searching for a vision, and it's definitely going to be some sort of cross-genre pollination," Sacawa says over beers in a Hampden bar. "This is brewing, and definitely something is going to come of it."

Sacawa and Spangler met in 2003, when they were both pursuing graduate degrees in music--Sacawa at the University of Michigan, Spangler at Harvard. Spangler, also known as DJ Dubble8, composed a piece of music and sent it to Sacawa to perform on. Titled "Pastlife Laptops and Attic Instruments," it starts with a downtempo beat and a foreboding bass line played on piano and gradually accelerates into a mellow breakbeat-led track stuffed with scratches, samples, and other ambient moving parts, over which Sacawa loops a highly adorned, vaguely Eastern European-sounding clarinet part. Everything they've done since has grown out of this first collaboration.

"It was basically the most successful experience I'd had collaborating with another musician and feeling like I had a really cool band," Spangler says.

Sacawa agrees. "We connected on a philosophical level," he says. "We had both gone through that academic thing, and academic music tends to be really insular. There isn't a whole lot of reaching out. One way Erik and I really connected was we shared this need to have this music we really cared about reach out and connect with as many people as possible."

Now both living in Baltimore--Spangler in Mount Vernon with his wife and two children, Sacawa in Hampden with his wife--they actually do have a band together called Hybrid Groove Project, which performs a sort of way-out-there fusion of free jazz and IDM. Spangler, who teaches introductory music classes at MICA, dresses part hip-hop DJ, part London club kid, in a zip-up turtleneck sweater and matching brown straight-brimmed Orioles cap. He has a Ph.D. in composition, but he's also a devoted fan of DJ Spooky, Madlib, and a number of other turntablists who tend toward the downtempo and the artsy.

Hybrid Groove Project's music is decidedly not exemplary of the type of works performed at Mobtown Modern concerts--although the group will lead one of this season's shows through a sampling of works by German serialist and electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen--but its aesthetic is a good window into Sacawa and Spangler's approach to presenting music that is, to most ears, unfamiliar, challenging, even alarming.

On "The HGP Anthem," a joke track that appears on the group's MySpace page, they pose as new music gangsters trying to start beef with unreceptive conservatory students and effect a rift between the East and West Coast avant-garde. They're "American mavericks, spinnin' fab shit with Milton Bizzabbit," throwing out props to San Francisco Symphony director Michael Tilson Thomas, spitting out lines like "Down with MTT? Yeah you know me."

"The casual format, and a little bit of humor, all makes this music more accessible," says Irene Hofmann, executive director of the Contemporary Museum, which used to host MM concerts in a second-floor gallery that could hold 70. Now, the series has outgrown the museum's space and moved uptown to the larger Metro Gallery. "We're starting to feel a little more like we have a following, have an audience, and now we need more chairs."

But it's not just the funny bits that ought to draw people. There's an edgy, palpable excitement to Sacawa and Spangler's programming style and their ideas about presentation and performance. One show this season, which corresponds with an art exhibit at the Contemporary involving drawings faxed in by artists, involves composers faxing in scores to be interpreted by musicians on the spot.

The first concert of the season, titled "Loopy," features a variety of tape-loop and effects-based compositions by such blog-familiar musicians as DJ Krush, Blockhead, and Prefuse 73. The next show, revolving around pieces and instruments that explore the low range of written music, features music by contemporary French spectral composer Gérard Grisey and Italian composer/poetGiacinto Scelsi, who was a disciple of the legendary Viennese modernist Alban Berg.

Other performances sound like just good old-fashioned fun. During Artscape, the pair assembled hundreds of bicycle-riding volunteers to circle through the city with horns, whistles, and their own vocal cords imitating the sound of wind to perform a guerilla version of Mauricio Kagel's Eine Brise. In December, they plan to gather a boombox-wielding mob to march to the Metro Gallery performing Phil Kline's "boombox parade" piece Unsilent Night. In April, four singers and four separate ensembles will arrange themselves in the shape of a mandala to premiere an interactive, ritualistic, Phillip Glass-inspired piece written by Spangler.

What Mobtown Modern shares with the active and mercurial improvised-music community that congregates around the High Zero Festival each fall is a sense of Dadaist irreverence and convention-busting cheekiness. What's different is that Spangler and Sacawa's shows don't place such a high premium on the freedom and primal importance of improvisation. Their goal is to expose people to music that's challenging, but not necessarily because of the directness of its expression.

"Free music in Baltimore obeys certain formulas, about time duration and noise level," Spangler says. "There are certain predictable shapes it can take. At the same time, you don't have to understand serialism or understand set theory [to understand the music we present]."

And when Spangler says it, it doesn't sound like a jab at the city's free musicians. Instead, you get the impression that Spangler and Sacawa have nothing but respect for their improvising counterparts.

"This is my feeling: Baltimore excels in the extreme," Sacawa says. "When Baltimore [wants to go] all in, they tend to go all in."

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