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The New Now

Contemporary composition in Baltimore goes DIY and leaves the concert hall behind

Photos By Frank Hamilton
Brian Sacawa

By Lee Gardner | Posted 3/31/2010

Erik Spangler's Mandala Of The Four Directions world premiere

MICA's Brown Center, April 1, 8 p.m.

For more information visit

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There's a guerrilla in the room. He's tall and thin and his hair is stuffed under a wool cap, and he's scowling around the circle of musicians assembled in a fourth-floor studio at MICA's Brown Center on a late February evening, making forceful gestures. As various players advance knotty improvised solo lines into the ongoing mix of sounds and textures, the guerrilla jabs an index finger at a saxophonist, then at a cellist, and then back, whereupon the players start tossing phrases back and forth. He faces the upright bassist and gives him a "thumbs up" sign, at which the bassist suddenly stops playing.

The gestures and musical rearrangements continue for a few more measures before the guerrilla takes off his hat, sits down, and picks up a saxophone. A slim, bespectacled man standing in front of the circle of players paws through a pile of colored posterboard signs before seizing one marked with a large black p, holding it up so the seven players can see it, and then dropping it to the table, when the rich thrum of sound shifts again.

After the man at the table drops a final card--all black--the music stops. Silence for a few beats. As the musicians relax, saxophonist John Berndt asks, "Is there any way to effectively suppress a guerrilla?"

There is, as it turns out, but it's complicated, as are many things about John Zorn's 1984 composition Cobra. Based on Zorn's interest in game theory, the piece involves no score, per se, only a series of rules about who among an unspecified number and type of musicians can (and must) improvise, when, and how, as dictated by a prompter--in this case Brian Sacawa--via a series of symbol-bearing cards and hand signals. The rules also allow someone to put on a hat to become a guerilla, as Sam Burt did, and enforce their own prompts.

Burt volunteers to relieve Sacawa as prompter, allowing the latter to pick up his saxophone and join the other musicians, a mix of local jazz players (saxophonist John Dierker), veteran improvisers (cellist Audrey Chen), and one classically trained composer with a Ph.D. from Harvard (turntablist Erik Spangler). As Burt raises his first card, the rehearsal for another installment of the Mobtown Modern concert series heads off in yet another direction.

While group improvisation has been a staple Baltimore music for more than 15 years, this may be the first time Zorn's groundbreaking composition has ever been performed here, or at least outside the walls of Peabody Institute, Mount Vernon's esteemed conservatory. But it represents an unusual kind of musical activity that's becoming more and more common.

Thanks to Peabody and the esteemed Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and their many offshoots, local music fans rarely lack for performances of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and the other major composers of the traditional canon. But a small but growing community is dedicating itself to performing composed music that's nowhere near canonical, at least not yet. Mobtown Modern, curated by Sacawa, is now nearing the end of its third season of presenting music by 20th- and 21st-century composers ranging from Karlheinz Stockhausen and Giacinto Scelsi to Alexandra Gardner (no relation to this writer) and Michael Lowenstern. For four years now, the Evolution Contemporary Music Series has devoted itself exclusively to concerts of pieces by living composers, a mandate that excludes even "new music" giants such as the late Stockhausen. ("That's our only criteria," series founder Judah Adashi quips. "The undead.") Perhaps what is most notable about this modest boom in modern music is that it's happening outside the auspices of the town's traditional institutions of high musical culture--in clubs and art spaces, not concert halls. It's a grassroots movement, of all things, and it's part of a sea-change in the world of serious music that isn't confined to Baltimore.

"I think that a new musical culture is trying to form itself," Sacawa says. "And I don't know what it is or what it's going to turn out to be, but there are all these experiments going on right now."

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