Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email


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

Page 3 of 3.   1  2  3  

For decades, the path to success for musicians and composers, especially those involved in contemporary music, led straight to New York City. "New York was the place to be," Brian Sacawa says. "That's where stuff happens." He's not convinced it's the path for him anymore, and maybe not for many in Baltimore.

"I think our ideas of success need to change," he says. "Especially nowadays when things are more connected and you don't have to be in a specific geographical place, I really think Baltimore is ripe for this kind of thing, whatever that is--this new musical form that's going to happen." He pauses and smiles: "The Live Baltimore people should pay me. I talk Baltimore up."

Oscar Bettison agrees that Baltimore's non-New Yorkness could be a positive thing for new music: "I like the fact that there's a buzz about a regional scene that isn't New York, you know?" After all, what may prove most fruitful for his composition students can be accomplished anywhere rent is relatively cheap and musicians and listeners are plentiful.

"It's expensive to put on an orchestral performance, so why would an orchestra put on a piece by a 21-year-old?" he asks. "But what a 21-year-old can do is write music for [his or her] friends and put this stuff on. We're pretty much talking a garage-band aesthetic, but for classical music."

And there are signs that Baltimore's new-music grassroots could be spreading. Inside a Station North loft space, 26-year-old Rod Hamilton confesses that he isn't familiar with Mobtown Modern or Evolution. And despite the fact that he earned a Towson University bachelor's degree in music performance, he says, he never got much formal exposure to contemporary music.

"I learned a lot about Baroque music and a lot about classical music," he says, but "my teacher had to skip over the minimalists because we didn't have time at the end [of the class]."

He came to contemporary music on his own, via friends and the internet ("The answer to everything," he deadpans). And he and his roommates in what they call the Soft House are passionate enough about it, particularly minimalism, that recently they recruited more than three-dozen local musicians to perform Terry Riley's 1964 minimalist masterpiece In C.

A tiny fawn-colored puppy romps over the afghans strewn across the loft floor on a March evening as a stream of musicians walk up to Hamilton, cellos and guitars in hand, and ask where they should set up. Lacking a single room big enough to hold 37-plus musicians, Hamilton and roommates/collaborators Amanda Schmidt, John Somers, and Grayson Brown decided to arrange players in groups throughout several rooms and allow listeners to build their own version of In C by wandering from spot to spot. After all, the piece itself is never the same twice.

"There are 53 melodies [to the score] and you start with 1, then somebody moves to 2, but somebody else is still on 1, and it just kinda morphs and moves," the wide-eyed Hamilton says between incessant cell phone calls. "It's exciting even to rehearse it."

The semi-improvisational nature of the piece is, in part, what inspired the Soft House performance. The piece accommodates players of different skill levels and "I could gather so many musicians together who I'm friends with, but never have been able to all play together at the same time," Hamilton notes. "It's been fun working with this many players--this many friends."

Fifty-three-year-old jazz pianist Tim Murphy, one of Hamilton's TU teachers, is set up as part of a circle of keyboardists in the front room. Ponytail's Dustin Wong and Dope Body's Zach Utz sit at the center of a line of electric guitarists lining the hall. Percussionist Will Redman, who played drums in Mobtown Modern's Cobra and has had a composition performed at an Evolution concert, is set up behind a vibraphone in the rear corner. At a few minutes after midnight, the strident, steady clink that keeps the pulse of the piece begins in monitor speakers on the floor in front of each grouping of musicians. The packed house of twenty- and thirtysomethings (and a few parents and/or older music aficionados) falls silent as the musicians begin picking or pecking or bowing or blowing the first notes of Riley's score.

For a few minutes, then 10, then a half hour, the various players ebb and flow on their various parts, locking in and drifting apart, pausing and then moving on, creating a room-filling tintinnabulation that changes in timbre and texture depending on whether you're facing the reed instruments or have turned toward a line of laptops and other electronics set up along a low table.

After more than 50 minutes, Hamilton and Somers climb up on chairs at opposite ends of the space, and, with simultaneous downstrokes of their arms, bring the piece to a stop. A brief silence succumbs to wild cheers and applause.

The Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern series presents the world premiere of Erik Spangler's Mandala Of The Four Directions at MICA's Brown Center April 1 beginning at 8 p.m. The piece begins an all-night musical "vigil" featuring drum circles, djs, and free jazz from Microkingdom and the Out Of Your Head Crew. For more information visit

Page 3 of 3.   1  2  3  

Related stories

Feature archives

More Stories

The Black Box (6/16/2010)
Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience

Role Model (5/26/2010)
In his new book, John Waters writes about amateur pornographers, lesbian strippers, and Clarabell the Clown and reveals . . . himself

Transmodern Festival 2010 (4/14/2010)
Introduction and Schedule of Events

More from Lee Gardner

The Lady Vanishes (8/4/2010)
Meet Henrietta Vinton Davis-one of the most amazing women you've probably never heard of

Blaster Master (7/14/2010)
Landis Expandis can't live without his radios

The Black Box (6/16/2010)
Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter