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Now Hear This

Posted 4/7/2010

I was happy to see the coverage of the recent Mobtown Modern Cobra concert, which I played in and thoroughly enjoyed ("The New Now," Feature, March 31). I do think there is an exciting upsurge of composed experimental music happening in non-academic settings in Baltimore, but I also experience it in the context of longer wavelength of extremely varied experimental activity that has been percolating here since the early '70s. The experimental music scene around Red Room and High Zero has always had one claw stuck in unusual composition techniques, probably dating back to vague origins in the "Official" Project, an early '90s, 14-person big band that used original "game piece" (we didn't call it that!) conduction methods a short decade after Zorn's games pieces were first published--pieces that were themselves structurally, if not sonically, reminiscent of works by Christian Wolf and Cornelius Cardew.

The "Official" Project among many others included myself, Neil Feather, John Eaton, and John Dierker, all musicians who have been involved in a lot of quite varied musical approaches since--and these "game pieces" certainly influenced our approach to improvisation. More recently, the Red Room's "After Now" series, which was unfortunately not captured in the article, has presented many superb performances of works by avant-garde composers, some quite formally original. These composers have been almost entirely local, an important distinction of the series. Over the years, I've been excited to play in many underground concerts of composed music around town, including works by little-known but great composers Franz Kamin, Joseph Celli, Alessandro Bosetti, and Alvin Lucier--these experiences have been important and inspiring.

Today, as someone who composes and also performs other people's compositions, but who is also heavily involved in freely improvised experimental music, what I find most positive is not just that there are more concerts of interesting composed work going on, but that Baltimore has such a fantastic pool of talented, committed, risk-taking, creative musicians, and that these musicians, whatever their specializations, are often sophisticated enough to hang with improvised, composed, and hybrid musical forms. And, beyond that, that the various "scenes" which are clustered around different sensibilities and approaches feel unusually open at present--there are lots of inspired collaborations that cross among these labels. That excites me greatly--and I hope it continues and deepens . . . ever onwards and outwards.

John Berndt

As a former Peabody student, I loved Lee Gardner's article "The New Now" about the Mobtown Modern series. It was great to see this awesome group of people get the recognition they deserve.

I was dismayed, however, to see that Peabody still solicits a "we're stuffy" attitude from most people who hear or write about it. Mr. Gardner was right; There is not a lot of contemporary classical music coming out of its one block of Mount Vernon, but this isn't to say that the students aren't doing something about it.

The problem is, as Judah Adashi put it, there are no halls available at prime concert time at Peabody. The concert office essentially tells its students, don't even think about coming to us for a hall because you ain't getting one.

My good friend and former violinist at the conservatory, Colin Sorgi, decided that this wasn't going to stop him. He and a few friends (including myself) created the SONAR New Music Ensemble two years ago, which he has taken out west with him as he continues his studies in Indiana.

I hated contemporary classical music when I first entered Peabody. But for our first concert, I sang a set of William Bolcom's Cabaret Songs, which I ended up doing for my senior recital. I fell in love. We continued to perform at several different venues in Mount Vernon, including An die Musik, which was a concert dedicated solely to the music of Aaron Jay Kernis.

Peabody does not offer much on contemporary music classes. The only thing I took as an undergraduate was music history, which students tend to sleep through whether they're learning about Bach or Berio. However, more and more students are performing contemporary music on their recitals. It is exciting to do a piece someone has never heard of. They almost always have a very strong reaction to it--love it or hate it. The voice teacher Phyllis Bryn-Julson is known for throwing some funky contemporary pieces at her students.

Peabody is still a classical music conservatory, and there are still students who are keen on learning the classical craft and only that. But this isn't to say that slowly but surely, students want to break the mold, and be . . . well, different.

Britt Olsen-Ecker

They're Hounds, Man

I enjoyed your column ("Make Money. Gamble Better," Mr. Wrong, March 24) about a dog's life at the track. Your own impressions of the dog-racing business accurately reflect the uneasiness that many who are not aficionados of the "sport" --i.e. gambling device--feel. 

One thing that you are (understandably) off-base about is that retired greyhounds are "hyper-twitchy." The opposite is true. They're hounds, man. Mostly what they do--especially when racing days are over--is lie around, snoozing. If you keep more than one, they lie around in piles. 

We loved ours, because, among other things, they were so mellow that they had zero value as watch dogs. For full disclosure, we screwed a blue and white enamel plaque by the doorbell that said chien gentil --French, for "nice doggie."

You want to do a follow up story, check out the "available" at

William O. Miles

Conspiring Stories

As a black man, and a novice historian, I wish to address the issues raised in "Conspiracies," (Political Animal, March 17). I wish to shed some light on the subject of conspiracies against blacks in the United States. First and foremost: The black man isn't the only race, and not the first race, that the United States government has conspired against. It started years before blacks were brought to our shores.

It started with the Native Americans. It started in the 1600s. The conspiracies began with the arrival of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and the English. These European cultures started to conspire against the Native Americans as soon as they reached the shores of America. In 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto started enslaving, lynching, and stealing land from Native Americans, by the use of force, rape and warfare. In the Northeastern part of the United States were the French, Dutch, and English.

The English and the French conspired against Native Americans and succeeded with the use of gunpowder, trade, alcohol, boundary disputes, and the decimation of natural resources. One of the worst wars was King Philip's War (1675-1676). This war paved the way for massive English expansion. Later, the English and the French both tricked Native Americans to fight on their side and against each other.

The European also brought with him human and animal diseases for which Native Americans had no cure. When the Europeans had a cure, they refused to give it to Native Americans. Another major conspiracy involved treaties. Native Americans could not understand all of the provisions of the treaties because they could not read. The European powers tricked Native Americans by offering them land beyond their boundaries, the rights to natural resources and hunting territory, and protection.

The rest is history:

  • The removal of Native Americans to reservations.
  • The strip mining of Native American's natural resources such as gas, oil, uranium, and coal. (They did not know how much of the resources were mined, so the companies paid them what they felt like paying them.)
  • The worst conspiracy of all: Many Native American tribes were not allowed to practice tribal religions. (The very reason why the Europeans came to America in the first place--to escape religious persecution.)

Charles Washington

Editor's note: We are now soliciting submissions for our second annual Shoot. Score. Baltimore. Short Film Contest. Win a public screening of your miniature masterpiece and possibly win a fabulous prize. See

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