feature: seen/not seen

Brake Dancing
Clang through the L.A. streets with the Bicycle Bell Ensemble

Seen/Not Seen is a column about the fertile exchange between visual art and popular music, focusing primarily
on artist-musicians making contemporary works.
It appears every six weeks or so.

column by Daphne Carr

Los Angles-based artist/DJ Patrick Miller and artist/composer David Semien are returning to an earlier definition of street art–not like the gallery graf of a Keith Haring or Basqiat, but the revolutionary theater of the streets practiced since the Middle Ages; confounding, challenging and delighting spectators with surprise art actions in their everyday immediate surroundings.

Their newest project is the Bicycle Bell Ensemble, a group of musicians, artists and cyclists who perform together using only their bike bells. The resulting street-art tintinnabulation is much like its New York counterpart, composer Phil Kline's  Unsilent Night project, where hundreds of spectators show up in NYC’s Washington Square Park with boomboxes. Both Unsilent Night and the BBE produce a (mostly) welcome sound and spectacle in the city’s streets and take little training to realize by performers.

The BBE’s first performance was in May 2007 as part of the group show Origin Is The Goal, curated by Darin Klein. Klein called the BBE part of “the forefront of artists raising a new social consciousness which is tied into environmentalism as well as community,” and pointed out utilitarianism as one of their strengths. “They literally ride their instruments, not just to gigs but to work, school, and anywhere else they need or want to go. The music they make is like a collection of random bicycle bells resounding across L.A.'s urban sprawl that coalesces into an actual scored piece of music.” He hopes that the BBE will have a Pied Piper effect, inviting more Los Angelinos to take to the streets by bike as part of a daily art living exercise. The Ensemble performs both on the streets and in gallery settings and will next perform at the Long Beach Sound Walk in September.

How did you get started?
The original idea for the project came from Patrick Miller. When we committed ourselves to the project we decided that the group would be voluntary and that we would invite as many people that could realistically fit into the gallery for the performance. Patrick is involved with a group of bicycle riders here in Los Angeles that call themselves the Midnight Ridazz. They are a large and active group of riders. He sent out invitations to members of the group and other friends of ours through the group's Web forum and personal e-mails.

How big is the ensemble?
I'm not sure of the BBE's current size but there were about 20 people who were a part of the ensemble during the first performance. The size of the group is really a matter of how many people show up and decide to participate.

What is the score for the Bicycle Bell Ensemble–it seems to be a graphic notation–but is it a musical score or more of an event score?
It's all of those things. The score contains text that is a combination performance directives, pictorial graphics that indicate how and when to play, as well as traditional musical notation. On the whole, it is a musical score because it exists to create music and specific sounds.

Who are the performers in BBE and who is the audience?
The performers are the people on bicycles and the audience is really anyone who can hear the music. This works best during the ride portion of the performance. As the riders move along through the city, the citizens and occupants of the spaces that the riders move through become the audience. As the performance moves in space the audience is brought into the fold of the music by their proximity to the BBE.

What are the compositional challenges of writing a composition for active rider/musicians?
One of the biggest challenges for me was to figure out a way to make riding and playing safe for the performers without compromising any musical substance. I decided to write the piece in two movements for this reason. The first movement is intended to be performed while riding so I made it improvisational. It requires listening and responding to what you are hearing around you rather than reading off of the score. Another challenge that came into play much more in the second movement was how to translate musical events and ideas into a graphic notation that anyone would understand. I started off by making drawings of what I thought certain sounds looked like. I refined the drawings and eventually developed a simple notation that was quite easy to understand with a little guidance.

Does the BBE fit into the Critical Mass/car-free movement?
I think that for a lot of people who enjoy making art and/or riding their bikes, the BBE can be great fun. As a composer, I can't help but feel that the BBE is more about stretching the boundaries of performance and music and bringing people together than it is about bicycle activism. However, I do think it encourages people to go out and ride their bikes. Intended or unintended, the BBE group is such a spectacle on the road that it also forces car drivers to pay attention to bike riders.

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