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September 10, 2008

Mobtown Modern kicks off season

Mobtown ModernMobtown Modern called its second season-opener last night "Too Cool for School." Some folks might wonder if this adventurous and often wry organization is too cool for Baltimore, given that its programs come from the front lines of the new music scene. But, considering the positive response to the inaugural concerts last season and the nice turnout on Tuesday at the Contemporary Museum, it looks like Mobtown Modern has a future. And that's great news.

Although you can find some cutting-edge events here and there around town each year, this venture strikes a whole new chord. It also has the advantage of being more, well ...

more cool. A lot more cool than anything I've come across here so far. The museum space, a plain upstairs room rendered informal and cozy by low lighting and a sprinkling of candles, sets the mood (last night, a spread of peanut butter and jelly snacks for the audience played neatly off of the school theme). And Mobtown founders, sax man Briana Sacawa and composer/turntablist Erik Spangler, set the tone with pieces that exude now-ness, even when some of the actual composition dates are more like yesterday. Composers with followings in New York (including veterans of the Bang on a Can outfit there) seem to be particular favorites.

The highpoint for me last night came with the presentation by Jody Redhage of Anna Clyne's Paint Box, a 2006 work for cello and tape. A progression of long, dark string notes created a kind of elegy against electronically filtered and modified breaths and word-snippets, as well as louder sounds of a sometimes aggressive, scary world. David Lang's The Anvil Chorus, from 1990, was a vivid adventure in solo, non-traditional percussion. Steve Owen delivered the snaps, bell tones and wicked whomps in taut, bravura fashion. Julia Wolfe's Lick from 1994 suggested a rock band doing a jam session where each player takes a separate path that, somehow, keeps intersecting perfectly with all the other players. The heady, absorbing exercise was tightly performed by Sacawa, DJ Dubble8 (Spangler's stage name when he's operating turntables and other electronic devices), Matthew Everhart (electric guitar), Nathan Bontrager (cello) and Joel Ciaccio (bass).

The concert was bookended by Sacawa and Spangler, starting with the latter's pastlife laptops and attic instruments written for the saxophonist in 2004. The score's mix of live and processed sonics seemed a little short on substance, but had an effective urban edge. The finale, Grab It, a punchy item from 1999 by Jacob van Terveldhuis, had a similar feel, only edgier still. Among the many sampled sounds are utterances by prison inmates using a certain, four-syllable curse word I don't typically hear in my sheltered concert-going life. It's provocative stuff, geld together by the power of the sax riffs and the punchy rhythmic tracks. In this performance, there was the added impact of video by Guy Werner, who incorproated bits of old sitcoms and vintage TV ads for cereals, action figures, fast food -- the rapid visuals became an increasingly ominous counterpoint.

Mobtown Modern clearly has what it takes to become a fixture on the Baltimore scene. The only stuffy thing about last night was the lack of air conditioning in the performance space, but no one seemed to mind, and the occasional street sounds coming through the open windows only added to the atmosphere of spontaneity.

BALTIMORE SUN PHOTO (Karl Merton Ferron): Erik Spangler, left; Brian Sacawa

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:01 PM | | Comments (1)


Great blog, but cannot seem to email your pieces to friends.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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