'Eine Brise': A bicycle (composition) built for 111
The new-music series Monday Evening Concerts has offered some unusual works since it began in 1939. But few can match the one planned for Monday night, when managing director Justin Urcis is set to present the Los Angeles premiere of Mauricio Kagel’s “Eine Brise: Transient Action for 111 Cyclists” at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. Yes, bicyclists take part.
The 8 p.m. concert, “Celebrating Kagel,” offers three works by the late Argentine composer. Kagel was admired for his provocative visual and dramatic sense, as well as for his humor and critical intelligence.
“Eine Brise” translates as “A Breeze,” but it wasn’t easy getting 111 bicyclists together for this 1996 outdoor piece that concludes the program’s first half. “Eine Brise” lasts about 90 seconds. “It’s one of the shortest pieces we’ve ever done,” Urcis said, “but it required the most work to prepare.”
To locate the necessary contingent of cyclists for Monday's concert, Urcis spread the word among musicians and music students. “This is why Facebook was invented,” Urcis said, only slightly joking. L.A.’s huge bike culture made the task a bit easier. He approached the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition, which offered to provide bicycle valet parking so the cycling participants could enjoy the rest of the concert.
Urcis rented a megaphone with enough power to communicate with 111 cyclists at once. “It’s like a military operation,” he said. “When all the cyclists are in formation, it stretches out 500 feet.” He also purchased police whistles at an Army surplus store. And in case there were cyclists who did not have the required bicycle bell, Urcis got 80 “at cost, manufactured in Japan, very high quality.”
Kagel specifies that the score should be performed on “streets with little traffic.” Urcis jumped through bureaucratic hoops to get permits allowing him to cordon off Grand Avenue from 5th Street all the way to 1st Street, plus a portion of lower Grand for rehearsal time. (If it rains, the covered lower Grand area would permit the show to go on.) Urcis also worked with businesses, including the owner of a parking garage who was naturally reluctant to have the street closed off from 6 p.m. until “Eine Brise” blew by.
Urcis said the work was not a prank. “I’m hoping that if it’s done well, music will emerge. Kagel is very precise in indicating what musical gestures he wants at which times, with louder sounds coming from farther away and quieter sounds when the cyclists are closer to the audience. He clearly thought about the dynamics and structure.” To experience the full evanescent magic of the composition, Urcis recommends that people not watch clips of previous performances online.
“It’s an interesting collage of two different worlds of movement and sound coming together,” says Aurisha Smolarski, a musician and avid cyclist, who is communications director of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition. “Bringing cyclists together for an avant-garde musical piece like this is a first for us. We’re crossing our fingers that everyone shows up.”
Kagel saw performances of “Eine Brise” before he died in 2008 but, reportedly, never with the full complement of 111 cyclists. The closest he got was 109; at the last minute, two participants got flat tires.
Why Kagel specified 111 cyclists may remain a mystery. Urcis suspects it may have something to do with the composer’s interest in musical history. Beethoven’s last piano sonata was No. 32, Opus 111. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence,” Urcis said, “but Kagel engaged very closely with Beethoven.”
-- Rick Schultz
Illustration courtesty of: Brian Sacawa, curator of the Contemporary Museum's Mobtown Modern Music Series