Different Cities Different Voices – Baltimore
No artist in Baltimore lives here because they’re making a lot of money or getting a lot of commissions or opportunities. These music creators live here because they’re inspired every day. This place is fertile ground for truly original artmaking.
Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear music from local artists selected by each essayist. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
An Introduction by Ami Dang
(New Music USA’s Director of Development)
When I think about music in Baltimore, the words that come to mind are energy, vitality, and transcendence. Baltimore is a place where truly original ideas flourish. No artist in Baltimore lives here because they’re making a lot of money or getting a lot of commissions or opportunities. These music creators live here because they’re inspired every day. This place is fertile ground for truly original artmaking.
Baltimore has a rich tradition of experimental techniques and cross-disciplinary, experiential arts that can’t be confined to one artistic medium, genre or style. Classical music joins forces with experimental film and puppetry. Dancers meander through multimedia installations featuring improvised sound art.
As Infinity Knives and Amy Reid both mention here, music concerts are typically curated in a way that brings together a plurality of voices. It’s more often that experimental hip hop, punk music, and avant rock would share a bill in one evening with a drag queen emcee-ing the show than a program featuring one type of music. Neither medium nor genre matter; innovation and experimentalism are paramount—rather than notoriety and prestige.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t share the reality of the silos that do, in fact, exist in the music community. Baltimore is a majority Black city, and the arts circles that I move in are mostly white. We have so many talented Black and queer musicians and artists—pay close attention to Jamal Moore’s account of the Black avant garde arts scene in our city—but many of them continue to struggle with a lack of support and resources. Over the past few years, the arts community has become slightly more integrated, and more queer and Black (and other BIPOC) artists have received support from local funding opportunities and various resources. However, there is still a divide that persists. As Director of Development with New Music USA, I am particularly passionate about building a more equitable future for new music—a future where artists from all backgrounds are supported so that their work can reach audiences far and wide.
It is often the artists from privileged backgrounds whose work is recognized outside of Baltimore and who are supported on a national or international level. While creativity is abundant among diverse artists of many backgrounds, we lack the music industry infrastructure, i.e. record labels, publishers, management, booking agencies, arts attorneys, publicists, marketing services, and more, that support many artists (of all backgrounds) in larger metro areas. It is simply easier for music industry professionals to witness the work of, connect with, and ultimately, support artists in larger cities due to proximity.
But ultimately, this dearth of opportunities to commodify creative product is exactly the reason that the work created here is authentic. As Allison Clendaniel touches on in her narrative below, creative work in Baltimore It hasn’t been created isn’t produced to please anyone or fit into a certain style, medium, or genre dictated by funding interests. While we reward innovative and artistically brilliant work, we cannot ignore that the funding and systemic privilege that bolster it almost always comes first. In turn, these accolades yield further recognition—and displace others who were already at a disadvantage. The arts are not exempt from systemic oppression.
Here in the US, very little unrestricted support exists for individual artists, especially compared to Europe, where artists receive government funding, healthcare, and free or subsidized opportunities to further their education. Baltimore is one of the few cities left in the United States where space is truly affordable. The abundance of empty, dilapidated warehouse and residential space that results from industry that folded decades ago provides ample opportunities for creative play, performances, happenings, space to turn dreams into reality and collaborate in large numbers.
Sadly, while Baltimore continues to be a more affordable place to live relative to most cities in the US, DIY venues have folded left and right. In the aftermath of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, California in 2016, Baltimore’s warehouses began to shut down due to safety concerns, and the pandemic has further squashed opportunities and resources to revitalize non-traditional spaces as sites for creative activity. Bonnie Lander, Stephen Santillan, and others further elaborate on the changing landscape of live/work arts spaces in Baltimore in this essay.
Still, I have hope. Artists in Baltimore (or the ones who stay in Baltimore, anyway!) are resilient and approach their work in unique ways. Crisis breeds innovation! All of the artists mentioned in this article are masters of their crafts but with the Baltimore spirit—their artistry is often experimental, innovative, inspiring and doesn’t sound like anyone else.
Over the past decade and a half with urban renewal and gentrification, Baltimore remains with a large African American populace that encompasses a wealth of African American music and arts in all formats from Black Avant Garde to mainstream.
There’s not much money to be made in Baltimore, so there’s not as much influence of money on Baltimore art. That means the arts here rely on human-powered resources like time, dedication, and sheer force of will, not dollars.
Allison M. Clendaniel
Though this is true for many cities, Baltimore has a way of calling people back to make their work here, with tree-lined neighborhoods that are racially and economically diverse.
I especially love that there’s a large (and organically grown) black and queer artist base.
Tariq Ravelomanana (a.k.a. Infinity Knives)
A whole generation of arts spaces are beginning to fall to the prospect of development, and our once un-gentrifiable city is changing. As access to housing and facilities becomes restricted to those who have, Baltimore’s arts community is feeling the squeeze.
It has been a supreme privilege to be a part of such a smart, elevated, eccentric community.
Baltimore's openness to new experiences, exciting performers, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaborations are still inspiring to me today as they were when I first arrived.
Baltimore isn’t a big city you move to in order to “make it”, so there is a feeling of trust behind what people are doing here.
I think something that really separates Baltimore from other cities is our rawness. That goes for both performers and people who attend events.
Baltimore is the native soil where I was born and raised, and I returned in 2013 after living in Boston and L.A. for over a duration of 11 years. Affectionally called “Charm City” and colloquially “Bmore”; Baltimore is a very eccentric city filled with phenomenal creative arts that are often shadowed in the negative light due to its misfortune of urban plight. It is through my music that I have created a path of success and chose to return to Bmore to give back to the community and teach the youth of what I have obtained. On a constant basis I instruct that music can be an option and tool used to negate the systemic path of the prison to pipeline infrastructure. To always challenge oneself and not be afraid to think outside the box and feel you must stay within mainstream aesthetics.
The new music scene In Baltimore is unique compared to other cities I have traveled and toured in across the U.S. No matter which background or subgroup of artistry one is involved with, there is always cross pollination of the scenes with every artist working in all formats. Over the past decade and a half with urban renewal and gentrification, Baltimore remains with a large African American populace that encompasses a wealth of African American music and arts in all formats from Black Avant Garde to mainstream. You can always attend on any given Sunday with ideal weather, the historical Park Vibe drum and music circle in Druid Hill Park which has ran for over 50 years as a central hub for Black Arts. It is here where you get a chance to experience the sounds of exploration with artists experimenting with handmade instruments repurposed from found materials to poets, MCs and vocalists improvising over traditional rhythms from the African continent and diaspora along with hybrid rhythms or song. Often, those who are transient to Baltimore via academia isolated in school hubs may discover or learn of this community. It is here where you get a chance to explore, experiment and learn improvisation in the Black Avant Garde tradition opposite the idiosyncrasies of academia.
Since the beginning of the pandemic a few artist communities have collapsed completely while some remain ongoing in smaller spaces. The Park Vibe music circle still operates with musicians adhering to CDC guidelines. Baltimore historically always had a sensibility of Kujichagulia (Self Determination) and Ujima (collective work and responsibility) not solely restricted to the African American community but similarly across other ethnicities in the city. The pandemic may have stopped major events such as “Artscape” or “Afram” which are two major festivals highlighting art across all disciplines, but it did not stop true artists from their daily grind. It pulled everyone together closer, creating and hosting their own events in smaller gatherings especially during the warmer months.
Despite the challenges of the Covid pandemic, I personally have maintained balance and harmony. At the beginning of the pandemic, I lost a tour, contracts in education, and quite a few gigs. With all this happening at once I remained at peace and never stopped creating. Many colleagues who solely relied on live performances begin to break down mentally. It is with the pandemic that I realized from introspective meditation, to reverse the energy and take this time to go within and create more than ever, utilizing this time at full capacity. There was the notion of the world coming to a halt, yet the planet never stopped rotating and mother nature kept on with her daily routine.
Coming from a background of learning to use limited resources, making do with what you have and expand in all directions, it was easy to embrace technology with online performances. In fact, I had already done this eleven years prior when it was less common and frowned upon by colleagues that regarded it as folly. Little did they know this would be one key component of surviving as an artist later down the road.
While humanity is almost at a two-year mark of the pandemic, the direction where we are truly heading is still uncertain. One can speculate it may or may not return to what was once before. Music is a universal language and healing force of humanity and I believe, as in the beginning of the epic of creation of human existence, we will always continue to create new music and beyond in this continuum.
Here is an album I recorded with Nik Francis as The Mojuba Duo:
And here’s a local artist I recommend:
Allison M. Clendaniel
When I first came to Baltimore for my fancy Classical Music Degree, I was adamant about leaving it one day to find some better-funded, more legit place. Hah! The best-laid plans and all that… I’m happy to report that I’ve lived, worked, and thrived in Baltimore for 14 years and counting.
During my third year of conservatory, I realized the cut-throat academic culture was an inauthentic and uninspiring environment for me to exist within. With that awareness, I sought out the large community of art-making people living and making work in Baltimore. I was struck by the unjuried art happening within warehouse spaces around town, and when I finished my schooling, I dove in head-first. I began acting and creating theatrical sound design with a collective of DIY theatre makers, I joined a group of singers who specialized in renaissance music, started singing in a bunch of different bands, and became a session musician for rappers, rock musicians, jazzers, and the like! I feel so lucky to live in a place where anything that might pique my interest is within my reach and where I am met with open arms.The people in Baltimore are committed to serving and uplifting their communities, giving time and creative energy to create the future they want to see.
Baltimore is also a place to practice patience and compassion daily. Baltimore arts are to the left of capital — which is itself both bad and good. There’s not much money to be made in Baltimore, so there’s not as much influence of money on Baltimore art. That means the arts here rely on human-powered resources like time, dedication, and sheer force of will, not dollars. Ultimately, Baltimore creates a culture of experimentation, mutual respect, and a deeper understanding of work and the work of the folks who are deeply invested in the community. This is what drives my work as artistic director of Mind On Fire.
Mind on Fire is a notated music project I started with my co-directors Jason Charney and James Young in 2016. In the simplest terms, it’s a group of like-minded artists who want to facilitate high-quality music-making for our community. Our goal is to present all art with equal gravity and importance regardless of performance practice or history; to unify the appreciators of the Baltimore arts scene; and create a comfortable and welcoming environment for people to have new experiences. We strive for artistic excellence and be active and thoughtful members of our community, using our skills as presenters and performers to be a creative resource for the city at large.
We’ve been lucky to collaborate with many notable artists around town, not only musicians but also performance, visual, and theater artists: Wume, Infinity Knives, Ada Pinkston, Soul Cannon, and Elizabeth Downing, just to name a few. We performed amazing work from a variety of composers, including Missy Mazzoli, Jamal Moore, Alexander Schubert, Alex Temple, and so many more. We’ve been featured in the BSO New Music Festival, with Dan Deacon on stage and in film, and been lucky to work directly with The Pratt Library System, one of Baltimore’s greatest resources.
The past two pandemic-laden years have been everything all at once! I feel that I lost everything; and gained even more. It’s tough, y’know, presence is required for ephemeral art to exist. Accepting that art-making was being forced unceremoniously into a different experience entirely broke my brain for a bit. I cocooned for the better part of a year and a half, save the occasional Mind On Fire virtual event. Now, I’m beginning to emerge again. I feel like an optimized version of my former self. I have a greater understanding of how to love and be endlessly curious about my own thoughts, my own work, my own boundaries, and my own abundance!
Mind on Fire also had a helpful slow-down. Pre-pandemic, we were doing 15-20 shows a season, and frankly, I was exhausted by it and wanted to quit. We’ve been able to curate such incredible video work that likely wouldn’t have been captured in such a permanent way on one of our live shows during the shutdown. I feel emboldened by everyone’s spirit and desire for connectedness.
It’s hard to choose a single piece that best represents my work here in Baltimore. This collaboration between Mind On Fire and Infinity Knives is one of the most ambitious events we’ve put together. This piece was recorded during that marvelous period when covid numbers had subsided a bit, and holy moly! It was glorious to be in the room with everyone for a moment.
Tariq Ravelomanana: In the Mouth of Sadness
There are so many people here who inspire me. I’m wary of naming only one person because I feel like part of a large interconnected web of magical-human creators here. The person who has been most consistently present and inspiring during my time here is my collaborator, mentor, and friend, Liz Downing. Liz is the most magical, patient, and sparkling soul I’ve ever met. She’s particularly good at painting, singing, laughing, improvising, and listening. Anything Liz touches shimmers and is full of thoughtfulness. Her latest collaboration with Greg Hatem (another true Baltimore hero) is a beautiful celebration of her work. These songs are all at least 20 years in the making. You can check it out here:
Reach out to Mind On Fire if you’re ever in town. There is always something good happening!
I came to Baltimore in 1983 from a small town in Alabama to study painting with Grace Hartigan at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The Institute Graduate Program offered teaching positions for new graduates, so I stayed. During this time I began to develop relationships with people from other art disciplines. Working with a filmmaker, set designer, operatically trained singer and choreographer, we created musical art performance plays in the trio Lambs Eat Ivy, touring with sets strapped atop a Subaru. Always, I was happy to return to Baltimore, where there were loft spaces with room to create and a fertile inspiring community.
The music scene in Baltimore is metamorphic, changed and influenced by the confluence of artists moving through. Graduates from the music, visual arts, and theater departments stay around taking advantage of this creative energy, expanding their vision through collaboration. Baltimore is, during non pandemic times, a destination for touring groups with a large variety of venues. These touring groups make relationships with local musicians and all the circles become wider. Though this is true for many cities, Baltimore has a way of calling people back to make their work here, with tree-lined neighborhoods that are racially and economically diverse.
Being a musician and painter, I was able to survive during the early days of the pandemic by delving into my painting practice. Having a porch and yard, I was able to make music with neighbors. Bringing her fiddle over, neighbor Susan Alcorn, usually a pedal steel guitarist, would improv with me as I bowed my banjo and sang, for hours, even into bitter temperatures. Vocalist Allison Clendaniel and I would create sound pieces on the porch and throughout the neighborhood. Early in 2021, I began a project with arranger and instrumentalist Greg Hatem in which the core work was done, each of us in isolation, creating tracks and sending the files back and forth. The resulting album is called, Curving Tooth. Local Festivals offered online shows such as Shakemore Rock Festival, High Zero Experimental Music Festival, Mind On Fire, Black Cherry Theater Puppet Slams. These requests for entries gave me reason to film musical porch performances with comrades of “Molesuit Choir” and to develop new skills. To create work entirely in isolation, I set up a camera on a tripod in my studio and created puppets, which I made by cutting out painted characters. I had the puppets interact with each other, casting shadows on their painted backdrops, moving the puppets and singing to the soundtrack.
Though artists, musicians, writers are likely to thrive during a pandemic, the lack of a physical audience was difficult. The need to be in the physical presence and share reactions to work is a vital part of creation. This underscores the beauty of Baltimore’s live venues, Normal’s Books and Records, The Current Gallery, The Crown and so many more, which feed the community with friendships, inspiration and reason to continue.
Infinity Knives (Tariq Ravelomanana)
I actually didn’t choose Baltimore. My mom and grandmother were more or less living here because it was a relatively affordable city. We were pretty poor. I moved in with them in 2005-06. I was living in Johannesburg beforehand. I’ve made the city a headquarters of some sort. I leave often and come back every few years.
I’ve always loved the mixed bills we’ve had. In a single night, you’d have a metal band opening followed by a folk band and eventually closing off with a neo-soul artist. I know this, because I was in the folk band! I especially love that there’s a large (and organically grown) black and queer artist base. The young and emerging artists are accepting of diversity and they don’t treat it as an oddity. This was not always the case a decade ago.
It took a really long time to establish myself here. Unreasonably long, considering the fact that my music hasn’t changed in the past ten years. There was a monopoly on the “scene” by mostly affluent white art people. Their music was awful. I was never made to feel welcome or appreciated. No one wants to admit it now, but people were openly racist too. I was eventually taken in by the emerging black queer dance scene where I was finally heard out.
As far as the pandemic; it hasn’t been too different for me from other working artists around the states. Fickle tour dates and delays on vinyl releases…the works. Personally, the stimulus checks and a five hundred dollar grant upgraded my equipment just enough to dip my toes into soundtrack and sound design, which is what I mainly do for money. That’s another “scene” that is oversaturated with the no-sauce and no-seasoning crowd. I’m a more than able composer, but it seems as though, like everything in the arts, is solely reserved for the connected and wealthy. Not sure if “overcomed” is the word I’d like to use, but rather improvising, or even better; ghetto rigging. A concept I’m very familiar with.
The Black Power Paradox by Infinity Knives and Brian Ennals
The Ride by Jupiter Rex
The boomerang effect has been explained to me many times. Someone leaves Baltimore for greener pastures, only to return years later with a renewed appreciation for the arts community and the opportunities it provides. I understand it because it happened to me. I returned to Baltimore in 2017 after a 9-year hiatus to explore all the facets of my artistic endeavors: classical soprano, new music performer, experimental musician and improviser, composer, concert curator and educator. Due to a mix of affordable living and a thriving, close knit, DIY artist community, Baltimore is the perfect place for a self-motivated artist who wants to create, collaborate, and belong.
In the four years since I have returned to Baltimore I have been inspired by my friends and colleagues who care deeply about their art and work as hard as they play. The local culture is brewed in experimental art and music, which means that local shows can be as wild as they are bad, and sometimes, completely mind blowing. When our city is thriving (read, not in a pandemic), there are shows every night of the week in galleries, bars, houses and warehouses across the city, often multiple per night.
Since returning to Baltimore, I have been able to upkeep an active freelance career in new opera and composition on the East Coast, even in a global pandemic. I have performed and collaborated with countless local artists. I volunteer with experimental music collective High Zero Foundation, host social justice events and concerts at the 2640 Space, and work as Assistant to the Community Chorus of Peabody. I’ve performed with local new music presenter Mind on Fire and perform as a regular chorister/soloist at Emmanuel Episcopalian in downtown.
Living on the east coast corridor, I have also been able to travel to New York where I’ve performed and recorded eL/Aficionado by Robert Ashley, founded absurdist vocal trio Love Love Love with Paul Pinto and Kayleigh Butcher, and premiered new chamber operas with Rhymes With Opera. Additionally, in Baltimore I’ve performed with Dan Deacon at the BSO, and was featured on The Consuming Flame: Open Exercises in Group Form by Matmos, as well as the Horse Lords record The Common Task.
I am grateful to live in a city where I can afford stable housing, work with dedicated artists, and have access to physical space for projects, collaborations, and concerts. But in the past few years I have seen my city suffer some unfortunate changes that many artistic communities are struggling with right now: our art spaces are closing. Most recently the live/work warehouse space that I called home since my relocation is up for sale. The H&H building in downtown has provided live/work space for artists for the past 20+ years. Huge shows, concerts, dance parties, theater, visual art, performance art, and more have happened at this space. Eclectic groups of musicians, actors, theater troupes, painters, sculptors, videographers, photographers, illustrators, composers, dancers, and puppeteers have all called the H&H home. It’s looming closure is deeply grieved by our community.
The H&H is not alone in its closing, a whole generation of arts spaces are beginning to fall to the prospect of development, and our once un-gentrifiable city is changing. As access to housing and facilities becomes restricted to those who have, Baltimore’s arts community is feeling the squeeze. It’s up to our local governments to ensure these spaces do not disappear and up to us to loudly vocalize our support for the local, underground arts scenes that bind our cities together.
Here’s a clip I made for the Red Room in Your Room improvised music series during lockdown:
Here’s one of my favorite Baltimore bands, Wume:
And a bonus artist, Abdu Ali: https://soundcloud.com/abduali.
My avocation as an experimental musician in Baltimore began when I was about 11 years old and was part of a larger sensibility which I could not have described at the time; a deep, eccentric interest in phenomenology of experience, a perverse (or at least highly skeptical) approach to structure, and a willingness to embrace contradictions and paradoxes as source material. How I got there is a long story beyond this short essay. The emotional center of the activity was a desire to exit the prosaic world—a dangerous motivation, and one not tied to a particular methodology or ideology.
Baltimore was and continues to be an exciting place to develop those interests. In the ’80s, as a teenager I fell into a rich avant-garde scene which was equal parts influenced by happenings/Fluxus, language writing, experimental music, and utopian political currents. As an experimental composer/performer I became one of its youngest members. Frequent collaborations with unusual figures like ultra-nonconformist tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, instrument inventor Neil Feather, and L.A.F.M.S. transplant Peter “Pan” Zahorecz in the Baltimore of the ’80s and ’90s led to a scene that drew international figures to the city for collaboration. This was the richest and most sophisticated universe of inspired weirdos I could have asked for—though not an entirely cushy, or comfortable scene. The story of that amazing time remains to be written.
In the ’90s I became the saxophone student / protegee of Jack Wright, a crucial force in North American free improvisation, and toured extensively with him, providing a new focus in instantaneous music making and virtuosic technical considerations, which layered on to the rest of what Baltimore had given me. In turn, the networks derived from that touring formed the basis for a larger free improvisation engagement, leading to hundreds of collaborations through the ’90s and ’00s, and the formation of my record label, www.recorded.com (now on its 25th release). It was also this time that I became a philosophy student and music producer for Henry Flynt, the unusual American philosopher, founder of Concept Art, and inventor of Electronic Hillbilly Music. Both those relationships had a huge impact on the development of my sensibility.
It was during this time that I convinced my business partners in Normal’s Books and Records to let me use the storage room as a space for experimental gigs on a regular basis, which I ran by myself for the first year and was the launch of www.redroom.org, a storied experimental music space that since 1996 has presented over a thousand concerts of experimental music, along with language, philosophy, performance and film. The collective that I formed to run that space went on to realize the www.highzero.org festival, an international festival since 1999 that is both one of the most inspired institutions of free improvisation but also a crossing-ground of all the varied subcultures of experimental music. The clashing range of sensibilities, in combination with exaltation and sophistication are all hallmarks of the Baltimore scene; one with a shocking large and consistent audience for experimental culture.
Though still connected with all those activities, in the last decade, I moved on in my own work to develop the concept of “Relabi”—a cultural form based around “always slipping the pulse,” attempting something in relation to tempo that the Escher Woodcuts are in relation to depth and space. Again, paradoxes as experience-generators. The idea of confusing the issue of “is there a tempo or not” has become an obsession for me and a new form of dissonance. Expect an LP, Baltimore Relabi Style, in the coming years, full of special guest and odd gambits.
Baltimore, “the ambiguity city,” turns out to be one of the best places to care about this sort of ineffable stuff, and it has been a supreme privilege to be a part of such a smart, elevated, eccentric community. It has been exactly what I, as an individual, needed and also a major love of my life.
Recent Electronic Music:
A Relabi Example:
I came to Baltimore area by a chance, via Germany, Israel, and Canada. After I completed my studies in Neues Musiktheater with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne, I was practically stuck in Germany without being able to return home since the war in former Yugoslavia was still going on. The new music scene in Cologne was fantastically exciting, with pieces programmed at all concerts no matter how small or big the venue or who the performers or the audiences were, but the negative public opinion regarding the war in my home country was so intense that it was just impossible for me to continue living there. I got an opportunity to go to Israel, and very soon found out that although there was a great appreciation for traditional classical music, there were not many opportunities in contemporary music performance for someone who just recently landed there. I then applied for a six-month residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Canada, and it was in their library where I came across the Towson University’s graduate program in interdisciplinary theatre which accepted the students from various artistic backgrounds and gave them practical training in self-produced theatrical performances. And so I went to Towson in 1999, where I also took composition classes (mainly in electronic sound) from Dr. William Kleinsasser.
While still at TU, I was invited to join the Baltimore Composers Forum. The primary focus of the organization was to program the new music concerts featuring local composers who wrote in a variety of styles with strong classical or jazz backgrounds. There was no real connection among the members other than showing up for the concerts when their music was performed. In 2008, my colleague Keith Kramer and I took over the leadership and slightly restructured how the organization was to be run, which has remained up until the present: from the all-membership meetings where concert ideas are freely exchanged, to scheduling events in spaces other than traditional concert venues, to reaching out to other local artists and collaborating with them – the most successful dance event Sound in Motion was held last year for the 6th time. Our main focus is to reach diverse audiences and present a variety of local ensembles through our compositions, but the most significant change for us was that we gave the performers the freedom to choose which works will be performed at any event, rather than it being decided by the Board.
When the pandemic started, Baltimore Composers Forum was a little bit stuck in a limbo; as current president, I kept postponing our vocal concert for 3, then 6 months, then cancelling it altogether and switching it into a virtual event. We all had a steep learning curve in how things in this new-normal performance reality are supposed to function: from utilizing our website as a virtual stage; to dealing with the logistics of putting together a virtual vs in-person concert; to finding the musicians and videographers who felt safe enough to rehearse and film the music; to finding venues that would be open to the idea of someone filming in their otherwise shut-down spaces; to figuring out how royalties work for virtual performances, etc. Some of the online concerts, like Sound in Motion VI, were very successful, and because with each online event we were able to reach much wider audiences, even internationally, it was decided that when we get back to live concerts we should still keep one portion of our concerts virtual. As for me personally, I was juggling homeschooling my two young daughters, taking care of everyday chores, running Baltimore Composers Forum, and finding a time to compose. As many of our current members, I have moved away from Baltimore, and now am a part of our greater Maryland base that is continuing to be active in the Charm City’s new music scene. Baltimore’s openness to new experiences, exciting performers, and the possibilities of interdisciplinary collaborations are still inspiring to me today as they were when I first arrived.
I have started at the beginning of a lockdown a series of very short virtual compositions (1-2 minutes) inspired by and featuring very mundane every-day objects as a sound inspiration such as an electric toothbrush, children’s talking books, and a musical jewelry box.
The first one, titled B(rushed) Moment can be watched here:
White Noise for prerecorded text in 8 languages, musique concrète and sound effects (text by Juanita Rockwell in collaboration with Anna Maria Delinasiou) can be heard here:
I recommend my fellow Baltimore Composers Forum Keith Kramer’s Amalgam:
I grew up in Baltimore after my family moved here from the Philippines in 1982. I fell in love with art and music in my teens and have since met like-minded people here who have become longtime friends and collaborators. They are a big reason why I continue to call Baltimore home. For the past 25 years, I have been writing and performing music in both collaborative and solo settings, some of which have allowed me to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Outside of purely musical works, I have written music for theater and dance productions, art installations, and have also been a member of DIY theater ensembles as well. With the help of grants, a longtime collaborator and I were able to hire Peabody Conservatory students to play some of our compositions and I’ve also had ensemble performances made up of just friends.
One of the most important things about Baltimore for me is that the music scene feels like an actual community. Baltimore isn’t a big city you move to in order to “make it”, so there is a feeling of trust behind what people are doing here. There are a lot of people here making art and music with a pure kind of motivation. That same genuine impulse is apparent in the effort to put on events and performances, too. When Baltimore artists do become well known, they remain very much in the fiber of the community, instead of being treated differently. I think one of the reasons the community is so healthy is because of its strong vibrant DIY spirit. There are a lot of highly motivated people and many dedicated independent warehouse spaces. The importance of these cannot be overstated. I’ve been lucky to witness a wide variety of performances at these events, from English improv group AMM, to the late Baltimore Club DJ, K-Swift, to DIY ensemble performances of music by Louis Andriessen and Terry Riley, to the Sun Ra Arkestra performing at an independently funded festival, just to name a few. Outside of the DIY scene, establishments like the Peabody Conservatory, MICA, the Maryland Film Festival, as well as other smaller galleries and venues also host their own program of events, adding to the mix, and helping to create a flourishing community. The diversity and supportive nature of this community has kept me inspired and motivated to keep creating and experimenting.
The live music scene shutting down, has personally been one of the more challenging parts of the pandemic. When watching live performances was part of my routine, it added inspiration and a balance. As far as my creative practices, some personal projects were put on hold, but also some new avenues of exploration opened up. My work has always had a live element in mind, but during the lockdown I shifted my focus to experimenting with the film music medium, which also helped me build up a portfolio. I did work on some collaborative projects but found it hard to be productive when working through emails and file sharing. Fortunately my wife, Wheatie Mattiasich, is one of my collaborators, and we were able to record an album in our home studio. This work will be released on vinyl in 2023. As of late, I’ve shifted my focus back to writing live music, with the optimistic hope that shows and concerts will become increasingly safer and more abundant. I’m very much looking forward to being an audience member again, and to also be part of this city’s very communal musical dialogue.
And this is the selection I am making of another artist:
I have lived in Baltimore my whole life, it’s what I call home. My practice is rooted in building community and connecting with people through music. Because of that, and being close with my family (chosen and biological), I am deep-seated here. I moved from Baltimore County to Baltimore City when I went to college at MICA and fell in love with the warehouse/nightclub music scene in 2006 and never left. It was my first time going to legendary spaces like the Paradox, experiencing Baltimore club music in person and that was really life changing. There were also underground spaces hosting bills with Beach House, Rye Rye, Future Islands, Naeem, Dan Deacon, DDM, TT the Artist and other legends in the making. During this time I became really close friends with another Baltimore musician, Abdu Ali who started throwing these amazing parties called Kahlon which hosted Princess Nokia, Juliana Huxtable, and Jungle Pussy, to name a few. These experiences fueled my passion for collaborative music making and curatorial work.
I think something that really separates Baltimore from other cities is our rawness. That goes for both performers and people who attend events. We’re not afraid to go all out, get weird, be flamboyant, and move our bodies. In my band Chiffon, we make dance music and it always took me out of my element to go to a city where it was difficult to get people moving or to be vocally receptive. Another thing I love about this city is how we have such a range of genres here, some really niche ones, and how they are all frequently represented on one bill. It’s not out of the ordinary to attend a show with a noise/electronic musician, dj playing dance music, rapper, indie band, or a combination of all of these. I think it’s also important to note that our city forces us artists to be resilient and resourceful. We don’t have a large variety of venues and we definitely have a lack of queer centered spaces. Despite all of that, I have seen the LGBTQ music scene explode which has been really exciting for me as a queer identifying musician. TT the Artist’s film Dark City Beneath the Beat does a really great job capturing the high energy, soul, and spirit of Baltimore.
The pandemic has obviously been difficult for everyone. For me, making music is how I connect with people so it has been challenging both mentally and financially. It has been two years of trial, error, and sometimes succeeding in finding ways to share space with people through music as safely as possible. In addition to being a musician, I am also an events curator. Baltimore based musician, Pangelica, and myself makeup GRL PWR–a platform dedicated to cultivating community and elevating the visibility of women, trans, queer, and non-binary artists. Every year around Halloween, we organize a grandiose drag show, SWEAT and the pandemic challenged us to find a creative way to still make this happen. We wound up renting out a space, gathering a film crew, and putting on an outdoor show with djs, local drag performers but no live audience. Airing the first virtual rendition of SWEAT was successful in gathering our community together in a celebratory digital space. Musically speaking, the virtual world opened up new possibilities for collaboration. As part of a residency at the Merriweather District in September 2020, I assembled a sample pack for a project titled Future Canopies. The pack included field recordings, improvisations and through a digital open call, I invited artists to re-interpret the samples by creating new compositions. I wound up receiving tracks from Brazil, California, New York, and beyond. This time has me reflecting on how to cross borders/boundaries and be a cheerleader for the global recognition that Baltimore City deserves.
Here’s some of my music
Plus music by another local artist