There was a little airport near the town in western Pennsylvania where Neil Feather grew up, and when the propeller planes flew overhead, he would stop and listen to their roar, thrilled by how the sounds bounced off the clouds. While others might have heard noise, Feather heard music. Now living in Mount Washington, Feather—a performer, composer, inventor, and instrument maker—is still hearing music in unlikely places. He’s been known to incorporate the rhythms of motorcycle engines, the drone of wind, and the soundtracks of Spaghetti Western films into his work.
An integral player in the local experimental music scene, Feather plays his unique compositions on self-conceived, visionary instruments that are both musical and sculptural. His instruments are sensual, complicated contraptions, created with the sensibility of an engineering genius and the eye of a playful artist. They are constructed from materials both familiar and strange—such as stainless steel bars, translucent plexiglass discs, tiny motors, duckpin bowling balls, and bicycle wheels—and have the look of space-age creatures, moving and changing in unexpected ways. “I have respect for something you make that has a life of its own even though it’s not biologically alive,” he says.
The self-described “sound mechanic” started building instruments in high school and continued doing so as an art student at Pennsylvania State University in the 1970s. While experimenting with strings, steel, weight, wood, and tension in sculptures, he accidentally discovered that his creations made sound. Inspired, he turned his curiosity into instruments such as the Nondo, a table-sized, curved sheet of steel that produces a rich, echoing sound.
These days, Feather says it takes a year to attain “virtuosity” on his instruments, and even then they sound different with each performance. This variability is necessary for the kind of music Feather creates, which blurs the boundary between improvisation and composition and is simultaneously complex, subtle, startling, and ethereal. He performs solo and with several groups that play his compositions on the instruments he’s built.
Feather appears at, and helps organize, the much acclaimed High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music, an annual event that brings together local and international musicians for a series of improvised performances at Theatre Project in September. He has also released several recording projects and has plans for more in the coming months. In fact, this is the only way Feather documents his compositions—because they resist translation into any traditional musical vocabulary, he has no written system of notation for his works. “At this point I’m willing to accept the existence of notes,” he says, “but I think they are certainly only one small way to describe a sound.” —A.E. Peterson
They sing soulful, contemporary gospel about the power of spiritual redemption. Yet not long ago, the five Baltimore natives who form the Choir Boyz were “bad boys” in need of direction themselves. Drug dealing, addiction, gang activity, and even prison were part of the fast lives they led on the streets. But everything changed a few years back when these longtime friends—then singing R&B and negotiating with major record labels—radically changed their lifestyles and embraced gospel music.
“We all came up in the church, but we were living in two worlds,” says Randy “Fruity” Roberts, who with Darrell Holmes, Richard Yerby, Derek Owens, and Martin Wilson form the quintet. “God spoke to us, and we began to get serious about our ministry.”
As a result, the group gives moving testimonials during their shows about their past and present lives. Roberts says that such a personal approach has “added another dimension to our music, and it’s become more genuine.”
Such sincerity and passion drives their latest CD, This Time, an expressive collection of 13 tracks featuring honey-tinged harmonies, hip-hop flavor, and skillful R&B arrangements. It comes five years after the group’s first CD, Ordered Steps, an album that sold well locally, but lacked widespread national distribution.
This go around, however, the group prays national audiences will embrace their songs of praise. Already, one single, “Conqueror,” has garnered steady airplay on East Coast gospel stations. “We all still work [day jobs], but we are reaching more people,” says member Darrell Holmes.
Indeed, the Choir Boyz perform in venues ranging from churches and Christian comedy clubs to this year’s African American Heritage Festival at Camden Yards. Popular on the gospel concert circuit, they have also shared the stage with such industry heavyweights as Kirk Franklin and Shirley Caesar.
Wherever they go, they say the goal is simply to spread a message of deliverance, although their lyrics aren’t always overtly religious. “We’re real people, and we are not ashamed of our testimonies,” says Derek Owens. “Some people act as if they’ve never been through anything—like they can’t relate. But we can laugh and see the growth in ourselves. If God can use us, He can use anybody.” —Donna Owens
Michael Johnson has come a long way since the days when he showed movies in alleys and playgrounds, using a 16-millimeter projector, several reels, and a sheet as a makeshift screen. “I’d put fliers around the neighborhood,” recalls Johnson, who grew up in Park Heights in the late 1960s. “I subsidized the operation by selling popcorn.”
Today, the president and CEO of the new Heritage CinemaPlex can finally claim a venue that lives up to his childhood dreams. The two-screen theater at 1045 Taylor Avenue, (the old Hillendale Theater), boasts an impressive sound system, snack bar, and seating for nearly 800. It is, says Johnson, the perfect place to fulfill his near lifelong mission of showcasing African-American films and filmmakers.
As a youngster, Johnson enjoyed watching The Three Stooges at local theaters like The Avalon, but it took a beloved ninth grade teacher, and later, a college professor, to sweep him into the little-known world of African-American cinema. He discovered Oscar Micheaux and other pioneering black directors; early black film companies such as Toddy and Priority Pictures; and talented but obscure actors like Herb Jeffries, a black singing cowboy. “I started to understand the history surrounding these films,” says Johnson. “I felt some sort of calling. I thought, ‘We’ve gotta be able to keep them alive.’”
It hasn’t been easy.
After two city venues didn’t work out, Johnson moved the theater to Towson in May. The kick-off event was the second annual Maryland Black Films and Black Filmmakers Festival—which featured 30 films over the course of four days. Since then, the Heritage has screened everything from the television mini-series Roots to the critically acclaimed 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Johnson says he will show not only independent and classic films, but blockbuster first-runs from major studios. He also looks forward to hosting premieres, industry lectures, and other film festivals (one featuring Paul Robeson is in the works).
“Our theater has something for everyone, no matter your color or age,” says Johnson. “It’s for young people to discover, and older people to remember and enjoy.”
“God, do I have to say?” Tom Brandau asks with a laugh when prodded to reveal exactly when he shot Cold Harbor, his first full-length feature film. After enduring some minor arm-twisting, writer-director Brandau confesses that principal filming occurred over a three-week period in Rehoboth Beach in the spring of 1996. Finally, seven years on, the movie will enjoy a September 25 premiere at the Senator Theater, followed by a screening at this fall’s Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival.
“It’s the story of four brothers who spend a weekend at a seaside resort town in the dead of winter after their father commits suicide,” Brandau explains. “And they go there to try to find some kind of closure to this death.”
A film production instructor at Towson University for the past six years and a former producer-director at Channel 45, Brandau has been making films for more than two decades, including the award-winning 30-minute drama Sonny and Cornblatt, which aired on MPT in 1992.
But Cold Harbor constitutes his most ambitious and daunting effort to date, beset by the myriad foibles endemic to what Brandau terms “trying to do production on a shoestring—money is always the biggest problem. We literally put the project on the shelf a couple of times.”
He estimates that Cold Harbor is approximately 80 percent autobiographical. Brandau’s father did, in fact, commit suicide, “so it’s pretty close to the bone,” he allows. “A good portion of it is based on my experiences and the experiences of my brothers. Parts of it have been fictionalized just to make it a more interesting story.”
As for the picture’s admittedly soul-baring nature, Brandau recalls reading an article by filmmaker John Sayles explaining why he’d made The Return of the Secaucus 7 as his feature debut. “He said he didn’t know if he’d ever get the chance to make another feature,” Brandau notes, “and if he made only one, he wanted to do something very close to his heart. Well, I felt the same way. This is my story, the story of my brothers. And I wanted to be able to know that, if this is the only feature I get a chance to make, I did everything I could to bring this to the screen.” —Michael Yockel
The Brown Center
Digital Arts Center
In October, the Maryland Institute College of Art will open the doors of its Brown Center, the highly anticipated $16 million architectural gem on Mount Royal Avenue. At the nexus of art and architecture, the building’s dramatic, contemporary design has captured the attention of city residents and critics alike, sparking a dialogue about the future of our city’s urban development.
“This is Baltimore’s first great building of this millennium,” contends Sun architecture critic Ed Gunts. “Not everyone sets out with that aspiration, but that was the expectation here. It’s nice to see an art school that can set the tone that way for their students and the city at large.”
MICA, known for its adaptive reuse of existing city buildings, has not added a new edifice to its campus since the Main Building was erected after 1904’s Great Fire. In the late 1990s, MICA recognized the need for an expanded program in the burgeoning field of digital arts studies. The college’s president, Fred Lazarus, wanted a distinct new building that would reflect the creativity of the activities within and could provide “a physical symbol of Baltimore’s growing national prominence in technology and design.”
A $6 million contribution from financier Eddie Brown and wife Sylvia helped make the new building a reality. The school chose to develop a narrow lot next to the existing Fox Building. The site’s prominent elevation and the fact that it did not fall under guidelines of the neighboring Historic District opened possibilities for a prominent structure.
Local architect and Bolton Hill resident Charles Brickbauer of Ziger/Snead LLC, designed a multifaceted, strikingly angular façade clothed in sheets of glass. From the interior, the glass seems to float around a concrete structure that houses a 550-seat auditorium, a circuitous series of classrooms, and expanses of dramatic gallery space.
The dramatic departure from the surrounding historic neighborhood created some controversy. Anne Perkins, Chairman of MICA’s Board of Trustees, believes that’s okay.
“I’m sure there are people who would like a less adventuresome building,” Perkins observes. “But there is an awful lot of new architecture in Baltimore that is really very average. A new building at an art school should make a statement.”
Perry Cooper, president of the Mount Royal Improvement Association, says the building may have raised some eyebrows, but it has also changed the landscape–for the better.
“Coming down Howard Street, just before you go below Mount Royal Avenue, there it is, all of a sudden, up on the hill, and it’s a big surprise,” Cooper says. “It is a great looking building.” —Elizabeth Evitts
Mojo Room & Lounge
“I want to fill a void in Baltimore,” Bopp explains. “I want to have a club that caters to thirtysomethings, that brings quality music to the area in an intimate atmosphere with excellent sound.”
So far, so good. Already this year, established singer/songwriters James McMurtry, Freedy Johnston, Dave Alvin, Peter Case, Graham Parker, and Dave Davies have performed at Bopp’s rechristened Mojo Room & Lounge: older (but not ancient) and thoughtful (but not ponderous) musicians with glittering resumes and somewhat diminishing sales.
An established musician himself, the Baltimore-born-and-raised Bopp led power-pop votaries Love Nut through two tuneful albums in the 1990s, while more recently his band Myracle Brah is set to release its seventh album in October.
Experience from years of touring with those bands helped him redesign the club: “I took my favorite bars and put them here, so behind the bar is the Club Charles, over here [opposite wall] is Duffy’s Tavern in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a little bit of [New York City’s] Mercury Lounge, and upstairs is David Lynch.” A previously untapped second-floor space has been transformed into a kicky lounge with sofas, coffee tables, and a pool table–a refuge for kibitzing, slightly removed from the onstage activity.
He hopes to “revitalize fans,” reaching out to people who have ceased to patronize clubs, or who’ve significantly curtailed their outings because they now have kids. Accordingly, weekday shows begin at 8 p.m. But “just because it’s thirtysomething doesn’t mean we can’t have fun,” Bopp contends, and so the Mojo Room has brought in a bevy of noted garage rockers; additionally, this fall it will host an East Coast leg of the power-pop convocation International Pop Overthrow. “This is not a shush room,” Bopp asserts. “It’s okay to rock.” —Michael Yockel
Performing Arts Venue
If you’ve lived in Baltimore for fewer than 40 years, you might not even know where the Hippodrome is. But if you happen to have been, say, 13 years old in the late 1930s, this once-glorious performance center is likely an indelible childhood memory. Author and former Sun columnist Gilbert Sandler recalls standing in a line that snaked around the block for a 20-cent ticket that entitled him to see a feature film, along with vaudeville acts or a big band. He remembers seeing Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Louis Prima, all “treats for a star-struck city kid.”
“It was torture” to see the decline of the Hippodrome, the 80-year-old Sandler recalls. “We kept waiting for vaudeville to come back.”
Of course, some things will never return–at least not precisely as we remember. When the theater re-opens in February after extensive renovations, Baltimoreans such as Sandler may not even recognize the vaunted space. And vaudeville will remain as dim a memory as the 20-cent ticket. Nevertheless, the new Hippodrome Theatre, reincarnated to become Baltimore’s premier venue for Broadway extravaganzas such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King, will seat 2,250 and feature amenities such as a bistro-style café. The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center (its official name) is expected to be lit some 250 nights in its first year, drawing more than 400,000 attendees.
The cornerstone of the West Side redevelopment, the project also includes renovations of the adjacent Western National Bank building (which will be the theater’s north lobby) and the Eutaw Savings Bank building (which will be used largely as a multi-purpose space for special events). The $63 million pricetag will be picked up by a joint venture between the not-for-profit Hippodrome Foundation, the Maryland Stadium Authority, and Clear Channel Entertainment.
But there is one thing that will be just as it was when Sandler was a kid: Vincent Maragliotti’s spectacular mural (completed in 1914) above the proscenium arch has been carefully restored by Wisconsin-based Conrad Studios. Maragliotti—also known for his paintings in New York’s Schubert Theater and the Waldorf Astoria—created an allegorical view of the arts featuring the goddess of the arts and Muses of history, poetry, music, and dance.
But the impressive restoration doesn’t figure to overshadow the activity onstage. After all, Sandler wonders “who had time to notice murals? I was too busy watching the show.” —Martha Thomas
Work Ethic Exhibition
See a local artist drill for water! Make art by drinking beer! Transform yourself into sculpture! Then feel your antiquated notions of art explode at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA) upcoming Work Ethic exhibit.
Opening October 12, the exhibition musters an avant-garde mélange of video, photographs, interactive art, and performance pieces to answer a sensitive question: How much work is involved in artwork? Legendary artists John Cage, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Robert Rauschenberg provide some clues, as do rowdy descendants such as Hugh Pocock.
Helen Molesworth, the exhibition’s curator, first began thinking about the intersection of work and art in the 1990s when she was in the education department at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. While giving weekend tours, visitors pummeled her with questions about contemporary art: Why is this art? How long did it take to make this?
“A lot of viewers were worried someone was putting something over on them,” says Molesworth, now chief curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. “They feared artists don’t work hard enough. It’s a very American-Protestant type of fear.”
The BMA exhibit aims to make people think about how the concept of work has changed in the Information Age. “The vast majority of Americans never make a single object, yet they go to work all day long,” says Molesworth. “For artists, what constitutes art is also changing. The dominant mode of going to a studio and making a painting is falling by the wayside. There’s a notion that that is an antiquated activity much like working on a factory line.”
As part of the exhibition, Pocock, a MICA professor, will be drilling for water in the museum’s sculpture garden on opening day, and the water will then be circulated through the museum’s air conditioning system, thereby making a conceptual sculpture; Tom Marioni, a San Francisco artist, will discuss how drinking beer with friends and proclaiming it art lampoons cultural sensibilities; and Erwin Wurm will challenge visitors to make themselves into sculptures using various props such as tennis balls, bananas, and buckets.
For all its philosophical underpinnings, Work Ethic doesn’t promise to be the fusty, solemn, furrowed-brow kind of art exhibit. “The exhibition is seriously funny,” promises Molesworth. Consider the photo of David Hammons’ 1983 performance selling snowballs on the sidewalk after a snowstorm. Or Roxy Paine’s machine that creates paintings so she’s free to do other things. Or John Baldessari’s commissioning amateur artists to make paintings for him.
Says Molesworth: “I hope [visitors] come away with a more expanded idea of what art is and a playful sense of inquiry—and that they participate in the dialogue of what is art, what is work, and what is meaningful.” —Brian Simpson
The Next American City
Adam Gordon, co-founder of the new quarterly The Next American City, stops by Donna’s Cafe in Mount Vernon on a hot Baltimore afternoon. Laden with bags of produce from the Lexington Market, he has just walked from his office at the Baltimore Regional Partnership, a nonprofit housing and environmental group on Saratoga Street, and he will continue on to his home in Charles Village by bus. Gordon is a city dweller through and through.
Gordon is also an emerging voice in the national discussion on urban and suburban development. As editor-in-chief of The Next American City, he is both documenting and helping shape the debate over things like “smart growth.” The brainchild of Gordon and two former classmates from Yale University, the journal has been dubbed by The New York Times “the most subtle plan to change the world the Ivy League has yet produced.”
Last summer, Gordon and company thought the time was ripe to create a publication that would spur conversation about the future of cities. The concept resonated with heavy-hitters like Paul Goldberger from The New Yorker and Joel Garreau from The Washington Post. Soon, Gordon’s editorial advisory board read like a who’s who of national thinkers on urban issues. More than 40 writers and editors from around the country submitted, via email, much of the content for the first issue, which was “built on the Internet,” according to Gordon. Amazingly, that first issue went from conception to publication in a matter of months, and The Next American City premiered in Spring 2003.
Earning accolades from the likes of Architecture magazine and the The San Diego Union-Tribune, it created a buzz with content extending beyond the common parameters of “city” development. The journal tends to look at the big picture by examining workplace trends, land use policy, and various ecological, cultural, and sociological issues. “We don’t define cities as architecture, or government, or social order,” says Gordon. “Rather, it’s how all these things interact.”
Cynthia Farrar, Director of Urban Academic Initiatives at Yale and a member of the journal’s editorial advisory board is impressed by such an approach. “They are taking a refreshing and critical angle on what’s happening in cities, identifying problems and challenges, and not just gathering conventional wisdom about it,” says Farrar. “They are looking at how we get beyond the standard assumptions.”
Gordon says he and his staff will keep the publication quarterly, while an enhanced web presence features additional content. They’re also planning symposiums and lectures to help stimulate dialogue. The Next American City could very well evolve from a magazine into a full-fledged movement.
When asked why he decided to write his first novel—the recently published Sixty-Six— after writing and directing films for the past two decades, Barry Levinson lets out a sigh. “That’s a good question,” he says. “I’m really not sure.”
As he tells it, the Baltimore native—best known for directing classic films such as Diner and Rain Man—was in town for the funeral of his mother, two years ago. While chatting with a friend he hadn’t seen in 20 years, “Something went `boom,’” he says, “and fragments started running through my mind, like flash cards, and ideas started to flow. I could immediately see countless elements of the story, and soon after, I started writing them down. Writing a book never entered my mind, but for some reason, I started writing a novel.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Levinson’s book is set in Baltimore and involves a group of young men who meet regularly at a local diner. But if you’re thinking it’s Diner II, guess again. Although it includes segments full of snappy dialogue that bring the film to mind, the story subtly examines the fallout from the Vietnam War in the fabric of everyday life. And 1966 is the pivotal year for all of the main characters. “That year, there was a split between the generations that seemed to happen in a matter of months,” says Levinson. “If you got married during that time, like Ben does in the book, you were instantly part of your father’s generation. And if you weren’t married, you remained part of the younger generation.”
To Levinson’s credit, Sixty-Six isn’t so much a book about Vietnam as it is a character study framed by social upheaval brought on by the war. The book is about small moments, not history making headlines. “That’s the way life really is,” says Levinson, who makes an appearance at the Baltimore Book Festival on September 19. “In most cases, the big events aren’t seen as important at the time they actually take place. It’s only in retrospect that these things are determined to be defining events. At time, to me and my friends, Vietnam was some kind of thing going on somewhere else that we read about in the paper. We weren’t aware of it being such a big deal, and that’s why, with this book, I wanted to get at the moments between the cracks.”
He does it amazingly well—especially with Bobby Shine, his narrator. On track to become a solid citizen, he’s a law student engaged to a nurse. Adulthood and real world responsibility looms large, especially after his best friend is drafted into the army, and another friend, the aforementioned Ben, gets married to a socialite.
So what does Shine do? He drops out of school, nabs a job at WMAR-TV, and quits after getting promoted. Then, like a certain film director who was once fired from WMAR, he sets out for California. “When I left Baltimore, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” says Levinson. “I just put a few things in my car and headed West. It wasn’t done with a purpose, or ambition to accomplish anything. It was just time to move on.”
After leaving town at book’s end, Shine says, “I suddenly felt myself outside of the gravitational pull of Baltimore—my universe....” It’s quite a strong pull, and, as Levinson knows so well, you can go home again—at least, for inspiration. —John Lewis