Erik Spangler does a lot within the Baltimore experimental music community while maintaining a rather low profile: working with Mobtown Modern, which he co-founded; co-hosting monthly hip-hop exploration series the Boom Bap Project; performing as DJ Dubble8; and teaching a class in sound at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The Oberlin- and Harvard-educated composer/DJ/producer/educator works hard at removing, or at least lowering, the walls between his classroom and the thriving Baltimore music culture surrounding it, and this weekend’s Vigil all-night music festival is a remarkable example, 13 hours of a mixture of students and outside guest musicians performing on Cohen Plaza. Last week, during a visit to Spangler’s Mount Vernon studio, City Paper got a chance to talk about the strange role of instructing students in experimental music, art school boundaries, and the Vigil.
City Paper: So what’s behind the Vigil?
Erik Spangler: This is the third year, but the idea goes back a long time for me. My dissertation piece that I did for grad school was a composition for four ensembles that were spatially separated. I always envisioned that as an [all-night] piece. Like, there were going to be interludes that were played at different stages of the night and some improv. Then, I started thinking more and more about bringing other people into it and having this mix of different musical cultures and different styles that I was interested in, and having it all come together into the same form. The piece that was played at the beginning of the first Vigil was that dissertation for four ensembles.
The idea behind the dissertation has to do with the four directions and the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and that’s continued to be a theme. So we have four sound systems set up, surrounding Cohen plaza at MICA. Students who are doing live performances, I talk a bit about those themes as possibilities that they can explore in their own way. It’s a mix of musicians from around Baltimore in experimental music, electronic music, jazz—a lot of different genres. And then we have to shift to a lower volume after 10 [p.m.], so it goes into a more ambient [mode]. My students have from about midnight until dawn to do 20-minute sets. And we have some points where all four sound systems will be used at the same time.
I’m really hoping to see more of that, creating a different context for music, so it’s not always at a club or bar—an environment that’s really unique and an experience that’s out of the normal rhythm of people’s lives.
CP: This is a mix of MICA students, your students, and non-student musicians from the Baltimore music community. Can you talk about that relationship?
ES: First of all, I want to bring in a lot of people that MICA students might not be seeing because of the normal rhythm of their classwork. There’s just so much amazing music going on in this city. I want to bring that into MICA. And then inspire students to step up their game, and kind of have a musical conversation with those people. I’m always trying to create projects in my class to get them out, whether it’s going out somewhere and doing like a guerilla sound performance out in the community, or doing an end-of-semester show at the Windup Space, and bring other people [from the music community] in as well. Trying to tear down those walls. It’s surprisingly easy.
CP: How does one go about teaching experimental music, something that might by definition not really have rules or protocols?
ES: Basically I start with sound itself as a medium and getting students aware of sounds in their environment and different ways of classifying them, then different ways that they can shape them into something else. And I give them a lot of history and background on the development of music based on samples or experimental music, that kind of thing. I don’t prescribe too much of what they do. I give them the tools and a method of going about getting the material and putting it together. Play them a lot of examples.
It’s not going to try and cover all of music and, like, “writing for strings.” It starts from the idea of using sound as a material and making sound art from field recording, or from [electronic] synthesis. But students can take that any number of directions. If students have a musical background and want to pursue that, we’ll work with them. It’s mainly more conceptual and giving them hands-on experience with the tools to make sound.
CP: Is there a fine line between just giving tools and more usual “do this do that” music instruction?
ES: I find MICA students really easy to work with for the most part. They’re all within their own medium working with a lot of the same conceptual ideas that you find within experimental music. And there’s not the prejudice you sometimes run into with conservatory-trained students, who might think of music as just one tradition with one way of thinking about it, and to break from that, to go into chance-based or free improvisation, can be a bit of a stretch for some of them. I find that art students can be a pretty good fit.
The Vigil takes place April 28 from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. starting in the brown center atrium and moving to cohen plaza after the first hour. for more information visit dubble8productions.com.