2nd Ward - A Bicycle Opera: Ride a Sonic Bike, Hear Crazy Amazing Sounds

The Kaffe Matthews-produced bicycle opera in 2014 – the first of its kind in Houston that allowed folks to ride “sonic bicycles” that create path-dependent musical compositions via speakers, a digitally programmed score, a computer and a GPS receiver – coaxed some interesting responses from participants.

Comments in the guestbook included:

“I felt as if I were floating around in a dream. This is a poetic and soulful journey through the suburbs of Houston — one of my favorite suburbs in the world and from my childhood.”

“It is so refreshing to ride around my neighborhood and hear stories about the community's struggle and have the neighborhood be a part of that story by just being.”

“So wonderful how immersive it was to be surrounded with sounds from the project and from the environment.”

“The rider is audience,” adds David Dove, founding director of Nameless Sound, which is presenting the reprise 2nd Ward - A Bicycle Opera/2° Barrio - Una Ópera en Bicicleta. “But they are also determining the flow of the piece, finding a sonic narrative resulting from their journey through space.”

The bicycle opera is a site-specific piece composed by London-based sound artist Matthews and features contributions from Microphonic Research Institute, Vampire Squid Labs, East End residents, writers, musicians, children, programmers and engineers. Instead of riding a straight shot through the Second Ward, riders can create their own composition by speeding up, slowing down, completely stopping, turning in circles or pausing to listen to sounds that aren’t evident when they're whooshing down the path.

“Kaffe immersed herself in the environment. She attuned the sounds and levels to the environment, and how they might behave in that environment. Sometimes those sounds blend in. Sometimes they comment. Sometimes they dialog with the environment. Sometimes, depending on the path the rider chooses, they form narratives,” says Dove, who adds, “There is a very interesting indeterminacy that results from the behavior of the GPS.”

“In a sense, the piece remains the same,” says Dove when asked how the 2016 version might differ from the debut program two years ago. “Its sounds are determined by GPS coordinates, and GPS coordinates don't change. It is a piece that was composed specific to its site. But what may have changed is the site where the piece lives. What has changed in the Second Ward since 2014? The bike opera is like a piece of public art. It lives where it lives, and the place changes around it, though the bike opera disappears and reappears.”

Dove, who has produced a volume of concerts that easily numbers in the triple digits, says that 2nd Ward - A Bicycle Opera is perhaps the most challenging event he’s put together.

“For many reasons, this was probably the most complex and intense production that Nameless Sound has ever taken on. It involved months of collaboration that included a team of engineers and programmers who built the bikes, and a group of children from the neighborhood who composed music for it, musicians from the neighborhood who contributed music, poets and writers conducting workshops and gathering oral histories from the Second Ward,” says Dove.

“Other than Kaffe Matthews, the team of collaborators (artists and engineers) were all from the neighborhood. With the current trends toward instrumentalizing artists and artmaking for the development of neighborhoods, it was important to us that this project team was made of 2nd Ward residents.”

2nd Ward - A Bicycle Opera/2° Barrio - Una Ópera en Bicicleta takes place from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, October 22, at the Historic Firestation #2, 317 Sampson Street. It’s free and the sonic bikes will be provided. For more information, call 713-928-5653 or go to namelesssound.org.
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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen