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June 20, 2005

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The following music review will appear in Carbusters magazine:

Anyone who has ridden alone down a quiet road is familiar with the whirring, clicks, hums and ticks a bicycle can produce--music to a cyclist's ears. And why not, riding is rhythm and rhythm is the backbone of music. So it's no surprise that people on different sides of the world would hit upon the idea of turning bicycles into instruments. Oregon USA's Portland Bike Ensemble (PBE) and Austria's Bul Bul (aka Manfred Engelmayr) both succeed in transforming bicycle sounds into music--although their approaches and results are very different. PBE plays free improvised music on actual bicycles for live audiences. Bul Bul culls and edits bicycle sounds to produce polished techno beats. Both have released records which are in themselves works of art.

PBE's methods are both straightforward yet ingenious. Their emphasis is on improvised live performance. Bicycles are stood upside down, wired for amplification through various microphones, and played with a beguiling and surprising array of inventive techniques. Spokes are plucked like the strings of a harp, spinning wheels are touched with microphones to produce ethereal otherworldly tones, and cranks are turned with metronomic regularity. The result is an ambient soundscape just this side of cacaphony, a mechanical jungle inhabited by curious and expressive machines calling to one another in an organic language. The music evokes a place while the gradual shifts in tempo and intensity call to mind the changing rhythms of a journey over uneven terrain.

Bul Bul's approach is more in the style of classic musique concrete, where sounds from one's surroundings are recorded and later reprocessed in the studio. Pioneered in Paris in 1948 by Pierre Schaeffer who spliced together audio cassette cuttings to "sculpt sound," musique concrete has undergone a renaissance in recent years as means of recording and reassembling sound have gone digital. Bul Bul records, edits, and loops sounds recorded from various ambient sources. On Velo, his third CD, all the source sounds come from bicycles. The beats are heavy and would fit in nicely at a techno rave. One could probably dance through the CD's 20 minutes of high-energy rhythms without guessing the music's unusual source, but one look at the mini-CD's clever wrapper and--given context--the sounds become instantly recognizeable.

Both records are noteworthy for the care and attention given to their packaging. The Portland Bike Ensemble's self-titled 2003 release is a 12" vinyl LP of which only 500 were made. Each cover is hand-painted in abstract washes of vivid color which visually echo the recording's hypnotic layerings. Bul Bul's Velo is a cute 3" CD (playable on standard disc players) packaged in a small green, white, and orange cardboard sleeve made to resemble a bicycle patch kit. Velo is also a limited release, with only 555 made. Either record will be of interest to lovers of bicycles and experimental music.

Artist: Bul Bul
Album: Velo
Format: CD ep
Label: trost
Price: 9 Euro

Artist: Portland Bike Ensemble
Album: Portland Bike Ensemble
Format: 12" vinyl LP
Label: Olde English Spelling Bee
Price: $10 USD