Winter Spotlight: Wheels


The first in a series of posts highlighting new and re-imagined parades for the 2014 Make Music Winter festival, coming up on Sunday December 21. 

Spotlight on: Wheels

In 2013, Merche Blasco introduced a new instrument into the Make Music Winter line up: bicycle bells! With her piece, Blink, she joined a long line of composers creating pieces for this unusual instrument. This year, composer Nissim Schaul adds himself to the list with his piece, Wheels.

What inspired you to write music for bicycle bells?

I heard about Merche’s parade last year, and I said to myself, this is almost everything I love all in one package: bicycles, music, bells in New York City (I have a long-standing fascination with the Salvation Army Santas), an unusual setting, and things that are inherently impossible to predict. It’s the perfect project for me.



What came first – the instruments or the piece? And what’s it like composing for unusual “instruments”? What’s the composition process like?

Definitely the instruments came first—the whole idea comes from Merche’s piece last year. After that, it’s been figuring out what I can add to the form. My main innovation is to split the bikers up into two (or more, if there are a lot of participants) groups. That way, the whole park will be full of bell music. Ideally, the faster group will catch the slower group somewhere along the way, too, and all of the music will be together for a while. (The two parts are complementary: they work on their own, but also together.)

I’m kind of used to composing for “unusual” instruments—accordion, hurdy gurdy, harpsichord—and bells aren’t, in and of themselves, such odd instruments. Percussionists have to play them all the time. What’s unusual for me is the context, that we’ll all be moving around at, what, 10 miles per hour, while we perform the piece. And the performers aren’t going to be musicians trained since childhood to make their instruments extensions of themselves, and to play precisely. It’ll be regular people trying to pay attention to a blinking light ahead of them, and also not run into their neighbor or the oblivious kid on the side of the road, or that idiot squirrel, all while remembering to actually play the bell they have when the right light goes on. If they can remember which light is theirs. Forget playing the bell at the same time the other guy who has the same color is playing!

(Which is also why we’ll all be riding slowly! Safety is paramount!)

It’s a completely unpredictable situation, which is something I like to create in my music. I’ve been working out ways to play up the unpredictability. Some sections will be calm and more precise. Others will be deliberately too complex to get right, and I think the chaos will be beautiful!

What has been the most challenging part about working on this project?

Finding the bells. What I’ve discovered is that, in France, where I live, bikes are required to have bells, so they arrive from the factory already equipped. With mystery bells. No one knows where the bells are from or who made them or how to order more. It’s Kafkaesque. If I hadn’t had a trip to North Carolina planned in November, I would never have been able to work out how to order the bells I wanted.


I’ve also struggled with who the “audience” of Wheels is, and in the end, I think it has to be the participant cyclists themselves. I have to think about what will make them happy, what will keep their interest, because they will be experiencing the piece the most consistently, for the longest time. But that doesn’t mean that average park-goers aren’t a part of the piece. From the very beginning, what I’ve wanted more than anything is to turn Prospect Park into a magical place, full of fairy bells. I hope that Wheels makes the park an even more special place than it already is, that the sound of (quasi-)coordinated bells EVERYWHERE transports people outside of their ordinary lives, even for just a moment as the slow-motion peloton rides up and passes. That’s why I also hope people will come wearing lots of light–visual magic will add to the musical magic.

What has been the most interesting?

Trying to figure out how to make Arduino microcontrollers work. (The Arduinos are what will turn the lights on and off.) This is at least partially “interesting” because I’ve had relatively good luck with them so far. Hoping that remains the case as I build the signaling helmets. This technical work could still easily become the most challenging bit.

We’ll assume you’re a pretty serious cyclist if you’re interested in biking around in the snow. What’s your favorite thing about bicycles? 

Well, actually… I didn’t learn to ride a bike until about ten years ago, when I was in my mid-20’s.

And I’m really hoping it doesn’t snow!

I think I have a convert’s zeal when it comes to biking. I didn’t ride a bike regularly until the middle of 2011. But ever since I got up the courage to ride through the Parisian streets before 10pm, Vélib’ (the rental bike program here) has been my primary means of transportation.

I’m so new to cycling that, whenever I get on a bike, it still feels like I’m flying. That’s my favorite thing about them! I hope that feeling never goes away.


How long have you been composing music? What’s the strangest composition experience you’ve had (other than this one!)?

I started composing, depending on how you define composing, sometime in my early teens (when I should have been riding my bike, right?), on the toy guitar that I’m not really sure why we had in our den. I played viola, too, but writing music at that point was more like making up rock songs. I got interested in classical forms in high school, when I managed to get out of a year-long typing course by switching into a music theory class. And I guess it became a primary life-goal, something I took very seriously, sometime in college.

I’m not sure that Wheels is going to beat out my strangest compositional experience, actually. I’ve had to go to lots of shops and talk to lots of interesting bike enthusiasts in preparing Wheels, but to write Something Else (Music for Sleeping through Winter) ( for violin and prepared piano, I had to go to gun shops, because I muted the piano with socks filled with BBs. (This is a technique invented by Stephen Hartke, by the way, and these mutes sound *spectacular*.) I’m really not a gun person. And gun people in France, I think, have to be especially devoted, since gun ownership is quite rare here. Especially in Paris, because why on earth would you have a gun in Paris? There aren’t any deer to hunt in this city…

That’s what I was thinking as I prepared myself to go out to look for BBs. I finally gathered up my courage and made the rounds. But then, at the first shop I went to, I was standing behind a little old lady. I was a little confused, as she didn’t seem like the type to be buying a gun. And in fact: It turns out, she had come to the gun (and knife) store to have her scissors sharpened. The shopkeeper kindly took her scissors, and asked her to come back that afternoon, and I thought to myself that I had completely misunderstood what Parisian gun stores are about! They’re actually about little old ladies getting their scissors sharpened. They’re actually friendly little community centers!

The lady leaves, I ask the shopkeeper about the BBs, I’m looking at his selection, when out of the other corner of the store, I’m startled by a loud buzz, followed by a sickly burning smell. Because the other customer in the store is testing out his new Taser©.

And so I was disabused of my new notions of Parisian gun stores, and I went right back to being terrified.

I ended up buying my BBs online…


Any advice for participants joining us on December 21?

1) Don’t worry about the cold. Biking’ll warm you up!

2) Bring a screwdriver to attach your bell with! We’ll have a few, but it’ll go even faster if you have your own.

3) Be festive: Wear bright lights, anything you can think of.