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Car-Horn Composition: Steve Parker's Symphony I-95?

Written by: Michelle F. Solomon
Article Rating

Creating music from car horns and bicycles and other non-instruments isn't new. Composer and conceptualist John Cage waxed poetic about traffic noise saying that there is a way "to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects, but as musical instruments." Frank Zappa wowed talk show host Steve Allen and his audience playing bicycle spokes on national television in 1960s.

So, to speak with Steve Parker about his site specific "Traffic Jam" piece that uses Miami's transportation woes as its inspiration is not so much about how the music is created as it is to why.

On Saturday, Dec. 3, in the midst of Miami's worst traffic weeks of the year, during Art Basel and Miami Art Week, Parker will culminate a series of unconventional and interactive performances with the grand finale of "Traffic Jam," where he'll present a free and open to the public car-horn orchestration at MDC Wolfson Campus Parking Lot 1, Biscayne Boulevard between NE 5th and NE 6th streets in downtown Miami.

Parker first presented his “Traffic Jam” last year in Austin, Texas, where the trombonist-composer lives. It was staged at the only drive in movie theater in Austin, Blue Starlite Drive-In, as part of the Fusebox Festival, a 12-day festival in Austin that's become a platform for adventurous artists. This was the springboard for “Traffic Jam,” which caught the attention of MDC Live Arts Executive Director Kathryn Garcia, who thought the mad rush during Miami Art Week would be the perfect time to present Parker.

"Austin shares transportation challenges like Miami," explains Parker. "I use a lot of materials found locally in the way that I write and an overabundance of traffic is one of the commodities that is plentiful in Austin."

Parker says what first inspired him about creating a composition using car horns, lights and windshield wipers, was the idea of "creating something melodic and beautiful out of something that could be pretty ugly and absurd." He found the absurdity of Miami's transportation system, its accessibility, or lack thereof, to be as inspiring as what he knew of Austin.

Parker has been to Miami only three times in the past three months and has gleaned these observations that, he says, will inspire the overall palette of "Traffic Jam."

"Miami seems to have this disjointed public transportation system – the People Mover and the trolley system. They all have good intentions but there isn't anything that's connecting them. It's a system that has a lot of parks that seem useful but they work in isolation."

These are the kinds of ideas that find their way into Parker's unconventional works. "It's not so much about where you can find music, but what constitutes a venue or an ensemble, what does it mean to be a performer or musician, what is an instrument?' I like to break these conventions apart."

The entire composition, according to Parker, is driven (no pun intended) by a series of situations coming together at once – the artists collaborating, the vehicles involved, the parking lot, and the participants. "This is where it becomes an interesting social experiment," says the composer. Volunteer participants who will become part of Saturday's car-horn orchestra will receive "sheet music" prepared by Parker. The piece begins with everyone beginning at the same time using a stop watch. "Everyone follows along on a sort of Guitar Hero type score that scrolls along horizontally. When it's blacked out, participants honk their horns."

Pop-up performances are also part of “Traffic Jam” that continue through Dec. 3 throughout Miami. They'll include fleets of musical bicycles, mobile sound sculptures showing up in unexpected hubs of transportation (people mover, parking garages and bus stops, and performances with the Hobo Roadshow, a hand built trailer bar and tattoo parlor on wheels with "elements of surprise performances.")

On Saturday, the 3:00 p.m. Traffic Jam Carnival, will also feature:

Emerge Miami creating interactive automobile installations that examine the different ways people engage with their vehicles; featuring a make-out car complete with an artificial “make-out point” vista to facilitate canoodling.

Artists Manita Brug-Chmielenska and Randy Burman presenting a large scale, interactive xylophone made from automobile hoods and parts. The parts will be amplified and can be played by audience members with a variety of objects provided.

Inlets Ensemble presenting new site specific works for skateboarding ukulele players, car stereos, and electric car windows by Jorge Gomez and Robert Blatt.

Kunstwaffen 1916 performing a quartet for choreographed musical bicycles. Prepared in the manner of John Cage and Frank Zappa, bicycle wheels will be outfitted with guitar strings and other noise-making objects.

Karen Peterson Dance presenting an intimate duet for mixed ability dancers Katrina Weaver and John Beauregard. A live musical score will be created from amplified and processed components of the wheelchair and dancer bodies.

The car-horn finale completes the Traffic Jam experience at 4:00 p.m.

He named his previous car-horn composition after Austin's congested I-35. So what to make of his Miami symphony?

Symphony I-95 seems quite fitting.

To find out more about the performances and to participate in the interactive presentations of Traffic Jam, go to


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About The writer

Michelle Solomon is a long-time writer and editor, whose works regularly appear in magazines throughout South Florida.


About the Writer

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