Auto-Orchestral Maneuvers in the Late Afternoon

The UMF Auto Orchestra performance is a (mostly) annual rite of Spring. Faculty, staff, community members (and their cars) gather together in a designated parking lot to play the latest offering from composer and conductor (traffic cop?) Phil Carlsen. After a hiatus of a couple of years, it was good to get back into the orchestra pit, or rather, get onto orchestra pit row, and spend an hour honking, beeping, revving, door-slamming, whizzing, kazooing, ringing, blinking, reciting, marching, slow motion marching, radio volume cranking, and just generally making a lot of racket outdoors. This particular traffic jam session was entitled “ReinCARnation,” the latest in a continuing series of automotive orchestrations, following “InCARnation,” “Car Afterlife” and “Car Life.”

The Orchestra Pit (Row), before the performance.

The view from inside Emery Arts Center of the Auto Orchestra in position (the flamingo clearly had the best seat inside or outside the house).

The piece began with all the performers standing in front of their instruments, with hoods up. With our scores in hand, we recited part of an automotively-themed poem, turned, closed our car hoods with a series of satisfying “ka-thunks,” seated ourselves in our cars, slammed our doors repeatedly and then looked to our scores for further instructions. Some sample instructions and explanations from the “ReinCARnation” score:

“The car horn should always be played with a quick light tap, indicated in the score as a BEEP.”

“Variants are two quick taps, BE-BEEP, like the Roadrunner makes, and three very quick taps, B’B’BEEP.”

“Each participant receives a whizzer and a kazoo. It’s okay to practice with them before the performance.”

“Get in behind wheel, close door, open and close it three times. Turn on radio, medium volume.”

In addition to whizzers and kazoos, the orchestra included 6 or so non-driving performers, who played “whirly-spinners,” long flexible tubes that made strange eerie sounds when spun (and looked just as eerie as they sounded).

The auto orchestra is, of course, a media event.

With dramatic skies and late afternoon sun, I was at times reminded of Frankenstein (appropriate for “ReinCARnation”), perhaps because conductor Carlsen, with his signal flag upraised, looks like he’s trying to attract a lightning bolt from the heavens.

As is always the case in a long car trip, it’s good to have a chance to get out and stretch your legs. Fortunately, the score offered us multiple opportunities to do this. “Turn towards your car. Sing a quick fanfare through kazoo. Walk back to your car, blowing whizzer each step.”

If the view from the car reminded me of Frankenstein, from the conductor’s perspective, looking down on the lawn at the various walking, marching, reciting performers, the view was a bit more like Night of the Living Dead.

Or, maybe, Night of the Living Poetry Reading Kazoo Playing Dead.

From inside the car, an auto-performer’s view. The different colored flags indicated different sections of the score, and the different flag gestures signaled which actions to be performed. The yellow card in the corner of the windshield indicated which choir we were in as well as our car number. I was in Choir C, car number 5.

For “InCARnation,” many of the performers adopted the strategy of bringing along navigators for the long journey through the score. The navigators read the instructions while the performers concentrated on performing. For those of us who self-identify as both multi-tasking-challenged and rhythmically inept, this seemed like a good idea. While performing in “InCARnation”, I got so lost that I ended up in New Hampshire (metaphorically speaking), but for “ReinCARnation,” I used the navigator strategy, and with my faithful Navigator along, I (mostly) stayed on track—at least I remained within the greater Franklin County area and didn’t cross any state lines this time around.

And so another year of BEEPing, BE-BEEPing, and even B’B’BEEPing came to a close.

If you’ve never experienced an auto orchestra before, there’s a good video available of “InCARnation.”

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