Auto Orchestra (Car Car Can Can)

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The performance begins with performers placed in front of their instruments (aka, cars), reciting a poem. After the poem is read, hoods are closed with a decided “thunk,” performers start their engines, slam their doors, honk their horns, etc., and the race is on.

The UMF Auto Orchestra performance is a (mostly) annual rite of Spring. Faculty, staff, students, community members (and their cars) gather together to play the latest offering from composer and carductor Phil Carlsen (or perhaps CARlsen). Nothing like a traffic jam session on a sunny spring afternoon, warming up in the orchestra pit (or rather, on orchestra pit row), and getting ready to 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 “CarCar CanCan” (the latest in a continuing series of automotive orchestrations, following “ReinCARnation,” “InCARnation,” “Car Afterlife” and “Car Life”). “CarCar CanCan” offered not just ca(r)caphony but high-stepping dance moves from the automotive chorus line.

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Performers always go over the score before the performance, especially, as in this case, the score was delivered on-site, and our first look was about a half-hour before “curtain.”

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The most spectacular moment came when conductor/composer Phil Carlson arrived in a spaceship that landed on the lawn, and then strode out of the open landing bay door to survey the gathered automotive players.

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The view from inside one of the automotive instruments, score in hand, gazing attentively at the conductor with the red flag (visible just above the rear view mirror).

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At certain points in the performance, drivers leave their cars to perform various actions and noises, including walking in circles, walking in random directions, blowing whizzers or kazoos, reciting poetry while walking (or standing).

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Above: whizzers in action (or whizzing and walking)

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Whirlies, which were employed at various moments, and made a very eerie space-ship-landing-on-the-grass kind of sound.

At one point, the chorus line kicked into action. On the conductor’s cue, cars in the chorus line would move simultaneously forward or backward. While every second car in the chorus line drove forward, every other car drove backward, and the resulting movement looked something like a chorus line’s leg kicks. Or, at least, I think it did. From inside the car, it was hard to tell, what with the whipping back and forth from forward to reverse, and the looking out to make sure you didn’t smash into the car next to you.

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Above, drivers gathered in a circle, reading a poem aloud, while performers with whirlies encircled us.

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This was a little unsettling. And one couldn’t help but think, what with the close proximity of the gleaming white spaceship and the open landing bay door, that all of us whizzers were about to herded like so much intergalactic cattle aboard the spaceship and carried off into space. But, fortunately, that didn’t happen.

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Only in the auto orchestra can all my Broadway dreams come true: member of the chorus line and a soprano!

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