Song Cycle

On Oct. 27, 32-year-old composer Flip Baber was driving through downtown San Francisco to see a movie when he got stuck in traffic. The movie start time came and went, so he and his girlfriend headed toward another theater, but got stuck in more traffic and missed that show, too.

"It was a crazy night, full of bikes everywhere," says Baber as we chat at a Mission District coffee shop a couple blocks from his home. "I said to my girlfriend, 'Oh, God, if only they knew what I'm working on, maybe they'd let me through.'"

Baber had been held up by Critical Mass, the monthly civil disobedience protest that for more than a decade has been part of a crescendo of S.F.-based civic discord involving bicycles. What he was working on was a new way to use bikes as the basis for harmony. But the irony wasn't thick enough to part that evening's waves of cyclists.

"We had to switch theater destinations three times," he complains.

Baber had just been commissioned by the S.F. advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to record a piece for Specialized Bicycle Components of Morgan Hill that involved performing Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairyusing only bicycle parts as instruments.

It's a startling, beautiful, bizarre piece — nothing like those grating dog and cat "Jingle Bells" recordings we hear every year. Baber transferred the sounds of brake disks dinging, derailleur cables and spokes being plucked, brakes squeaking, a freewheel spinning, and other bike-derived sounds into a few hundred recorded files; electronically tweaked the best of them on a Mac; then assembled them by ear, adding a hint of reverb. The result sounds like a glockenspiel-fronted, jazz-infused chamber orchestra performing The Nutcracker Suite.

The version hosted on Specialized's corporate Web site has been passed along sufficient times in the last few months to count as a top Internet meme, culminating in a recent broadcast on National Public Radio.

"It has turned out to be the most recognized thing I've done," Baber notes.

Recognized enough to bring harmony to the city's clash between bicycles and cars? I asked Critical Mass co-pioneer and activist Dave Snyder.

"Are you working on some sort of New Age kind of thing?" Snyder asked, dismissively.

No, interviewing the guy who recorded Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairyusing sounds from a bicycle.

"Oh, wow. Someone sent me that," Snyder said. "It's really cool."

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