Sousaphone Surprise!

[What the...]
My favorite thing about cities is when they surprise you. Your become oddly alive when you walk out of an office meeting and into a parade unexpectedly passing. Pulses race crossing a fireworks display for a holiday you'd forgotten. Few things fill hearts more than a chance encounters with old friends on accidental streetcorners. I once emerged from a matinĂ©e on 42nd Street to find a crowd on the sidewalk being held back by police as a presidential motorcade drove past. I remember an older gay man booing loudly and saying “he’s not MY president!” at the receding swarm of black SUVs. Exactly these moments are the ones where cities appear so different from small town life. You don’t know what to expect. Any day you may be taken by surprise. This is a city.

I suppose surprise is all too rare. In order for cities to work their magic, you need great helpings of Jane Jacobs’ main ingredients, density and diversity. For many cities, that’s a tall order. Today’s suburban enclaves lack the connectivity or crossroads. There are no street corners where moments can occur, nothing to improve the odds of unexpectedness. Instead the most likely place for a chance encounter is your grocery store checkout line, where you're rushed by women behind you, harried by coupons, juggling cerealboxes.  If by chance you see a friend while driving, you can only honk your horn and hope they don’t think you’re an asshole. Later you tell your friend that you spotted them on the onramp, and everyone looks at their shoelaces.

Yes, some parts of the city hold more surprises than others. Some parts of the city have a the requisite density and diversity, exceed the surprise threshold. I was reminded of this fact this weekend on the University of Minnesota campus. Along with downtown, the University is the densest part of my middlewestern burg. And if you ignore the fact that 2/3 of the people are between the ages of 17 and 22, Universities are diverse! There are people hanging around campus from every corner of the state, the country, and the world. There are clubs for most every activity, from the “Objectivism" cult to pre-pharmacy study groups to the unicycle society.

And sometimes, in the summer, if you walk around campus you’ll find clusters of uniformed drummers, vibraphonists, and sousaphone regalers on every street corner, creating a bizarre soundscape of beats and blurts ricocheting off every possible angle of each industrial alley.

That’s what happened the other day this weekend. There must have been some sort of marching band tournament or drum line competition going on at the stadium. Everyone was trying to find a patch of sidewalk where they could practice their jams. Walking the streets was fascinating. You turn a corner and there appear forty people in torquiose leggings. It was like Gangs of New York, but in a good way.


[Sousaphones collect in the gutter.]

[White hats wait for heads.]

[Drummers and sunset.]

[I'm not sure what these people are trying to accomplish.]

[Thirty people with teal legs.]

[Dudes with mallets on the side of the road.]

[White men marching.]

[A John Deere-led vibraphone parade.]
[My favorite: a shirtless dude practicing drums alone in the vacant lot between the abandoned grain elevators.]


Julie Kosbab said...

Yep. DCI Minnesota was Saturday. I think it was 20 drum corps, mostly so-called world class corps that are kids from 17-21. They tour the country putting on 11-minute shows based on brass, drums, and colorguard. Most corps are about 140 members. Travel on buses and in trucks, sleep on HS floors all over the country, and achieve some of the most epic tanlines of history.

The Minnesota contest is one of the "major" contests each year. There are many smaller contests, including several locally.

Justin Foell said...

Great post. No sousaphones in drum corps, only tubas. Sousaphones wrap around the player - drum corps tubas are shoulder-mounted, they're the "RPG" of musical instruments.

Hopefully DCI Minnesota at the University will be a summer staple for years to come.

Brian said...

You should check out the show when it comes by next year, it's a trip. The sad part about DCI is that it has really changed (and not for the better) over the past decade. Now they have electronics, amps, and a whole bunch of other synthetic garbage in their shows. Back in the day, it was 100% accoustic. Some of the shows are still very impressive and entertaining though. Just don't call it marching band!