The first time I heard bicycle music was during my first extended cycling adventure — a four-day, 300-mile ride from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh along the quiet, idyllic C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage. Early on day two of the trip, after I set out from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the sounds of my Kona mountain bike’s wheels, crankset, and rolling chain meshed with the sounds from the environment — the wind, the birds, even my breath — to create an atmospheric symphony not unlike a mid-Seventies Brian Eno album.
As a young Frank Zappa famously showed America when he “played” a bicycle on a 1963 episode of The Steve Allen Show (plucking the spokes like a harp and even blowing into the handlebars), the sounds of a bike are surprisingly musical. Recently, Emeryville musician and composer Johnnyrandom took this concept and created something far more ambitious and imaginative.
“Bespoken” is a mesmerizing song composed solely of sounds made by a bicycle — derailleur cables, spokes, brakes, tires, and other parts. On the surface, it sounds like pleasantly addictive techno-pop, but Johnnyrandom (whose real name is Flip Baber) spent seven months recording and arranging the track. NPR, Wired, Boing Boing, Huffington Post, and other media outlets reported on the impressive composition, an excerpt of which is featured in a video Baber made — the full track is available on iTunes — when it was released in January.
According to Baber, the inspiration for “Bespoken” began in childhood. “As a little kid, I was a bit of a recluse, spending most of my time learning through my ears,” he said. “What I heard in music and what I heard in my immediate surroundings overlapped from the start. The desire to manipulate a bike germinated then.” Baber said he was about four when he started messing around with the spokes of his Huffy. “I was largely left to my own devices, for which I am immensely grateful,” he continued. “It enabled my curiosity to develop unhindered.”
Baber later studied music at CalArts and Berklee College of Music and began doing sound design and composing experimental music for high-profile advertising clients such as Adidas and Doritos. In 2006, he used bike parts to recreate “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker for the bike company Specialized. He said he’ll soon “explore the potential of kitchen objects in ways you might not expect.”
“Bespoken” essentially takes the concept that Zappa playfully showcased on The Steve Allen Show — he’d apparently only been “playing the bicycle” for two weeks — and turns it into a brilliant journey of experimental pop that took seven month to create, even if it only lasts just three and a half minutes. The track begins with the sound of rapidly turning spokes that evokes a craps wheel, then develops into a haunting, bouncy techno beat that wouldn’t seem out of place on Radiohead’s Kid A. Then something magical happens — the sounds coalesce into a fully fleshed-out song.
“I’m certainly not a purist,” Baber said. “I wanted to produce this composition in a manner which put the music first, without self-imposed limitations. That said, it is probably less enhanced than most modern music being produced today.”
It’s true: While Baber created “Bespoken” using, in his words, “100-percent played-and-recorded bike sounds,” he did not limit the “playing” to his hands and the bike parts. “I did use a hands-only approach on some recordings,” he said, but “leaned more towards using picks, mallets, bows, et cetera, because they sounded so much better.” For the “kick drum” sound that effectively transforms “Bespoken” from an intriguing garage experiment into something that makes listeners want to bob their heads, Night at the Roxbury-style, Random used a tire from his Specialized Stumpjumper mountain bike.
According to Baber, just a small fraction of what was recorded made its way onto “Bespoken.” That’s understandable considering the amount of experimentation, refinement, and mixing it took to put together the track’s lush, sonic exploration. “Probably the most beautiful and difficult sound to capture was the spokes,” he said. “For each note, I would tune all of the spokes in a wheel to the same exact pitch to avoid unwanted overtones via sympathetic vibration. Tuned in unison, they sound gorgeous. It had to be a wheel with straight spokes, too, with no crossovers. The first time I tried this, it took an hour to capture just one note.
“After everything was recorded I had to sift through thousands of sounds to figure out which ones had the best potential musically,” he continued. “Processing was kept to a minimum because I didn’t want to lose the intrinsic quality of these sounds, especially the most recognizable ones. The majority are completely dry or have a touch of reverb.”
On that note, what’s most impressive about “Bespoken” is how easy it is for the listener to get lost in it and completely forget that the music comes solely from a bicycle. The melody and rhythm are tasteful and harmonious instead of — as Baber laments about the music of some of his favorite avant-garde composers — “noisy, atonal, [and] arrhythmic.”
Baber — who cites as influences Sigur Rós, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, along with more obscure composers — said accumulating the technical skills needed to score for film and TV led to the confidence and patience he needed to record and mix “Bespoken.” However, the “crux of the biscuit,” as fellow bicycle musician Zappa would say, was the cycling-crazy Bay Area.
“Bike culture is very popular in the Bay Area, so ‘Bespoken’ was certainly influenced by that,” said Baber, who said he isn’t exactly a hard-core biker but he enjoys cycling as “the most efficient way to get out into nature, which is the best way to prepare my mind for creative sessions.”
“I also love the close proximity to valleys full of redwoods to escape into. I suppose I could do what I do from almost anywhere in the world, but anytime I’ve ever moved away, I always end up back here.”