Outside magazine, June 1999
Concerto for Cricket and Frog in B Minor
Maestro and mayor, Phillip Bimstein goes wild in search of harmonic convergence
Unlike most musical composers, Phillip Bimstein has little interest in laboring at his piano surrounded by a burgeoning mound of balled-up staff paper. Instead, he practices his art by hiking into Utah's redrock wilderness with a digital tape recorder to capture the sounds of nature, which he then transforms into delightfully skewed orchestral pieces on his Macintosh Quadra 650. To create one of his most powerful works, for example, Bimstein drove from his home in Springdale, Utah, to Zion National Park, where he recorded the love croons of mating canyon tree frogs—catching them infrogrante delicto, as it were. He conducted vigils on his front porch to log the chirping of crickets and the caterwauling of coyotes. He also ground together chunks of sandstone in front of his stereo microphone in an effort to produce the "sound of tectonic plates moving against each other."
The resulting tape of digitally manipulated sound, together with the score he wrote for a chamber concerto entitled "Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa," is typical of the "alternative classical" music that has catapulted this Chicago Conservatory of Music alumnus into the forefront of the international experimental composing scene. In the past several years, Bimstein's compositions for classical instruments, accompanied by tapes incorporating the sounds of animals, have garnered acclaim from sources as far-flung as the Los Angeles Times and the London Independent, while his works have been performed in New York and Washington, as well as symphony halls across Europe and Asia.
The only thing about Bimstein more unusual than his music is the theory of municipal government that he practices as Springdale's second-term mayor. His approach is based on quelling civic dissonance by integrating diverse voices into a harmonious dialogue—an enterprise that has brought together a community which, prior to Bimstein's tenure, often found itself divided over issues like the development of Zion National Park. During his first year on the job, for example, when negotiations over providing emergency services and water gave rise to rumors that the park was taking over Springdale, Bimstein attended a town meeting wearing a ranger's hat and asked where people had gotten the idea. The meeting dissolved in laughter. Says Zion superintendent Don Falvey, "Phillip is very good at orchestrating the town." But while Mayor Bimstein is popular with his constituents, his compositions are another matter. "I played his stuff for my Weight Watchers group, and they were just gaga over it," says former town manager Fay Cope. "But frankly, a lot of people around here think his music is pretty weird." —PAUL KVINTA