Nathan Hall sets Northside history to avant-garde opera


One of twenty musicians involved in Nathan Hall’s moving concert the Music of North Side Spaces sits in a tree near the Aviary and mimicks bird noises on a soprano saxophone. (Photo / Henry Clay Webster)

From the moment it began, those who had given their Sunday afternoon to the multi-site music performance, titled the Music of North Side Spaces, knew they were in for an original experience.

Nathan Hall, the office manager at the Mattress Factory art museum, spent nine months writing the hour-long experimental composition — an avant-garde performance piece that involved an audience of 75 to follow 20 musicians on a walking tour of Old Allegheny City’s historic haunts on Sunday, June 27.

Beginning in the New Hazlett Theater’s lobby, a quintet, accompanied by two members who literally played typewriters and ripped up shards of paper, sang an ode to Andrew Carnegie, who built the Old Allegheny Library in which the theater now resides.

From there, the walking concert led to the former Buhl Planetarium, traipsed through the Allegheny Commons and ended up at the Mattress Factory. Between musical sets, Northsider Danny Bracken acted as the tour guide, dispensing unusual historical factoids, such as: “During WWII, Lake Elizabeth was drained and used for scrap metal storage.”

Musicians at multiple stops along the way played songs about the various monuments and spaces where they stood.

At the Aviary, for instance, the audience was surprised by a saxophonist and a flute player perched in nearby trees and playing what sounded like the jazz equivalent of bird noises.

A three-member ensemble played xylophones and sang an off-kilter pop tune about an old meteorite exhibition in the voice of the meteorite itself, with lyrics like, “I and some of my brothers struck the earth in Arizona.”

As puzzled as some crowd members were, it left smiles on the majority of faces.

“I liked it, just how they used distance and space to integrate the music with the environment,” said audience member Timoth Sweetser.

Hall, 27, who has a master’s degree in music composition from Carnegie Mellon, said he had never written a piece like this before. The Charm Bracelet Foundation gave him a grant to fund the project.

“Most of the pieces were inspired by the architecture of that space,” Hall said. “[So in the case of the library,] I had the artists look like librarians.”

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