The idea crystallized for Susan Zielinski 16 years ago, when she was was riding her bike through traffic in Toronto, trying to keep Beethoven’s ninth symphony in her mind as the incessant traffic noises threatened to drive it out.
“What I need,” she thought, “is 20 people riding with me, singing in four-part harmony to drown out the sound of the traffic.”
To humor her, a handful of her friends planned what they thought would be a one-time bike chorale performance during Toronto’s bike week. They called themselves Song Cycles – the Choir on Bikes.
CBC radio called for an interview before they’d even had a rehearsal, and minor celebrity ensued.
Zielinski moved to Ann Arbor three years ago to work on a sustainable transportation project at the University of Michigan, and with the help of Michigan Peaceworks executive director Laura Russello, she’s once again at the hub of a burgeoning bike choir.
The Ann Arbor Bike Choir will make its debut on May 15, as part of getDowntown‘s Bike to Work Day. They’ll perform selections from the Song Cycles repertoire of cheerful, bike-adapted songs, which includes “The Bicyclized Ode to Joy” and “Way’O” (Adapted from Day ‘O, with the chorus “Freeway is not de only way home.”)
The group is still looking for a director, but 15 people showed up at Arbor Brewing Co. Monday for the bike choir’s first meeting, a healthy start considering the Toronto group began with about five people and maxed out at 25. The Chronicle dropped by to check it out, too.
“I think a lot of us were feeling like we didn’t fit the activist, critical mass stuff,” Zielinski said. “We wanted to show the beauty of the bicycle through music and fun.”
Doug and Elizabeth Tidd ride with the Ann Arbor Bicycle Touring Society and sing in their church choir. Doug found out about the bike choir meeting an hour and a half before it started. He called Elizabeth and headed down to Arbor Brewing to hold down a booth as singer/cyclists and cyclist/singers trickled in. Elizabeth, who’d spent most of her day on jury duty and the rest at work, really wanted to go home. But by the time she unlocked her bike to head home, she couldn’t stop grinning.
“It’s really a fun idea; I’m excited about it,” she said. “I have a friend who rides my speed and we make up songs and sing, scare the animals. I picture (the choir) just singing as we’re riding and promoting happy bicycling.”
As a Peaceworks venture, Russello says this could be something that brings the factions of the cycling community together – road riders, trail riders, commuters, anarchists.
“There’s a club called the Bang Gang,” Russello said. “I don’t know how big they are, but they wear leather jackets and stuff, and do most of their rides at night. I told a couple of members about this and they were really excited.”
Russello met Zielinski at a Peaceworks lecture series on sustainability, and the more they talked about starting a bike choir in Ann Arbor, the more it seems to fit the city’s sensibilities. There’s an environmental part, a social part, an activist part, a just-crazy-enough-to-work part.
Tom Bartlett, owner of Circumference Bicycles, offered use of his conference bike, which – for the six people who get to ride it – will eliminate the challenge of steering while reading music.
Two Wheel Tango founder Dennis Pontius unknowingly primed the Ann Arbor cycling community by naming his store after one of the Toronto choir’s original tunes. Pontius heard Song Cycles perform “Two Wheel Tango” – a song about the virtues of men on bikes – as the background music in a CBC television piece about men’s bike saddles. He thought it was a perfect name for a bike shop, so when he opened his in 1989, that’s what he called it.
“It’s just amazing,” Zielinski said. “It’s a wonderful mix of people with a good, funny energy. They’re really serious about it, and they’ve got some great ideas. I’m loving being a part of it.”
The Toronto Choir on Bikes performed at festivals, conferences, concerts and demonstrations for 10 years before going their separate ways. They had choreography and bicycle-bell percussion. The director would ride in the front, sharing a tandem bike with a guy playing an accordion. And sometimes, true to Zielinski’s vision, they’d just take over a street with their symphony of self-propelled humanity.
“People just loved it,” said Zielinski, “I think that’s what kept us going. They were so surprised; they’d stop on the streets and laugh and listen. You’d have police officers and you could tell they were thinking, ‘Wait, aren’t you supposed to be in one lane?’ and ‘I really should stop you, but…’ We never had confrontations with them; we didn’t want to push those limits. We pushed enough other limits as it was.”