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Sounding a Space: Evening Embers at Monument Circle

Sounding a Space: Evening Embers at Monument Circle

by Rob Funkhouser

Living near and working downtown, and growing up in Indiana in general, I always took Monument Circle for granted. On the face of it, it’s a cool architectural hub, but it’s also a big traffic roundabout, when it isn’t being shut down for American Ninja Warrior. What I thought the least about in general was the sound there. Sure, there are speakers everywhere, but, up until recently, the most interesting musical moment for me was walking around the Circle near Christmas and playing a game with my buddy trying to recognize which song the muzak engine was trying to imitate. 

Even during the original iteration of Spark, in the halcyon days of 2015, when I had the chance to perform on the Circle, the experience was one that felt like glorified busking, playing near the edge of something magnificent, but short of the center. That all changed for me when I played on the Circle earlier this year when Spark started up again. Playing a sound on the central sound system in that space as an artist is a revelation, and gets at the heart of what music can do when it is effectively married to a space.

Evening Embers, which takes place each Wednesday evening at 6:30 through October 26, has been a study in just how easily a space can become an immersive experience when sound becomes a dominant factor in the environment. It has been a chance to allow artists to hear themselves in a way they probably never considered, and for people to engage with the peace of the quieter spots in the central grounds. Throughout the series so far, we’ve heard artists that live right in the zone where the beauty of the sound has equal standing with the content of the music to completely transform the atmosphere of Monument Circle from that of traffic din, to a space of deep calm and exploration. 

Performances so far have included Landon Caldwell creating a collage of sound from woodwinds, voice, and sampled instruments, Mark Tester building a whole world out of a single synthesizer, Michael Raintree playing glacially paced abstractions of his songs, Airport People’s plaintive tunes, and Clare Longendyke playing a set that reached back to the very beginnings of ambient music. Most recently, DJ Little Town breathed some drum-heavy life into the series with an hour-long mix of varied instrumentals.

Clare Longendyke performing at Evening Embers, 9/14/22.  Photo by Jim Walker.

And there’s more to come: 

October 12 – Jordan Munson and Rob Funkhouser in duo preceding a huge night of art including an anthology reading of poems written about Monument Circle, and the premiere of No More No Place, which features 40 of Indianapolis’ most talented composers and videographers paired together for shorts to be projected via the Circle’s ten-story building projector.

October 19 – Composer and performer Hanna Benn will bring a touch of the sacred in her vocal improvisations.

October 26 – Classical Music Indy is partnering with SPARK for a screening of the 1920 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with a live score by Jennifer Page, flute; Eric Salazar, bass clarinet; Allison Vickery, piano; and yours truly on percussion. 

It is my hope that as many people as possible will come to experience the art of sound at Monument Circle for themselves and see the possibilities that imagination can bring. 

Because, whether you like the art itself or not, hearing it in such a massive context will change the way you view the space, will hopefully open up new ways of thinking about public space, and, perhaps most important of all, it will be interesting.

Landon Caldwell performs at Evening Embers, 9/21/22

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Rain sets the backdrop for a unique Spark performance

Rain sets the backdrop for a unique Spark performance

By Rob Peoni, Spark writer in residence 

My routine of walking from my home in Fletcher Place to Monument Circle for Listen Hear’s ambient, experimental, Mellow Monday set was interrupted due to weather this week. A late afternoon rain was showering downtown Indy. Despite the weather, the performance by local multi-instrumentalist Rob Funkhouser was scheduled to proceed – rain or shine. With walking out the window, I called an Uber rather than attempt to negotiate parking.

“Look at that mural!” my driver chuckled as we emerged from beneath the parking garage on Virginia Ave. She was pointing at the image of a man on a ladder, supporting an impossibly large scroll. Franklin, TN muralist Michael Cooper, designed the piece, entitled “Indy – Always On A Roll!” My driver admits she has never noticed the mural.


Rain falls steadily as we roll onto the circle from Market Street. Upon exiting my ride, I see Big Car’s Spark crew arranging chairs beneath the marquee in front of Hilbert Circle Theatre. On a folding table in front of the chairs, Funkhouser is assembling his rig: a MINIBRUTE SE analog synthesizer, a MacBook Air, a composition notebook and a cluster of cords connecting the devices.

Droves of umbrella-headed business suits pass by abandoning their day’s work at their desks. By the time the bells toll at Christ Church Cathedral signaling the six o’clock hour and the start of Funkhouser’s performance, the rain is reduced to a drizzle and the large cabanas arranged to protect the crowd and Funkhouser’s gear are deemed unnecessary, folded, and set aside. The sun peeks through the clouds, baking the soaked bricks of the circle.

Funkhouser kicks off with spacey, ambient notes that seem to sparkle and burst like globs of hydrogen in the cosmos. The music becomes more full, with Funkhouser adding swaths of sound by playing chords on the keys of his synthesizer. It grows darker and more ominous, with the occasional wave of calm. A pattern of distortion cuts through the atmosphere adding a backbeat to the ambience. A teenage couple looks on while silently sipping fluorescent sodas before ambling onward.

Big Car executive director Jim walker captures photos or video footage from a tall tripod across the street. He’s standing just beneath a statue of Oliver P. Morton. The 14th governor of Indiana stands with his hand extended, waist high, palm held upward as if inviting the cacophony at his feet. Walker is wearing a Big Car mechanic’s shirt, cargo shorts, and teal blue socks. He’s smiling. He looks like an urban safari guide. Most days, that description isn’t too far off.

A trio of skateboarding teens rolls by. On the other side of the marquee, a leather-clad guy who looks alarmingly like Julian from Trailer Park Boys revs up his Harley Davidson. Befuddled, quizzical smiles from passers-by walk on the sidewalk behind Funkhouser.

I can’t help but chuckle at my surroundings, pinching myself at how lucky I am to witness this experimental performance on the doorstep of Indy’s most hallowed musical institution, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. This isn’t something that happens with regularity across the country. Experimental musicians are rarely offered this type of platform, and the unique nature of the performance isn’t lost on the crowd.

John Flannelly, the curator for Listen Hear’s contribution to Spark is seated in the front row. He’s wearing a jean jacket, white paints, purple sunglasses, black dress shoes and is sporting a fresh haircut. For the previous two performances, Flannelly has been on top of the time, reminding performers: 30, 15, 5 minutes left. Today, he lets Funkhouser roll. He’s right to do so, as Funkhouser closes the set promptly at 7 p.m. Flannelly is on stage himself on Monday Aug. 24 at 6 p.m. as this week’s Listen Hear artist.

With Funkhouser’s performance and rainfall in the rearview, I decide to walk home along the Cultural Trail to digest what I’ve just heard and seen. This fall, Funkhouser will return to school to study musical composition at Butler University. I can’t help but wonder whether one day the symphony held inside the doors in front of which he just performed will be celebrating and rearranging his works.

Rob’s pick for this week’s Spark programming:

At 6:30 p.m on Wednesday Aug. 26, Indianapolis artist Kipp Normand will lead a themed walk that begins at Spark’s welcome trailer parked in front South Bend Chocolate Company on Monument Circle. As an artist, Normand uses found and repurposed materials as the building blocks for his celebrated installations. For a primer, check out Jennifer Delgadillo’s recent profile on Normand via Sky Blue Window. As one who specializes in found art, Normand’s view of his surroundings likely differs from the rest of ours substantially. With that in mind, I’m anxious to hear his interpretation of “Indy Oddities.” RSVP for the walk via Facebook.