Organ grinder Mark Prier brings German opera to Saskatoon

Mississauga, Ont. artist Mark Prier has been wheeling his handmade organ through the city's streets for the past few weeks, playing old German music, dispensing bird seed, and intriguing onlookers.

Mississauga, Ont. artist in city until Sunday

Mark Prier pushes his handmade busker organ through Saskatoon's Riversdale neighbourhood. The organ dispenses birdseed and is part of the city's Placemaker public art program. (CBC Saskatoon/Trevor Pritchard)

If you come across Mark Prier wheeling his wooden music box down one of Saskatoon's sidewalks, don't ask for a hot dog or an ice cream cone.

Prier's not in the food business, even if the sounds coming from his old-timey busker organ might suggest otherwise.

Rather, his ear-catching performance piece, called Der Vogelhandler, was one of seven projects approved for 2014 by the city's Placemaker program, which curates and installs new public art all over Saskatoon.

Feelings of yesteryear

"Of all the public performances I've done, this one has attracted probably the most positive response," Prier told Saskatoon Morning.

"It does bring up and kind of elicit these nostalgic feelings of yesteryear."

The Mississauga, Ont. artist has been in Saskatoon for most of August, pushing his organ — a musical contraption more associated with Victorian times than the 21st century — through the city's downtown and along the riverfront.

I think it does speak to a bygone era.- Mississauga, Ont. artist Mark Prier

The organ features a crank on one side, which plays off-kilter music from the German operetta Der Vogelhandler when Prier turns it. A chute in the front dispenses birdseed as Prier walks — which may seem odd until you realize the title of this project translates as "the bird-seller."

Music boxes, Prier adds, were also used historically to teach canaries to sing.

Temporary art has its place

Prier says he's frequently been approached over the past few weeks by people wondering what he's up to. 

Along with handling misguided requests for ice cream, Prier said he's also met residents who remember when organ grinders worked Saskatoon's streets. 
Mark Prier says people enjoy the nostalgic feelings that come from seeing an organ grinder make his way through the city's streets.

"I think it does kind of speak to a bygone era. People are also quite fond of mechanical devices that don't require electricity."

And while public art is traditionally associated with permanent works like sculptures or murals, Prier says that society's changing tastes give temporary public art projects their own value.

"They can run the gamut from traditional to experimental without really endangering [the look of the city]. Because you're not stuck with it."

Prier will only be in Saskatoon for a few more days, however. On Friday, he'll be part of a "meet the artist" event at the Barney Kutz Pocket Park on 21st St. between 1st and 2nd Ave.

He'll also be at the Saskatoon Farmers Market on Saturday and will be giving the organ one last spin downtown on Sunday.

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