Enigmatic, inescapable, ferociously gifted yet chronically insecure, musician Dawn C. Culbertson astounded and confounded those who knew her as one of the Baltimore arts scene's most outlandish figures.
She was a punk lutenist known as the "Evil Pappy Twin," a singer of Sacred Harp hymns, an avant-garde composer and a caller for English country dances. A member of the American Recorder Society and a founder of Vox Asylum, a group specializing in anti-war music, Culbertson performed as readily in Immanuel Episcopal Church as at Tattoo, the Ottobar and at "I Hate the '80s Night" at Frazier's on the Avenue in Hampden.
A regular at 14-Karat Cabaret, the Red Room, poetry readings, art shows and theatrical events, she seemed to be everywhere at once. And yet, Culbertson, stolid and self-deprecating, often seemed to recede into nonexistence.
On Thanksgiving, Culbertson, 53, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack after an evening of English Country dancing in a Pikesville church. Stunned friends and admirers took measure of her uncommon genius and idiosyncratic nature.
"I'll never forget the first time I saw Dawn perform," musician Scott Wallace Brown recalled on Artmobile, a lively Baltimore online forum often frequented by Culbertson. "It was about five years ago at the old Creative Alliance space at the Lodge in Highlandtown. She performed a few authentic Renaissance tunes on the lute, and then all of a sudden she broke into the Sex Pistols song, 'Submission.' I was awed."
For awhile, there were two Evil Pappy Twins: Culbertson and Mark Hossfeld. "Dawn, being an actual musician, would learn quickly the licks of an Iggy song or a Ramones song on the lute and I would 'sing' the lyrics in as dismal a fashion as possible," Hossfeld says by e-mail. "We both agreed [the act] had the same charm as reading Bazooka Joe comics -- so damn dumb, but entertaining [in limited doses]."
As comfortable with punk and jazz as she was with Renaissance music, Culbertson was able to identify and exploit the structural threads that link seemingly disparate genres, and that allowed her to flow seamlessly from a 15th-century ballad to "Hot for Teacher" by Van Halen. Once host of an all-night classical music show on the former WJHU-FM, Culbertson, who had a master's degree in composition from the Peabody Conservatory, also performed the abstract music of John Cage, and composed her own contemporary work.
Baltimore jazz pianist and composer George Spicka first encountered Culbertson when he read her jazz column in what is now Music Monthly. After establishing the Baltimore Composers Forum in 1993, Culbertson and member Spicka worked closely together to provide better exposure for contemporary composers in Baltimore, he says.
Spicka remembers Culbertson "just talking about music and composers she liked."
"I can hear her voice in my head still; sometimes she's laughing," he says. "I'd always come up with these stupid jokes on the spur of the moment; she would always laugh."
When she wasn't creating her own art, Culbertson was exploring the work of others. "No one in Baltimore's art scene was more doggedly cultural than she was," says Hossfeld, who now lives in North Carolina. "I have no idea how many aspects of the local scene she was involved in except that it was practically all of them."
During an interview with Fluid Movement founder Keri Burneston for the Baltimore Alternative in 1999, Culbertson spent most of the time regretting that it was too late to be part of the group's first water ballet in the Patterson Park pool.
Burneston remembers thinking, "God, this woman is so weird. The next year, she came and she was in it." Culbertson took several roles in Cleopatra: Life on the Nile, including that of a baboon and of a dead, floating Egyptian. She performed in high-camp mode, "with such earnestness," Burneston says. "She always really got it in a big sense."
Chris Mason, a Baltimore musician and a Culbertson acquaintance, welcomed her generosity. "At the same time she was a very creative, talented person, she was also a very active member of a lot of audiences. She was a great appreciator of other people's works, which is rare today," he says.
Culbertson lived in the thick of the arts community, and yet was a loner. After a performance at the 14-Karat Cabaret one night, Burneston helped close the club and left around 2 a.m. Outside in the bitter cold, she found Culbertson "leaning against the wall alone, almost as if she were waiting for someone to talk to her."
Burneston spent some time with Culbertson. "She talked about her ill-fated love life. It was just so heartbreaking," she says.
Her sense of isolation was troubling to those who have planned tributes and a memorial CD in Culbertson's name. At times, though, her shaky sense of self and needy aura gave way to a social grace that surprised her companions.
Often, her laughter came to the emotional rescue.
"I have a fond memory of Dawn falling down laughing to my slide-whistle solo during our version of Lou Reed's 'Kill Your Sons,' " Hossfeld says. "I like to think our relatively harmless idiocies are making her laugh right now."