Author: AndrewSigler

Keep Dallas Wired: The Dallas Opera Plugs Into Death and the Powers

Hal Cazalet as Nicholas in Tod Machover's Death and the Powers

Hal Cazalet as Nicholas in Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers
Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Tod Machover has a real knack for tapping into popular consciousness. While his background is as academically rigorous as it could possibly be, his compositional work, as well as his instrument and software design, leans in a direction that can certainly be described as approachable to a broad audience. It takes a certain sensibility to write music for the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell one week then for Prince and Penn and Teller the next [1], one that is flexible and responsive to a wide variety of audiences and performers. This was on display in the recent production of his Pulitzer-nominated opera Death and the Powers by The Dallas Opera—even before I took my seat. Shortly after entering the Winspear Opera House, I noticed a group of people crowding around a simple metal chair with several sensors arranged in a semicircle behind it and flanked by what appeared to be two outsized lightsabers. Acting as a sort of a theremin for the torso, patrons were invited to sit in the chair and shimmy to their hearts’ content while the chair responded to their movements. Used as the focal point of Machover’s Brain Opera and developed initially as part of the Media/Medium project with Penn and Teller, this shiny new version of the Sensor Chair was built by Machover and Elena Jessop specifically as a catalyst for the production. It was quite popular and served as a gentle introduction to the technology as soon as one entered the hall.

There are robots in Death and the Powers, a 90-minute, one-act opera, and they are called Operabots. Perhaps to accentuate the difference between them and the humans who eventually join them on stage, their design is decidedly un-anthropomorphic. Think R2-D2, not C3PO, with one slight nod to human form in the inverted triangle that could be taken for a head. Operating independently and scooting around at various points in the evening, a quartet of these guys sat quietly at center stage as the work began. When they came to life, they announced that they would be re-enacting a drama left to them by their human predecessors, and in doing so they hoped to gain a deeper understanding of human existence through an examination of the concept of death. Accompanying their introductory material (which was voiced in the most stock ’50s nasally, monotone, robot voice you could possibly imagine [2]) were stylized computer sounds which swirled around the audience and read initially a bit more like sound design than music. My first impression was that both the robot voices and the opening audio were a bit dated, but on reflection I think that the use of those “on the nose” sounds served really well to both separate the human from the robot and to set the stage in the clearest possible way for the sci-fi to come.

Robert Orth as Simon Powers - photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Robert Orth as Simon Powers
Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Robert Orth played the part of Simon Powers, a one percenter of the highest order who, as he is approaching the end of his life, has his consciousness downloaded into “The System,” a computer mainframe that will allow him to live forever. Joining him is his daughter Miranda, his third wife Evvy, and his protégé Nicholas, who as a child was rescued by Powers from an orphanage for disabled children. A set of strobe lights aimed at the audience masked the replacement of the robots with human counterparts, as three huge walls served as an ever-changing backdrop to the events. The walls were actually three-sided structures, each one able to rotate and move around to reveal what amounted to large video screens. The “screens” were actually made of dozens of vertical lights in an 8×20 grid which at times showed a variety of shifting patterns, but which were able to display a fine enough resolution to show faces, principally Powers once his transition to The System was made.

Orth’s portrayal of Powers was just thunderous; a stomping, garish, wonderfully obnoxious character who served as a perfect counterpoint to Joélle Harvey’s earnest Miranda. Once inside The System, his solo describing the transition was particularly compelling, though it’s a challenge to have that solo without the singer onstage. This was one of the instances in which Orth’s face does not materialize on the screen, so his work was really cut out for him. Running the gamut from bellowing bombast to a gentle nostalgia for his past, his performance here was even more impressive in that it occurred without his physical presence. Patricia Riley’s Evvy was engaging throughout, but never more so than in her duet with her disembodied husband. What begins as an innocent reminiscence about their first date develops into a full-fledged erotic encounter, one that Riley was able to communicate in every aspect of her performance without going full-Miley. Hal Cazalet’s Nicholas really came alive in the fifth scene while in the lab working with the robots. His retelling of Powers as his personal savior is passionate, as he notes that the prosthetic arm he has built is “post-organic,” a sort of preliminary version of Powers’ transformation. Powers financial standing is on par with many countries, and his exit from human affairs has left a tremendous void in the world. As such, all has gone to hell in a handbasket. A visit from the The Administration, The United Nations, and The United Way (played by Tom McNichols, David Kravitz, and Frank Kelley, respectively) provides comic relief, with Kelley’s piercing histrionics a wonderful foil to McNichols’s booming bass.
In a production with so many strong singers and performances, it was in the final scene where Harvey’s Miranda stole the show. Unable to follow Evvy into the world of The System, she is torn between her love for her father and her love of conventional human life. The 99 percent arrive as The Miseries, all of humanity living in a world turned upside down by the turmoil that occurred in the wake of Powers’s retreat from the world. Having escaped their grip, Miranda confronts Powers who continues to try to convince her that entering The System is the only option for the future of humanity. Miranda rejects this notion, repeating the word “Live, live, live!” as the orchestra ascends to a final climax.

Moody Foundation Chandelier extends from the ceiling of the Winspear Opera House. Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Moody Foundation Chandelier extends from the ceiling of the Winspear Opera House.
Photo by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

It’s not surprising that in a world where the line between human and robot is crossed, the music has a similar dichotomy. Nicole Paiement, artistic director of Opera Parallèle in San Francisco, returned to Dallas to lead her second TDO production, having done Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse in 2012. Paiement and the orchestra not only handled everything Machover’s score threw at them, but did it while being surrounded and occasionally overwhelmed by all manner of electronic audio. And that audio was not fully confined to the hall in Dallas. Simulcasts of opera productions are nothing new, but Machover and a team from the MIT Media Lab developed an iPhone app which allowed patrons at satellite sites to receive secondary audio and video content coincident with the performance in Dallas, as well as the ability to control the Moody Foundation Chandelier, a huge structure with dozens of plexiglass tubes that descend from and contract into the ceiling.

Interactive, robot, remote simulcast, lightsaber, iPhone, Sensor Chair: the word cloud for this piece has everything a 21st-century opera could ask for.
I, for one, welcome our Operabot overlords.


1. This may not be an accurate timeline.

2. Seriously, take a second and do a robot voice. That’s the one I heard.

Aperio: Indie-A-Go-Go


Aperio performs at the Hobby Center in Houston
Photo by Trish Badger

Aperio–Music of the Americas is an arts organization with a broad vision. “Dedicated to preserving chamber music literature through performances that showcase contemporary composers from the Americas,” Aperio curates concerts that one night might feature contemporary chamber music from the U.S. (like the one I attended last weekend) and focus on the music of Nicaragua the next. Certainly each of these countries have varied styles within their borders, but the change in focus from one region to the next over the course of a season helps Aperio track and understand trends on this side of the pond as distinct from concert series that include European repertoire. Michael Zuraw has been at the helm of Aperio for many years and, in addition to being a spectacular pianist, he has also consistently assembled one crack team of musicians after another to achieve his vision.
In his introduction to the evening, a program billed as “Indie-A-Go-Go–Vibrant Alternative American Works,” Zuraw indicated that some in the audience might connect with various musical references from the rock world that would show up throughout the night, but I think that the youngest might actually get more excited about hearing the opening work of the show, John Mackey’s Breakdown Tango. This work served as the source material for his orchestral work Red Line Tango which, in turn, became one of his most well-known wind ensemble pieces—a work played by many college and high school groups around the country.

Breakdown Tango began with driving, syncopated motor rhythms played by violinist Chloé Trevor and accented in the piano by Zuraw. Cellist Patrick Moore supplemented the texture as clarinetist Christian Schubert played the main melodic fragment of the opening of work. This largely chunky and visceral opening gave way to a lyrical breather before calling out the tango namesake in broad strokes across the whole ensemble, though primarily in the violin and clarinet. A brief return to the opening material brought the work to a close.

As the concert went on it became clear that the show was a marriage ceremony of sorts, with some things old, new, borrowed, and blue. Following the Mackey were the “borrowed” selections: “Three Songs,” which are arrangements of Radiohead tunes by Christopher O’Riley (of From the Top fame). For both composer and performer, it is tricky to avoid the hotel lounge vibe that solo piano versions of rock tunes might yield, but pianist Brendan Kinsella did a great job breathing life into arrangements that, in lesser hands, might deflate ever so slightly. Closing out the first half was Carter Pann’s Piano Trio No.1 (“Nicky’s Trio”) which featured some of the best orchestration and pacing of the evening. In four movements, it was arguably the piece that walked and talked most like a classical duck, but that characteristic worked most solidly in its favor. The opening movement, “Cowboys,” was packed with big open sonorities. High and lonesome in the beginning, it popped into virtuosic gear with giddy-up rhythms and virtuosic lines traded deftly between violinist Kirsten Yon and cellist Daniel Saenz. This tight communication continued into the second movement, which started in a similar vein as the first, though much more subdued. Here the energy of the violin and cello was tempered and more space appeared for Kinsella’s piano work. A gem of a third movement (perhaps less than 60 seconds and somehow recalling “What a Fool Believes” by the Doobie Brothers; a connection that surely must have only been in my head) acted as a brief palate cleanser for a fiery final movement. Following a brief intermission, two works by Michael Torke brought us something “old” and something “blue,” though not in that order. Torke’s Blue Pacific for solo piano is indicative of much of his work in this century. Clean and simple, the work started for all intents and purposes like a pop piano ballad centered largely in the middle range of the instrument and only venturing out by and by. As the work progressed, virtuosic passages and a more adventurous harmonic language lent depth and complexity to the initial melodic material. This was followed by the “old” piece of the night, Torke’s Yellow Pages from 1985. I haven’t heard this work in years and two things struck me as I listened: 1) I’d forgotten how hard the tune is and 2) I still don’t hear Van Halen’s “Jump” as a reference or source material. Not that the ensemble’s performance showed the former; in fact, they looked very comfortable and their playing was quite assured. I suppose the latter comes out in the accented upbeats, but to me it sounds like a piece all its own. As the ensemble flipped through the tonal phonebook, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to hear this in the mid-’80s–the bright harmonic language and motor rhythms still part of the preceding ten years, but the phrasing and harmonic rhythm part of the relatively new post-minimal sensibility. Though not as ancient as, say, the Mac [1], the piece certainly holds up and was quite well received.

And last but not least, the “new”est piece by the youngest composer of the night, D.J. Sparr’s The Glam Seduction, closed out the evening. Starting out with a harmonically reimagined but structurally spot-on arrangement of the opening gesture of Eddie Van Halen’s seminal guitar solo “Eruption” (including devastating introductory thunder drums courtesy of percussionist Luke Hubbley), this Van Halen reference was laid bare. No coy rhythms here. The piece segues quickly from the opening material to a rising line shared among Moore, Trevor, flutist Judy Dines, and bass clarinetist Sean Krissman. This heads-up collective motive returns several times during the work and serves as a chorus of sorts between solo sections for each instrument. Each player in turn does their best metal impression, though I think if the piece had a less evocative title [2] (and performance notes that obscured the origin of the musical material) it’s quite possible that the “metal” elements would be less obvious. In fact, there are many tender and quiet moments and sections throughout the work which set off the wilder and more provocative core and do give the ears a rest before things are cranked up once again. The piece goes out with a bang, as well as a huge swaggering coda that all but invites the audience (as Zuraw suggested in his introduction to the work) to break out their lighters and put their horns up.
Though I write for the most part about the USA (with a few exceptions) under the auspices of NewMusicBox, I’m interested to see what Aperio does to represent the rest of this continent and its southern counterpart. I’ll admit that despite my classical guitar background (of which a great deal of repertoire, contemporary and otherwise, is derived from Central and South American composers) I tend to think about contemporary music from an American or American/European perspective. Perhaps that’s simply my upbringing and education, or maybe I need to get out of the house a bit more. Either way, if this concert is indicative of the level of curation and performance that Aperio provides, I suspect there’s a whole world of music out there that they can show me.


1. Along those lines, it seems that the iPad on the piano (and the stage tech who has to carry it and a tiny new pedal out before the show starts) has officially replaced the Macbook on the stage in many new music concerts. Like all trends in music history these lines of demarcation are not always clear, so I suppose time will tell.

2. I’m by no means suggesting it should. I was seduced by this same glam in high school, and played tortured versions of “Eruption” until my parents couldn’t take it anymore.

Sounds Heard: Duo Scordatura, The Act of Loving You, and Ritual

Three very different albums showed up on my desk recently. One came from a friend, another from a friend of a friend, and the last from out of the blue, and the wildly varied music reminded me of what NewMusicBox is all about: exploding the idea that contemporary American music is any one thing.
Duo Scordatura

Violinist Nicholas Leh Baker and violist Faith Magdalene Jones form the Houston-based chamber group Duo Scordatura. Their eponymous debut album is the result of collaborations with all the composers featured on the album and each of the works came from their ongoing commissioning project.

Jordan Kuspa’s Beneath the Magma starts out with quietly growling unisons glissing and whining wider and wider into small turns. High energy, quasi-Balkan (or maybe real Balkan?) rhythms evolve from these opening gestures, populating alternating odd time signatures. While not straight-up tonal, the piece is centered in this ballpark for the most part and serves as a strong opening to the album. Robert Garza’s Ill-Tuned Illusions is one of the two works that reflects the duos namesake. Here the violin is tuned G D A# E and viola C G D# A, and the extra tension on the instruments can be heard in the work. A series of truncated vignettes, the piece is almost cartoon-like in its extreme changes of mood and texture. This is not meant pejoratively and, while there are a number of disparate sections, it certainly holds together quite well.

Jack Benson’s Tightrope Sonata is in two movements, and the first features long lines, each instrument having a turn at shaping them. Long soliloquies traded between the players merge into a languid dialogue, the back and forth spiraling upward in register before returning to material reminiscent of the opening. The second movement comes out guns blazing with its muscular jetés across double-stopped lower strings. Throughout the movement, one player plays chordal material in the chunky double-stop vein while the other lays out melodic material above. There are larger, more distinct sections, some of which have enough character to possibly warrant their own movements.

George Heathco’s Turbine features a Q&A between the two instruments that quickly overlap and become a sort of hockety canon starting in the lower registers and ascending by and by as the piece develops. A bright harmonic tonal center sways from dark to light and back again, as an ostinato in the viola plays against double stops in the violin. Pizz moments make their way into this trading texture, one that never gets too busy but always feels full and focused. This leads to a more legato section followed by a reductive ending in which a long phrase played between the instruments gets pared away until there is nothing left. Alexandra T. Bryant’s All True Passion Comes Out Of Anguish begins with a single keening line drawn out and punctuated with pizz. Glissando on the viola begins to break up the call while gentle dips in the violin mark the start of a new section, one in which arguably brighter harmonic content prevails. Chords long held by the violin are coaxed upward by sharp stabs in the viola, which upon dying away make way for a new and welcome texture of light arpeggiation from the violin and slowly gliding double stops in the viola. The arpeggiation moves into the realm of harmonics and dies away at the closing of the work. A final work by Benson, Fringe, provides an approachable and visceral close to a spectacular debut by the Houston duo.

Odessa Chen and the Invisible Stories Ensemble—The Act of Loving You

Odessa Chen’s chamber-folk EP The Act of Loving You is certainly an album of its time. Chen’s lyrical content and vocal delivery would fit comfortably in the pop rotation, though the former is more richly varied than much of that rotation and the latter has a breadth of character that outshines the average pop singer. Accompanying Chen are nine seasoned classical musicians and a composer/arranger.  (Full disclosure: the last is my friend Max Stoffregen.) The Act of Loving You has four charming tracks, each with their own character but wonderfully connected as well. The first thing that struck me about the opening song, “Our Hearts Boom Boom, was the distinctly different mic positions and distances between the vocal parts and the instrumental arrangements. Chen’s breathy vocal treatment is largely in line with typical pop production (the reverb is lush but not over the top) while the instruments are somewhat drier and more present. Delicate, intricate, and linear, the largely polyphonic arrangements set the piece apart from a pop track simply sweetened with orchestral instruments, though I admit that I missed the homophony a little bit in the choruses where, in pop, all things are tutti. Just a little.

In “Spring Comes On” a less rhythmically driven texture dominates. Filigree flute lines play around piano and bassoon while seagull strings serve to fill the space. The rhythmic activity does ramp up towards the end of the track, but the piece continues to float along by and large. “Objects May be Closer” begins with guitar and continues with a pulsing texture which at first blush is quite conventional. However, as the piece progresses and is overtaken by the orchestral instruments, one can hear the possibilities this sort of treatment has both in terms of density as well as timbre. Frankly, the pop world has no shortage of timbral possibilities, and that embarrassment of riches certainly plays a role in too many overly simplified broad-stroke arrangements. Here a strong understanding of each instrument and its timbral characteristics works strongly in favor of emphasizing the lyric at times, as well simply matching the quality of Chen’s voice, occasionally fusing the voice and instruments into a single entity.

The title track finally brings the homophony that I personally craved in the preceding arrangements while retaining the timbral matching of “Objects May be Closer.” While still floating along like “Spring Comes On,” “The Act of Loving You” is somehow bigger and thicker in spots, and when the piece ends like an indrawn breath, one is certainly left wanting more.

David Dominique—Ritual

David Dominique’s album Ritual reminds me of the best parts of the tradition of “rock band plus horns,” albeit with violin, flute, and flugabone in this case. The ten tracks feature four “Rituals” in spots one, three, seven, and nine, the first of which was salvaged from an opera and reworked from the original in which the piece acted as a sardonic fanfare for Saddam Hussein. As Dominique explained it to me:

The four “Ritual” tracks are all tied together by an emphasis on cellular repetition. In Ritual 1/BDB, that repetition gets a bit of development. Ritual 2/Dirge has a long chord progression that repeats once with repetitions in the way Andrew Lessman is improvising (not all exactly cellular). Ritual 3/Hostage overtly repeats almost the same material six times in a row, with small variations at the end of the “phrase.” And Ritual 4/Release takes an opening series of motives and deconstructs and varies them through processes of literal cellular repetition followed by a motivic group improvisation.

While the album is by no means derivative, listeners of a certain vintage will pick up on Zappa and Waits, while others may hear elements of Morphine and early Mr. Bungle channeled through Dominique’s tight arrangements. The album has a dirty, visceral quality, and while there is no story per se, there is a quasi-narrative forward motion—kind of like Zorn’s “Naked City,” without the hyperkinetic/schizophrenic arrangements and vocals.

In addition to the eponymous tracks, highlights include Golden Retriever, with its wandering pizzicato strings and lowing tenor sax, and Mulatto Shuffle, which marches in on its namesake before shuffling off, and last but not least, Drunk Hump, which sounds like the end of the night, no doubt. The album is very evocative, totally begs live performance, and to my ear lends itself to additional elements of theater and dance. Dominique’s performing contribution to the album is on flugabone on all ten tracks, and my only criticism is that with an album with a vibe like this, if you play a flugabone, you should name one of your tunes after it. Ritual 5, anyone?

All Venues Great and Small

Kevin Puts

Kevin Puts
Photo by Henry Fair

Whenever I attend a concert at the 2,900-seat Bass Concert Hall in Austin, I like to stand up a few minutes before the show starts and have a quick look around. Before moving to the Long Center several years back, Bass was the home of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble whose ticket sales managed to put more than a respectable dent in the available seating chart. However, on other performance occasions the balconies can be sparsely populated, and so it was here that my eyes rested minutes before the downbeat of the University of Texas Symphony Orchestra’s most recent concert. A Wednesday night offering at the close of the semester could easily be all tumbleweeds out in the house, but the UTSO doesn’t mess around, and the premier of Kevin Puts’s new work, How Wild the Sea, was enough to all but fill the house.

Puts is no stranger to Austin. He was a faculty member in the composition department at UT prior to his appointment at Peabody, and he has previously worked with other members of the Austin arts community—including last year’s collaboration with Conspirare. How Wild the Sea was the result of a commission from Texas Performing Arts, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Society, City Music Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, and the Naples Philharmonic, with additional support provided to Texas Performing Arts by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As part of a three-year initiative, the Texas Performing Arts commissioning project has yielded new works from John Luther Adams, Dan Welcher, and a forthcoming Nico Muhly commission, as well as residencies by eighth blackbird and Brooklyn Rider. When asked to contribute a concerto to this list, Puts’s first thought was to write something for the Miro String Quartet, UT’s quartet-in-residence and for whom he wrote the work Credo. As such, Puts’s new work is a concerto grosso of sorts, which is a bit of a risk even for a Pulitzer winner who, one might assume, can write his own ticket. Puts is well known for his engaging and approachable music, but the market for this particular arrangement is, arguably, modest. Though largely a logistical issue (how easily do you fit a quartet’s touring schedule in with an orchestra’s yearly offerings?) another concern is, shall we say, positional? The Miro stood for the entire performance, and though a standing group is not unprecedented, it’s certainly unconventional and could be a tricky thing on a tour, not to mention having to haul around a big box on which to place the cellist. I saw the Miro and Shanghai quartets placed in an unconventional configuration last year, and while both groups rose to the challenge it’s always a risk to alter the fundamental workings of a chamber group. So, how’d it work out?

Great. It was a truly fantastic piece.

Not just “solid” or “attractive” or some such vague terminology, but really, really great. The work was based on reflections Puts had after seeing footage of a Japanese man sitting helpless on the roof of his house as it was carried away by the tsunami of 2011. Representing the elderly man, the Miro began the piece alone with interlocking minor scales falling quietly through rising arpeggios. This delicate texture was eventually picked up and overtaken by the orchestra, the sense of proportional change quite stunning and made more palpable by a subtle but distinct harmonic modulation. The pace of the work increased and was marked by brass and percussion providing a bed for a return of the quartet, this time with a peppering of sixteenth notes. The second movement seemed less directly related to the suggested narrative of the first and abandoned its formal parry and thrust. Emerging attaca from the first, the quartet and orchestra traded fours seamlessly, flying along at a breakneck pace. Puts is not only a fantastic composer but also a superior orchestrator, and his use of color (in the winds in particular) and natural sense of balance among the instrumental choirs (much less between the quartet and the orchestra!) was uncanny. I don’t know if this piece will live past its commissioner’s performances, but anyone who can overcome the logistical difficulties will be rewarded with a wonderful work for both performers and listeners.


Chaz Underriner and Colin Wambsgans

Chaz Underriner and Colin Wambsgans

As regional editor for the greater Austin area (in which I’ll include Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, among others) I can tell you that while the music is great, the commute is drag. Long trips up and down one highway or another can be tempered with the right playlist or podcast, but the pain of hours spent in a car cannot be denied. However, I’ve got nothing on Los Angeles-based composers Sepand Shahab, Colin Wambsgans, and Michael Winter who, during a particularly thorny winter storm (and you have to remember that Texas has little infrastructure for such relative rarities), recently spent nine and a half hours in a car getting from Denton (a bit northeast of Dallas) to Austin—a trip that typically takes between three and four. The lion’s share of this trip was spent along the 40ish-mile stretch between Denton and Fort Worth; a nail-biting journey during which I-35 became a hellish slip and slide. Fortunately, all three composers arrived no worse for wear (and only a bit late, really) at the small venue in the neighborhood of Travis Heights. Measuring about 20’x100’, the private studio space held around thirty people, counting performers, and was a perfect, intimate location for the composers’ offerings.

Shahab’s Divisions on a Ground was performed by James Alexander on viola, Brent Farris on upright bass, and Travis Weller on violin. Written “for 2 or more bowed strings, sine waves, field recordings, and a metronome,” this performance was set to have a fourth player, but the weather did not permit. The work started with a faint and rising recording of an ocean joined eventually by Farris. The recording bore little resemblance to the “Gentle Ocean Sleepy Time” setting on your nighttime noisemaker, and was closer to a solid wall of constant sound. Farris’s entrance was met with another recorded sound (perhaps an airplane?) which was initially about a half step off the bass pitch resulting in subtle oscillations. A gentle rising chord in the strings developed into a slow resonant counterpoint, with voices leaving and returning and never fewer than two players at once. Long silences divided sections in which Shahab struck a balance between artificial and found sounds, finding common ground between the two sources.

Brent Farris, Travis Weller, and James Alexander

Brent Farris, Travis Weller, and James Alexander

Michael Winter’s Chorale and Finely Tuned Resonators for four electric guitars and sine tones was composed with larger forces in mind, but—along with the wayward violinist absent from the first piece—several of the guitarists lined up to play the tune were also missing. Fortunately, the work allowed for a solo version which was performed by Chaz Underriner. Wielding an Ebow over his semi-hollow body guitar, Underriner began the work against a sine wave beating. Plush pulses in a steady succession moved steadily higher, building to a shimmering crest populated by a lightly sawing sound which somehow resembled crickets. A largely textural work (at lease this version), Chorale still lived up to its namesake with a coda-like section involving more rapidly changing timbres, quick changes on the eighth note sounding like the pull of organ stops in place of the slower harmonic rhythm of the bulk of the work.

The final work, This Is A Long Drive for Someone Who Overthinks Things by Colin Wambsgans also required a bit of on the spot alteration to account for elements beyond the performers’ control. Originally intended to last over an hour and to include a video component, Long Drive was condensed to a 36-minute version for two guitars and two-channel fixed media with no video. Based on a candidly recorded conversation about a Modest Mouse album (highly influential among his peers) from the end of Wambsgans’s college days, the work started with the recording intertwined with the live guitars. Wambsgans and Underriner at times played notes in a pointillistic fashion, occasionally manipulating the tuners to realize a sort of measured vibrato, but for the most part the guitar parts were extremely sparse throughout the work. Though there were sections in which the recorded discussion of the music was echoed in the music (as in the vibrato), as the piece progressed, the ratio of live performance and electronic manipulation to pre-recorded dialogue became decidedly one-sided. It eventually morphed from the Modest Mouse dialogue into a monologue (from a mentor I believe) about the nature of music and composition which, while fascinating, seemed to go down a decidedly different path than the initial material. It can be challenging to get a complete sense of a work from what was essentially an arrangement, and I look forward to hearing it sometime in its full form complete with video to get the full effect.

While certainly distinctive in their own rights, Winter, Shahab, and Wambsgans did present a “sound.” Though Wambsgans work had a Presque Rein vibe with its electronic recordings largely laid bare, and Winter and Shahab played a bit more of a game of “guess the source” by mixing sine waves and natural sounds, there was still an organic element to the marriage of electronics and live play among the works that tied them together and made for a cohesive evening of chamber music. And were it not for the shuffling of the order of works and a few required changes, one would never have known what the composers went through to present their music that night. The show must go on, indeed!

Other Guitars

It’s not hard to find a guitarist in Austin. Like breakfast tacos and new condo developments, they can be found on just about any corner and every day more of them show up. To stand out among the six-stringers in this town is quite a challenge, a challenge that was met at two shows I heard recently. The first was Austin Classical Guitar’s final show of the calendar year, and the second was a one-night-only appearance by one of the giants of improvisational music, Henry Kaiser. Both were examples of the diversity in the guitar world in Austin, a world that too often is perceived through the lens of blues, rock, and indie music alone.

Les Freres Meduses

Les Freres Meduses
Photo by Arlen Nydam

Austin Classical Guitar is among the most dynamic arts organizations in Austin, and though it was founded in 1990, ACG really hit its stride with the appointment of Executive Director Matthew Hinsley in 2003. In the past ten years, it has grown from a modest collective curating a few concerts a year into the premier guitar organization in the country with an incomparable international concert series, an educational program serving hundreds of students in and outside of Austin, and an outreach program in the prison and juvenile detention systems. Part of Hinsley’s artistic vision is that of collaborator, and to that end ACG has in the past worked with the Alamo Drafthouse, the Miro Quartet, and most recently teamed up with Texas Performing Arts to commission a new work from Nico Muhly for next spring. New music has always played a role in the world of guitar in general and the world of ACG in particular, and their most recent concert featured the guitarists Benoît Albert and Randall Avers as duo Les Frères Méduses performing an entire program by living composers (the oldest born in 1955) as well as a world premiere of Memória by ACG composer-in-residence Joseph V. Williams II.

Opening the concert was the ACG Youth Orchestra. They played a strong though brief set, an aural amuse-bouche of sorts and a reminder of the organization’s dedication to community outreach. Following the YO’s set, Les Frères Méduses took the stage and began their portion of the program with Prelude “Mekankisk” by Avers. A bright, shining, technical showpiece, the work pulsed along in an unrelenting 7/8 with only a brief interlude as respite. Though only together for four years, the communication between the two looked like that which you might find in a duo with much more history.  Following the Avers were works by Dusan Bogdanovic and Atanas Ourkouzounov, both beautifully rendered and, though quite distinct, had a similar DNA (perhaps because both guitarist/composers are from the Balkans) almost sounding like bookmatched movements.

The main attraction of the evening was the eagerly anticipated premiere of Williams’s Memória. Williams has worked with ACG ever since his first commission Austin Pictures, but his appointment as composer-in-residence has allowed him to expand his involvement beyond a single work to participate in the educational and outreach programs that are part of ACG’s core mission. While Austin Pictures was a concerto grosso of sorts pitting the Miro Quartet against a small guitar army, Memória was a smaller and more intimate affair. “My ancestors come from Hungary, and Memória freely employs elements of Magyar folk music,” said Williams, and this Eastern European flavor paired nicely with the preceding works. The first of two movements, Prelude opened with block chords in wide-open voicings. Guitarists are wired to arpeggiate even the most static of chords—we can’t help it!—but Albert and Avers played these with precision and none of the rolling that is to guitarists what over-pedaling is to pianists. A move to the minor mode accompanied thoughtful and well-paced trading of parts between the two guitarists; a smooth compositional transition made stronger by the attention to matched tone and attack by both players.

Along with their solo and orchestral experience, string players (here I’m thinking more of the rosin and bow variety than us pickers and grinners) traditionally come up in a chamber tradition as well. This is generally not the same for guitarists (thought ACG’s educational wing is working hard to change that) and as a result guitar duos can sometimes sound simply like two guitarists playing at the same time instead of as an integrated unit. Les Frères Méduses sounded like one guitarist, seamlessly alternating lines and phrases with only the occasional glance to facilitate their communication. The second movement, Fantasy, featured a more active texture and an insistent bassline that pushed the work forward to its conclusion, resulting in a standing ovation from the crowd. This sort of reaction has become pro forma at many contemporary shows, but I’ve been happy to see that recently when they occur they are typically genuine and well-deserved, as was the case here. The commissions, outreach, and integration with the best that Austin has to offer are why ACG has consistently packed auditoriums with devoted followers, but it’s not the key to their success. Hinsley’s philosophy is simple, “The primary role of a great classical guitar nonprofit organization is not to play concerts, teach classes, bring guest artists, or compose new pieces.  The primary role of a great classical guitar nonprofit organization is to serve the community.”


Henry Kaiser has been around the block. The guitarist, improviser, film composer, and research diver was in town for one night only to perform at The Owl, a small venue on the east side of town which features experimental music. A longtime collaborator with Fred Frith, Kaiser has gone through a variety of stylistic changes in his career. Early improvisational work gave way to a retro-rock phase in the ’80s, a long-term project involving the work of Miles Davis, and a number of projects with musicians around the world.

At the core of Kaiser’s creative output is experimental free improvisation, and it was a set of this material performed with local and regional players that I saw at The Owl. Walking into the venue felt more like walking into a friend’s funky house than entering a conventional club or hall. Once through a modest foyer, I took a quick turn around a corner and boom, there was the stage. Several dozen people filled the small space, eager to see a legend work his magic. Kaiser was joined by percussionist Nick Hennies, trombonist Steve Parker, and bassist Damon Smith for an extended improv set.

From left: Henry Kaiser, Nick Hennies, Steve Parker, and Damon Smith

From left: Henry Kaiser, Nick Hennies, Steve Parker, and Damon Smith

The distinction in this set was (from my perspective) the degree of deference paid to Kaiser by the rest of the band. While certainly a mostly democratic affair, it seemed that Kaiser’s lead was followed by and large by the other performers. Having said that, Hennies, Parker, and Smith all have extensive and significant improv experience in a variety of settings, and at no point did any of them seem to be shy about the idea of leading the group down one path or the other. Kaiser coaxed scratches, percussive raps, and ebowed keening from his seven-string archtop while Hennies bowed his snare and occasionally took to playing the bottom of the drum. Smith took Kaiser’s lead, tapping out a Morse code rhythm on the bass before weaving a drumstick through the strings creating an adjustable bridge of sorts. In the course of the set, Parker’s trombone was assembled and disassembled, at times leaving him with only the slide to whistle through.

Typically when musicians perform instrumental music, they are either looking at each other, at their music, or at something in the distance. Kaiser is not a typical musician. At times he stood and stared at the audience, not in a confrontational way but almost as though he had asked a question and was waiting for an answer. It wasn’t uncomfortable strictly speaking, but when the room is only five rows deep, it’s a bit unusual at least. However, if lasers had shot out of Kaiser’s eyes it would not have been weirder than what happened next, at least for me. Kaiser put away the archtop (from which he had elicited all sorts of otherworldly sounds) and brought out a Klein electric guitar. As I indicated above, in a former life I was a guitar player and for many years I was a rabid gearhead. I’d never seen a Klein in captivity, and frankly if he had simply set it on a stand I probably would have sat there doing my best RCA dog impression. The Klein is built to be ergonomically sound and includes a locking tremolo which allows for all sorts of pitch bending, dives, and other microtonal play. Joining the Klein, Kaiser added to his already wide sonic palette with an array of pedals and other outboard gear.  During this portion of the set (the music did not stop during the instrument change) Kaiser often “played” the dials on his foot pedals more than he did the strings of the guitar. By doing so he created a large analog synth of sorts, one in which the guitar was a driver and provider of raw material to be altered, chewed up, and spit out by the various processors. The result was that Kaiser was sort of his own opening act, with a relatively subdued first set that proceeded attacca into a nuclear meltdown of bizarre tones, distorted riffs, and altered states.

Somewhere out on Sixth Street, a dude is playing some righteous blues, and that’s cool. I’m glad he’s out there. Folk singers are populating coffee shops and filling the air with songs of lost love while indie bands are beating the hell out of a handful of barre chords a few doors down. Fantastic, and I mean that quite sincerely. I’ve been in those places and, on more than a few occasions, I’ve played those roles. And when I quit doing it someone else came along and filled my shoes, and I don’t think that trend will change anytime soon. However, I’m very glad there are people out there looking at all the things you can do with six strings.

Whether it’s a delicate touch with nail and flesh or vicious pick scrapes run through seven stompboxes, there are whole worlds of great sounds being created by guitarists you’ve never heard of. Put down that taco and go check ‘em out.

It Takes a Village: Daron Hagen’s A Woman in Morocco

Soonchan Kwon, Austin Bradley, and Natalie Cummings

Soonchan Kwon, Austin Bradley, and Natalie Cummings in A Woman In Morocco
Photos by Nathan Russell (except where indicated)

Many imagine a lone composer toiling away to produce a mammoth work. The truth is subtler. While opera is possibly the most collaborative of the arts, “an opera composer must be able to build consensus for his vision among strong people with visions of their own in order to create a viable theatrical work,” asserts composer Daron Hagen. “But he has to also know how, at all costs, to keep everyone on the creative team focused on his vision, and not theirs.”

No matter how you slice it, overseeing the development of an opera seems a lot like marshaling forces for the invasion of a small country. Hagen’s recently performed (a fully-staged, “pre-professional” workshop) full-length “opera noir,” A Woman in Morocco is no exception. The preparatory planning and writing stages alone were staggering and were followed by frank and brutal revisions. At one point during production in Austin, Hagen’s Facebook status read: “Thrilled to have trimmed five minutes from the first act.” Asked why he had over-written, Hagen responded, “It wasn’t over-written for the staging I had in mind. But I’m the first to cut linking material for scene changes that were not needed for a single set.”

Soonchan Kwon (Ahmed), Austin Bradley (Teddy), and Natalie Cummings (Lizzy) in A Woman In Morocco

Soonchan Kwon (Ahmed), Austin Bradley (Teddy), and Natalie Cummings (Lizzy)

Based on the play by Barbara Grecki and following on the heels of their previous collaboration New York Stories, Hagen began adapting Barbara Grecki’s play into libretto form in the fall of 2012, during the premiere production of his Little Nemo in Slumberland by Sarasota Opera. “I’d return to the hotel from staging rehearsals in which over a hundred children were singing about the purity of a world of dreams, order a pot of coffee from room service, and delve into the decadent nightmare world of Lizzy’s seduction, descent into drug addiction, and finally, her disappearance. It made for an agreeable sort of psychic whiplash.”
After Hagen went through several drafts of the libretto with Grecki, a table read directed by Alan Hicks, with actors at Center City Opera in Philadelphia, was arranged. More meetings between Hagen and Grecki yielded a “working draft” of the libretto, which Hagen shared selectively with interested artistic directors at opera companies around the country. “When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to have people you trust ask questions prior to the first staging. Every director ignores to some extent (and should ignore, since practical concerns like the physical layout of the stage, costs, union rules, available personnel, even the number of lighting instruments, come into their decision-making process) what you’ve written in the score. One wants feedback not on a particular director’s staging but on the document. You’d perhaps be surprised by how many people think that what they are seeing on the stage is exactly what the composer intended. That’s not going to happen unless the composer directs it himself.”

Composer Daron Hagen and Author Barbara Grecki

Composer Daron Hagen and Author Barbara Grecki
Photo courtesy of the composer

Over the course of three months, Hagen hammered out a first act vocal score, changing the libretto as he went along. This led to a first act workshop by Center City Opera. “Andrew Kurtz, the general and artistic director of Center City Opera, was kind enough to volunteer to give a workshop performance, with singers and piano, of whatever I was able to get done by around the end of the year,” Hagen explains. “I never listened to the tape, but I was all ears during the run-through itself, and I certainly incorporated dozens of tessitura shifts and prosody fixes that ‘popped’ during the process.”

Hagen spent the winter finishing the vocal score, and ploughed straight into orchestrating the piece. “I knew, going in, that I would be crafting the show for three different sorts of ensembles—a seven-player ‘agitprop’ group suitable for black box and ‘second stage’ performances, a ‘small house’ version with 12 players, and a ‘large house’ version with an orchestra enlarged to include Mozart-sized string sections. Since I did all three orchestrations simultaneously, a vocal score had to come first.” Hagen delivered the completed orchestrations a few days before the first orchestra rehearsal.

“When you think about it, the composer is the only person sitting at the table with every producing and creative partner. So, I needed to be very clear about what I needed to learn about the opera in Austin. I wasn’t worried about whether the piece was dramaturgically viable; I already knew that it was. The libretto had been workshopped and heavily revised, and I knew going in that I would be directing the thing down the road myself. My primary need, therefore, was to hear the orchestrations (I wanted to make a ‘chamber opera’ come across as a ‘grand’ opera) with young singers, and to check the viability of the ‘dramatic beats’ in the piece.”

More than a year after inception, the curtain was raised. However, as far as the development opera productions go you might say that this is still Act One for A Woman in Morocco, and it was the work at this stage that I saw produced at McCullough Theater.

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

Set in a small run-down hotel in Morocco in the mid-1950s, the opera tells the story of a young, wide-eyed writer, Lizzy, whose involvement with Ahmed, a worker at the hotel, sets in motion a series of events which ripple out and impact all the characters in the opera. Of course this leads, in the spirit of great tragedies, to all sorts of pain, death, and misery. The best laid plans of any good tragedy play on our hope that, despite the dark inevitability of where things are headed, they will somehow work out, and Hagen deftly plays on this most human trait, laying a bright, airy opening framework echoing Lizzy’s initial naïve outlook. As the character’s backgrounds, desires, and motives are revealed (several quite deliciously as the opera unfolds), it is in the trios where Hagen’s writing shines in particular. The first act closes with one of the most effective of these trios in which fragments of the characters arias from earlier in the opera coalesce. Short, punchy phrases in Lizzy’s aria return and play among the long lines from Ahmed’s. A third line, sung by the hotel owner Teddy, seamlessly joins these parts and, despite tight turns and nested phrases, each line is clear and perfectly placed. This trio was preceded by a beautiful aria sung by Asilah, Ahmed’s wife, a character whose story arc becomes central to the opera. Rising fourths in the piano underpin the twisting melody, and an insistent pedal builds tension as we approach the aria’s climax. Following this she switches from third person to first person, revealing that she is singing about her own life. If you followed Breaking Bad, you probably thought things couldn’t get much worse for Hal and company than they had by somewhere around mid-season four, right? Then season five shows up, and all bets are off. I won’t reveal any more about the story of A Woman in Morocco here, but let’s just say that things don’t turn out much better for this cast of characters. If you’re not familiar with Breaking Bad, then I’ll direct you to any number of Shakespeare tragedies. It’s bad news folks.

Of course, without the singers it’s all academic and the performances were both musically and dramatically really quite strong. Natalie Cummings’s Lizzy was delicate and vulnerable, made all the more poignant as the dark events unfolded, while Soonchan Kwon’s Ahmed was strong, complex, and assured. Austin Bradley’s bigger-than-life Teddy was nicely contrasted by Samantha Leibowitz’s tortured Asilah. Conductor Kelly Kuo’s command was also particularly admirable, directing the orchestra and singers through the twists and turns of a fresh and quite involved score. Hagen traffics all but exclusively in acoustic tonality, so when I heard that electronic elements were involved in this production I was very interested to hear how he would approach it. Consisting of pre-recorded and digitally manipulated sounds, including those natural (rain and thunder) and human (ululations, vocal glissandi, and a jazz trio presented as a shortwave radio broadcast), each electronic addition was subtle and organic and added an extra dimension to the proceedings.

This show was part of the work’s initial test run. Hagen will incorporate some of the cuts suggested by stage director Robert DeSimone and conductor Kelly Kuo in the next production. He also intends to lengthen and develop the electro-acoustic elements for the black-box version, which he will stage direct for Kentucky Opera in October 2014 with Joey Mechavich conducting a crack chamber ensemble, as well as the culminating ‘large opera house’ premiere at Skylight Music Theatre, with Hagen directing and artistic director Viswa Subbaraman in the pit.

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

“The show is 95% there, now,” Hagen says, with evident relief. “It will sit on the back burner for a few months while I write the script, lyrics, and songs for a musical called I Hear America Singing, for Skylight’s second stage. Directing Singing for them is giving me an opportunity to immerse myself in the culture of the company that will ultimately premiere Morocco. More importantly, I will be getting to know and work with the creative team that Barbara and I will be handing our baby over to.”
In the world of opera production, these are Acts Two and Three, and while the vast majority of the work will remain the same, the changes that are made through these collaborations can make or break the opera in the long term. “Yeah, it’s a long haul,” Hagen says, “and a lot of people are taking a lot of creative and monetary risks in order to bring it to life. That’s always right there in my thinking.” And it’s worth remembering that these changes require more than a solitary composer with a bottle of India Ink, a piano, and an overactive imagination. It takes collaboration on a massive scale by a tremendous cast before and behind the scenes. It also takes time; time to write, re-write, present, revise, and then do it all again. This is opera, people, and it takes a village.

SoundSpace: Graphic Notation

I used to have an Australian roommate. He was a former journalist who had lived and worked in Beijing for a number of years, and he regularly spent time writing Chinese characters to keep in shape. One day I saw him working and said, “John, I don’t know how you can possibly read that.” He paused, smiled, and grabbed a blank sheet of paper. He wrote out a rudimentary staff, clef, and several notes and said, “I don’t know how you can read that, mate.”

How do we go from squiggles to speech, from scribbles to sound? For those unfamiliar with the concept of “graphic notation,” it’s worth noting that anytime you see someone looking at a sheet of paper while they toot their horn, they are looking at graphic notation. If you are reading this, you are looking at graphic notation. However, if I asked you to read the text below, what would you say? (Assuming you don’t read Chinese, of course.)
Chinese character sample
You might take your pre-existing understanding of written language and apply it to what’s  above in order to make some sense of it. I think that the first character looks a bit like a “P” or a “B” and the second looks like an “H” or an “A,” and if I was asked to “speak” these I’d go in that direction. Those two Chinese characters actually connote courage, but since I have no experience in that or any other Asian language, I can only rely on my background. Now what if you saw this?
Squiggle: Graphic Score
Now we are in a somewhat different world. This is not derived from an actual language, but we use the same set of tools to break it down and make sense of it. Musicians trained in the Western music tradition use a particular type of notation which is standardized (for the most part) the world over. What happens when they are asked to play from a page of notation that is not standard? How do they approach the squiggles? Curator Steve Parker’s latest installment in his SoundSpace series at the Blanton Museum featured several hours of folks doing just that.

James Fei performs his <i>Standing Waves and Viscous Loss </i> Photo by Steve Sachse

James Fei performs his Standing Waves and Viscous Loss
Photo by Steve Sachse

Inevitably upon entering the Blanton Museum’s cavernous Rapoport Atrium one’s gaze turns upwards, and James Fei’s Standing Waves and Viscous Loss added to this sense of grandeur and direction. A braying, squealing affair for sopranino saxophone, this brash overture to the proceedings began near the terminus of the stairway, with Fei eventually moving in small circles and turning to face one way, then another, to fill every nook and cranny with sound. Following this declamatory introduction was a duet of sorts with soprano Kate Bass performing Hildegard Von Bingen’s Spiritus Sanctus Vivificans Vita from the upper level of Rapoport while visual artist Caroline Wright sketched on four large canvases in the center of the lower level.

Visual Artist Caroline Wright Photo by Steve Sachse

Visual Artist Caroline Wright
Photo by Steve Sachse

The exchange between the artists drew the audience’s attention up and down between the levels until Thom Echols began a performance of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise on modular synthesizer and guitar in the Schweitzer Gallery, a few turns down the hall from the upper level of Rapoport. This overlapping was otherworldly, unusual, and completely intentional, and signaled the beginning of the bulk of the day’s performances. Part of what makes SoundSpace compelling is the placement of different simultaneous performances in various galleries around the museum. This both breaks up the linearity of a typical concert and gives a bit of agency to the audience in that they can choose where they want to go and what they want to see and hear at a given time. Of course, part of this festival-like presentation is that you are unlikely to hear everything and often come upon a performance at the halfway mark or just at the finish. The printed programs are detailed and allow you to find specific works and performers, but I personally find it most satisfying to simply wander from gallery to gallery, which is how I like to experience museums anyway.

Tom Echols performs Cornelius Cardew’s <i>Treatise</i> Photo by Steve Sachse

Tom Echols performs Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise
Photo by Steve Sachse

Other highlights were James Syler’s 3×3 Fanfares performed by the New Music Ensemble from the University of Texas at San Antonio. A mixed chamber ensemble with electric guitar, violin, flute, trumpets, horns, bass trombone, and percussion was situated around the perimeter of the large rectangular Huntington Gallery. My impression of the piece (I came in as it was being performed, somewhere in the middle) was that of arrival, as though the work was one huge, sustained tonic. This is not to say it was without tension. In fact, it was like holding one facial expression very intently for a period and observing the slightest of changes that occur. A few galleries over, Jim Altieri’s Seismicity, derived from seismograph readings and rendered by trombone quartet was by and large a gentle rise and fall, the trombones placed in four corners of the gallery and following the contours of the readings before them.

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

The final work of the day fell in line with previous epic, single-instrument SoundSpace offerings such as Henry Brant’s Orbits. Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 19 was directed by James Fei, along with conductors Chris Prosser, Ben Stonaker, and Stefan Sanders, and featured players from all over Texas performing the work written for “100 Tubas.” Writing about what it sounded like as the performers entered Rapoport auditorium (playing tubas, euphoniums, sousaphones, and all manner of serious low brass) is an exercise in creative analogy. Among the labored metaphors that littered my notes were: Offstage B-2 Bombers, The Biggest Harley Ever, Like Some Terrible, Ominous Marching Band [1], and Epic Halloween Soundtrack. It was a huge sound, an enveloping sound that not only eventually filled the formidable room but threatened to escape it. This sense of scale was amplified by the fact that the direction from which one hundred pedal tones is coming is tricky to pinpoint, so you’re sort of swallowed up by this big ominous sound.

James Fei conducts Anthony Braxton’s <i>Composition No. 19</i> Photo by Steve Sachse

James Fei conducts Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 19
Photo by Steve Sachse

Once assembled in rows on the ground floor, the mass of tubas initially headed by Fei split into three groups headed by Prosser, Stonaker, and Sanders. The groups faced in different directions and spent several minutes trading fours, each guided by their conductor who gave hand signals indicating what to play. Low growls, sub-tones, and the occasional squeal emanated from each of the groups, and after about ten minutes the conductors and their charges slowly but surely made their way outside followed by the audience in an uncanny Pied Piper impression [2]. Outside, the work truly took shape in the large courtyard. Over the next half hour the groups moved around the large outdoor space, finally finding a venue that matched their size and sound. The large, slow, thick harmonies were occasionally interrupted by sharp interjections as ensemble mixed with audience, and when the final chord died it was replaced by applause as loud as the work itself, if not quite as long.

The work mimicked the events of the entire day. Not simply because it was a day of pieces utilizing graphic notation, but because it was presented such that one could have a shared experience and a personal one, evident as each member of the audience chose how and where to watch and listen. Of course, one can have a shared/personal experience while seated in the concert hall as well, but your ability to control your destiny is modest, and this is where the SoundSpace concept really shines. This installment was particularly compelling as that individuality was expanded from the audience to encompass the performers as well, whose personalities could shine through the unconventional scores before them. To be sure, the various notation systems on display were as different as the composers who used them, but they have in common the function of drawing from their readers a personal and individual touch. While this holds true with conventional notation as well, the degree to which performers may shape the music is attenuated and two performances will likely be more similar than not. What makes graphic notation so interesting is that it lays bare the truth behind conventional notation, music and otherwise, which is that it’s all open for interpretation. The reality of cooperation between the composer and performer is amplified and, in the case of the SoundSpace audience, we’re all better for it.

1. “Godzilla” terrible, not “awful” terrible.” See #’s 1 and 2, not 3. And yes, that one was a simile.

2. It also had a bit of a “breaking the fourth wall” vibe, like when the cowboys burst in on The French Mistake at the end of Blazing Saddles except without all the fighting and top hats. I think it was the sheer scale of the thing…so many tubas.

Double Trio: line upon line and Konk Pack

Funky warehouses are being cleaned up and repurposed at a record pace here in Austin. As the city grows and its rents rise, many artists have found their way to the outskirts of town to utilize spaces in various states of renovation and renewal. Among the most recent additions is Canopy, which houses a variety of sleek spaces for artists of all stripes. I headed over there to check out line upon line percussion’s most recent Austin show, a showcase that featured two new premiers, one classic hit, and one golden oldie. I strolled past several units in which painters and other visual artists were holding court, some actively working on new pieces while others chatted about existing work with patrons. At the end of a line of such units, I found the venue; a large open space with groups of instruments around the perimeter. The setup made for a series of little vignettes, and the audience was invited to grab folding chairs and place them wherever they liked (and move them as they pleased) to experience each piece.

line upon line percussion

line upon line percussion

In recent years, line upon line has been on a real commissioning tear, and their list of upcoming projects is long, stretching over the next few years. This show started with a last-minute addition of one of their earliest commissions, Steve Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here. I have seen them perform this piece many times, and each performance is spirited, alive, and as full of wonder and humor as the work itself. The three players surround the bass drum and their interaction during the performance goes beyond the simply musical and becomes somewhat theatrical. Brush swoops, stick exchanges, and the passing of a bag of buckshot all serve to visually illustrate the music.  This rendition was no different and these dynamic elements played well with audience members young and old. Following the Snowden was Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV, commissioned with the support of Chamber Music America. In three movements with no pause, the work featured a sort of fractured speech stuttered among the three players. Each performer engaged their particular kit in fits and starts with each instrumental grouping popping in and out in musical chunks reminiscent of tape splits.

The three-station setup for Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV

The three-station setup for Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV

While specific words and phrases were difficult to discern, the small figurations developed their own syntax; some declamatory, others questioning, and all part of a conversation that was at once familiar and foreign. Contrasting the large setup for the Soper, Ben Issacs’s Several Inflections called for each performer to have only the top octave (give or take) of the vibraphone removed and placed on a small stand, arranged on top of a bit of curled rubber tubing. This arrangement allowed for all the attack normally associated with the vibraphone but none of the resonance. The piece was described by line upon line member Adam Bedell (he actually recounted a description from a friend who attended a rehearsal) as “sounding like wind chimes,” which might initially bring to mind a simple, wandering texture, but my impression (while positive!) was anything but relaxed. Fragile, nervous, and anxious were all terms that came to mind, not only because of the aural impression but also because of the performance requirements. An overall extremely quiet dynamic profile (we waited until the AC was shut off before they began the work) coupled with a rapid texture that, while measured, often felt (and occasionally looked) like various overlapping nervous tremolos all made for a very intimate and slightly anxious experience; like chopsticks on tiny deconstructed chimes. It didn’t sound like Scirrano, but there was that “approaching the edge of silence” element that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Ben Issacs’s <i>Several Inflections</i>

Ben Issacs’s Several Inflections

The work can last anywhere from six minutes to two hours, but in this case was closer to the ten-minute mark. The score was highly detailed and specific, and the lengths to which any ensemble would need to go to prepare and present the work are substantial. The show wrapped up with a fantastic rendition of Xenakis’s Okho. Written for three djembes but realized here on three connected drum sets that included tom-toms, congas, and a shared bass drum, Ohko could not have struck more of a contrast to the Isaacs, and the dynamic release coupled with the performers’ physicality felt like cliff-diving after meditation. You know you’ve got a concert on your hands when the Xenakis is the palate cleanser, and the polyrhythms running around that room had heads bobbing and people fully engaged, including a few munchkins outside.


The second stop on my reclaimed warehouse chamber music tour was the Museum of Human Achievement to see the German improv trio Konk Pack presented by Epistrophy Arts. The trio includes analog synthesist Thomas Lehn, drummer Roger Turner, and Tim Hodgkinson of Henry Cow fame whose work with co-founder Fred Frith left an indelible impression on progressive rock of the late ’70s. I’ve seen many improv groups play over the years, but very few exhibited the level of communication on display at the MOHA. Gone were the rounded edges and long transformations often associated with free improv and in their place were crisp transitions, precise timbral choices, and telekinetic, turn-on-a-dime shifts in the music. Particularly impressive in this embarrassment of riches was the impressive exchange of timbre and rhythm between Lehn’s synth and Turner’s drums. Granted, the analog synths have a visceral nature and connection to the primary elements of music in much the same way drums do, but it takes deft manipulation by both parties to connect the two so seamlessly that at times I wasn’t sure who was playing what. It’s worth noting that Turner was not amplified, so everything he played was purely acoustic.

Konk Pack at the Museum of Human Achievement

Konk Pack at the Museum of Human Achievement

Not to be left out, Hodgkinson’s work on the lap steel guitar melded similarly with the synth, especially in the high registers. And while the lappy was not without modest processing, the lion’s share of the sound was coming from his hands, not from stompboxes or other devices. Plucking behind the nut, staccato punctuations, and karate chops to the midsection of the neck resulted in gorgeous reverberations, like gongs rich with overtones. Many of these sounds and textures sat squarely in the same timbral wheelhouse as the analog synth, and I had several, “Where did that come from?” moments listening to the guitar/synth pairing as well. It was less like a typical improv show and more like a concept album that developed right in front of you. One “piece” started with Lehn’s synth chugging along in the lower register, skirting the line between pitch and rhythm. This was picked up by Turner rhythmically in the bass and toms and “melodically” by taking a dowel, striking it against the rim of one of the toms and drawing it towards himself as it rapidly rebounded,  creating a tremolo that had distinct, rising pitch characteristics. As those pitches ascended, Hodgkinson took the cue, coaxing similar pitch and motion from the lap steel. This material developed in a strikingly linear way, with little of the wandering and tangential characteristics of your less experienced improv teams. The term “sound world” is thrown around quite a bit to denote the particular style of a given composer or work, but Konk Pack was able to create several shifting sound worlds, all connected, but each with their own distinct characteristics as well.


I love chamber music. I love the intimacy between audience and performers. I never thought it odd to hear a string quartet in a seven-hundred seat hall, but when I started going to smaller shows I began to see (and hear) things differently. The irony of intimacy found in a giant old warehouse is not lost on me, but the cordoning off of spaces within these huge buildings makes for a very personal and connected experience. (The only tricky part is that I feel a little awkward taking pictures during these shows, but I suppose that speaks to the nature of what we’re experiencing as a smaller audience and performing group.) Whether it’s at a brand new space like Canopy or a somewhat more funky room like MOHA, the chance to sit up close to performers as they work their magic is what chamber music is all about, and I’m glad to see that opportunities like this in Austin are on the rise.

Austin Soundwaves: A Challenge Like Nothing Else

Video by John Elliot

When considering new directions in music education, examining how students are taught is important, but so to is developing ways to reach students who otherwise might not have the opportunity at all. Many youth ensemble directors will tell you that if they could choose one characteristic in their students it would be enthusiasm, and my conversation with conductor/composer Hermes Camacho revealed a group here in Texas that has that particular attribute in spades. Camacho is on faculty at Austin Soundwaves where he conducts the wind ensemble, teaches violin, and coordinates the theory program. Austin Soundwaves is part of El Sistema USA, a “support and advocacy network for people and organizations inspired by Venezuela’s monumental music education program.” Through El Sistema, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan musicians have been educated over the past three decades; Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is perhaps its best-known graduate. Growing from just a handful of programs in the US to over fifty in just a few years, El Sistema USA is now providing ensemble music lessons to thousands of underserved students throughout the U.S. as well.

Austin Soundwaves rehearsal

Austin Soundwaves Rehearsal
Loren Welles Photography

Andrew Sigler: When did El Sistema come to the U.S.?
Hermes Camacho: I’m sure the ideals of El Sistema have been felt in the United States for quite some time, but the 2008 formation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Orchkids program is generally recognized as the spearhead of the El Sistema USA movement. There are only about 35 programs in the country and only three in Texas. We are in our third year and this is my second year. It’s been great to be a part of something that is still new in that I’ve been able to have a lot of input and a real hands-on experience.
Austin Soundwaves pullquote
AS: How does one go about starting a program like this?
HC: There’s no official certification, but our program director Patrick Slevin completed the Sistema Fellows program at the New England Conservatory where they are fully immersed in the teaching culture and philosophies of El Sistema.
AS: What are those philosophies?
HC: I think of El Sistema-inspired programs like Austin Soundwaves in much the same way you might think of the Boys and Girls Club or other similar organizations which are focused on youth development, but in this case music is the vehicle. It’s a really amazing program; I gush over it, honestly. The staff and kids are great. It goes to show you that no matter what socio-economic background you come from, the reaction to music is the same. Often after a concert I hear, “I missed all those notes!” to which I respond, “No one noticed those, they heard the good stuff!” I’ve found that no matter if they come from a musical family or not, the kids have the same concern and drive to do it right.
AS: Are there particular similarities/differences between the original program and what Austin Soundwaves does?
HC: The emphasis on ensemble playing is shared between the two. It’s more about everyone coming together and working as a group. We teach sectionals, which are essentially group lessons, and last year started a music theory program which acts as a basis for fundamentals. I can count on one hand the number of students who have private lessons outside the program, so virtually all their music education occurs in-house. Also, Soundwaves has actively pursued new music opportunities for the students. Between performances at the Fast Forward Austin festivals in 2012 and 2013, as well as several premieres of new works for band and orchestra in the last year, we have made a point of bringing plenty of new music into the mix. Patrick and I have spoken about this on occasion, and he doesn’t know of any other El Sistema-inspired program that has as much new music activity as Austin Soundwaves.
AS: Are they doing any private lessons through Austin Soundwaves? Is there a private element to it?
HC: There is to a certain extent, but it’s not part of the structured curriculum. It’s really informal; if a student needs extra help for an audition or on their orchestra music they arrange to work it out with the teachers.
AS: Where is the program located?
HC: It is based at East Austin College Prep, which is a charter school. It’s co-ed and completely free and a big part of their goal is to provide opportunities to underserved communities of east Austin. Their emphasis is not only on getting students through high school, but getting them to attend and graduate college. In particular, it’s the goal of the Hispanic Alliance for the Performing Arts (HAPA), the non-profit organization that oversees Austin Soundwaves, to not only reach communities with limited resources but also target the artistically underserved.
AS: How many kids are in the program?
HC: Between the campuses of East Austin College Prep we have over 100 students in grades 5-10. At our finale last year we had nearly 100. In the three years it’s nearly tripled in size, starting with just under 40 students in grades 6 and 7.
AS: To what do you attribute that growth?
HC: I think that the opportunity to play an instrument is the big contributor. The students pay a $15 insurance fee, but everything else is covered. If you ask them, the answer is always, “This is something I wouldn’t get to do anywhere else.” They are jumping at the opportunity and recognizing the chance to play an instrument, to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Also, there is often the stigma which is sometimes associated with playing in band or orchestra, right? In many schools, if you’re not playing a sport you’re not cool. None of that really applies to these kids. A lot of the “cool” kids are musicians, so there’s a social element that partly drives the growth. Speaking to that social aspect, a lot of the Austin Soundwaves kids also participate in football, volleyball, cheerleading, soccer, baseball, and a variety of other activities.

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra

Hermes Camacho conducts the Austin Soundwaves Orchestra
Loren Welles Photography

AS: What is different about this teaching experience relative to your past involvement?
HC: Many of the kids come in with a variety of challenges, socioeconomic ones being the most common. I’ve taught students in other programs who come from backgrounds where music lessons are a given, and sometimes those students are less personally motivated and more parentally motivated—do you know what I mean? Now, the Soundwaves parents are certainly supportive—they are extremely supportive!—but most of these kids are here first and foremost because they want to be here. In my past experience, there have been times where I wasn’t sure if a student was doing it because they enjoyed playing music or because their parents enjoyed them playing music. That has never been the case with Soundwaves; the kids are doing it because they love it. Also, the parents and siblings are always so excited! The applause at the concerts is deafening, every single time, for every single piece. And I’m talking about Go Tell Aunt Rhody and unison versions of Iron Man. They are cheering like it’s the best thing they’ve ever heard, and the enthusiasm is, in my experience, unprecedented. There is no pretense of formality in terms of applause or reaction, nothing is pro-forma. The kids say, “I wish we could have a concert every day,” especially right after a show, and before a show they are truly as focused as any group I’ve ever run, including college and professional new music groups. They do it because it makes them feel special. They are wholeheartedly throwing themselves into it because of their love of music. They work very hard on their own. And I find I can be harder on them, in a constructive way of course, than other ensembles. They respond well to discipline because they want to be good, they want to play well. They don’t hold it against you; they seem to crave it.

The other day the group was particularly rowdy and with six minutes left in rehearsal, I’d had enough. I said, “You’ve wasted most of this rehearsal today. You’ve wasted my time and your time. You are all better than this. For these last six minutes I want you to sit; don’t talk, don’t pack up. Just sit.” Two things happened afterwards. One was that most of the students came up and apologized, both personally and for the group, for their behavior. The other is that the other teachers and aides who remained with the students during the six minutes said that nobody moved, they sat there in perfect silence. The only exception was when, after several minutes, someone asked if it had been six minutes yet, which was met by a resounding “shhhhh!” by the rest of the students. These students know that when I get frustrated or angry, it’s only for the moment. It’s not something that I ever hold onto. Many of them have even said I don’t stay angry long enough. That I smile too much!

Post-concert meet and greet

Post-concert meet and greet
Loren Welles Photography

AS: It seems like the kids in general are quite enthusiastic. Have you had any students who are indifferent or treat it like a compulsory class?
HC: Well, one student comes to mind who was having some issues. He’s a tough kid, concerned about his reputation as being “very cool,” and had started talking back, missing rehearsals, and generally seemed like he’d grown indifferent. So we sat him down and had a talk with him and asked if he really wanted to be here or not. And he started crying. He said, “This is the best part of my day. It’s what gets me through the day. I don’t want to leave.” And that was the end of the issue.

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AS: How would you describe your experience working with Austin Soundwaves? You are an active composer, new music ensemble director, and you teach at a university, so how does this fit in?
HC: I never take a job that I don’t want to do, and when I took the position at Soundwaves I thought it would simply be another teaching gig like the ones I’d taken before. But I’ll tell you that this has affected me personally much more than I ever could have imagined. A year ago, I never would have thought, “This is the best part of being a musician for me right now.” I love all the things I do, but this is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I’ve done as a musician. These kids make me want to work harder and to be a better musician, teacher, and person. It’s a challenge like nothing else.

The Travis Weller Instrumentarium

When I moved to Austin 13 years ago, I’ll admit that I came for the weird. In my defense, the official “Keep Austin Weird” phrase was coined just after I arrived (a coincidence, I’m sure) but it was, and occasionally still is, an appropriate moniker. I’d had a few professors who had studied at The University of Texas and spoke in hushed tones about what a wonderful time they had here in this strange and unique city. Many of these discussions were not centered on music necessarily, but rather the feel of the town—a place where you could just forget about what was going on in the rest of the world and do whatever you liked. When music did come up, a few venerated venues, annual festivals, and gatherings would populate the discussion, along with mention of various musicians who set the tone for the city and the times. Among these were Ellen Fullman’s performances on the Long String Instrument at the Candy Factory in the early 1990s.

Fullman’s instrumental design concepts for the LSI were influenced by Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire from the previous decade, and they had an impact on a young musician named Travis Weller. Born and raised in Austin, Weller came up playing violin and listening to all sorts of music, eventually gravitating to sounds and instruments that were well outside the norm. Over the years, Weller has not only developed his own compositional voice and instrument designs, but he has worked with Fullman on a number of projects. He is also a regular performer and curator of contemporary music. As a co-founder of Austin’s New Music Co-op, Weller helped establish a regular clearing house for the composition and performance of experimental music, as well as for the exploration of important late 20th- and early 21st-century works. I’ve known Travis for several years, and we’ve talked about composition, performance, and curation, but I’d never taken the time to speak with him about the instruments he builds. To remedy that, we sat down and talked about three of his creations: The Owl, The Skiffs, and The Steel Bells.

The Owl in the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin

The Owl in the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin

Travis Weller: The Owl was a convergence of a bunch of ideas. It didn’t even start by wanting to build an instrument.
I really love Cage’s prepared piano music, and his piece Fourteen which calls for a “bowed” piano. I’d also been working with Arnold Dreyblatt, who uses piano wire on his contrabass. There were so many great timbres coming off this high-tension wire, but it’s locked up in the piano. The piano is really difficult to move and it’s difficult to get around and in between the strings. You never know when a piano will be available in a particular venue. Plus, the speaking length of the strings varies from piano to piano and so it’s hard to know what you’ll end up with. This can be great fun, but it isn’t always what’s called for in a piece. Cage really embraced the indeterminate element, but sometimes I want that one perfect sound. So really, I wanted to have something that gave me easy access to those sounds. It’s still a pretty big instrument, but you can load it into the back of a car by yourself! In the design process, I made sure I could change the speaking length of the strings via moveable bridges to allow may different tunings, including microtonal ones.

Andrew Sigler: Do you re-tune at all during performances?

TW: I don’t because I typically tune the instrument very precisely. And moving a bridge doesn’t just change the tuning of a particular string; it also changes the tension of the entire instrument and that impacts the tuning of the other strings. When I worked with Ellen Fullman in 2011, we spent days moving the bridges of the Owl in a way that aligned its tuning with that of the Long String Instrument (for the Music in Architecture/Architecture in Music Symposium).

The Owl in the Berkeley Modern Museum

The Owl in the Berkeley Modern Museum

While I was really inspired by Cage and Dreyblatt, so much of the construction of the Owl is based on piano technology. Years ago, I encountered the monochord, an instrument with adjustable bridges to demonstrate mathematical relationships between sounds. When I was thinking about this “piano-wire contraption,” that ended up being a good jumping off point. I started sketching things out and tried to make one from wood, which broke, as the tension was too great.

AS: Did it break apart in a dramatic fashion?

TW: No, it just slowly ripped the wood apart. As you would start tuning it up, you could hear it crunching and cracking! After that, I talked to my friend Brian Frisbie, a metal artist, who taught me a lot about metals and working with tools that can cut metal.


The Skiffs

The Skiffs

AS: Did you have a background in building and so forth?

TW: No, not really. I just picked skills up here and there. I’ve been working on my old house for over a decade, and that has taught me a lot. Apart from that, I just learn what it takes to complete a project as I go along. And I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with things.

AS: Did you take shop class or anything like that?

TW: No, no classes. I love learning from people one-on-one. Folks are often really excited about sharing their skills. Sometimes, they’re interested in the project, so it leads to a collaboration of sorts. Welding is a great example. I don’t do any welding yet, so I always get help in that department. But I hover and learn a lot through the process. I do what I can with the equipment I have, but I know my limits and when to call in reinforcements. Norma Yancey, an architect, and I collaborated on the Skiffs. They are three instruments that borrow a lot from the Owl. We worked together to get a viable design. I fabricated the parts like the angled pin blocks, and she welded things together.

The Skiffs in rehearsal with line upon line percussion and Convergence Vocal Ensemble

The Skiffs in rehearsal with line upon line percussion and Convergence Vocal Ensemble

AS: What do the Skiffs do that the Owl doesn’t?

TW: The Owl is very wide and is based around a flat soundboard. The Skiffs have three pairs of strings instead of eight, which makes them more portable. They also have a resonant chamber, originally wooden organ pipes, instead of just a soundboard. I’m currently experimenting with a new set of resonators for the skiffs that might replace the organ pipes. The pipes work fine, but they aren’t as resonant as I’d like.

AS: Are you doing this in a shed in the back of your house? Do you have the mad scientist shed?

TW: Yep. I do most of my work in the backyard by the shed. My workspace, like the instruments, is a work in progress.


The Steel Bells

The Steel Bells

AS: How about the Steel Bells?

TW: I’ve been working on various iterations of the bells for many years. They are essentially lamellophones, like a giant kalimba where each tine is independent. They can be struck as well as bowed, and you can get very precise with their tuning.

AS: What were you going for in terms of sound/playability with them? For instance, the Owl/Skiffs were a response to difficulties inherent in prepared piano performance.

TW: I started experimenting with them simply because I liked the timbre of similar instruments. Once I started exploring, I discovered all sorts of new tricks they could do, like how they sound so amazing when you use a violin bow on them. After years of grinding away on them (I’ve made dozens) I feel like I finally have a pretty good feel for how to make them sound good.

The Bells with contact mics and mixer

The Bells with contact mics and mixer

AS: Could you talk a bit about their construction and how the electronics fit in?

TW: They’re cut from large pieces of scrap structural metal. I used a drill press and an angle grinder. They are acoustic instruments, but contact microphones bring a whole new family of sounds out of them. Earlier this year, I used contact mics to send audio from the bells to a low power FM radio station in my piece Concerto Laguna.

The Bells on site at Laguna Gloria

The Bells on site at Laguna Gloria
(note Leanne Zacharias playing cello in the boat on the left)

AS: What are you working on right now? Are there any other instrumental designs or other projects you have on the horizon?”

TW: This week, I’m finishing up the score for a project that incorporates several of my instruments; Owl, Skiffs, and Bells plus violin, viola, and cello. I’m in the middle of major changes to my work space, so it’s been doors and windows as much as instruments the past few weeks. On top of that, I’m getting my instruments ready for a performance coming up on October 19 with Ellen Fullman at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. I’m really excited about that one!