Author: AndrewSigler

Wellesley Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center

Nestled in the picturesque Wellesley College campus each summer is the Wellesley Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center, a two-week meeting of composers, professional performers, and dedicated amateur players who come together to live and breathe chamber music old and new. I was fortunate to have been invited to be a fellow at Wellesley in the summer of 2012 and to have been asked to return as a commissioned composer this summer, so let’s start with that full disclosure. The conference is among the old guard of summer composer institutes and will celebrate its 70th anniversary next summer. Headed by Mario Davidovsky for nearly 40 years, the primary goal of the conference is to provide emerging composers with an opportunity to work with some of the best players from New York and Boston and to have their works performed and professionally recorded.
To say that my time at the conference was positive is an understatement, but let’s talk for a moment about what goes on there. During the program, the fellows participate in daily forums in which they present and discuss their music with each other and the guest composers. Formal presentations concerning technique, performance practice, pet peeves, etc. are made by the staff instrumentalists, but the atmosphere is such that informal conversations during meals are common as well. Afternoons are populated with rehearsals for the various concerts that are held over the two-week period. The Wednesday and Saturday night concerts are the main shows and feature two or three works by the fellows, as well as a variety of works from the canon.

Fellows check out a few scores

Fellows check out a few scores.
Photos by Andrew Sigler, except as noted.

Composers may write for any combination of the available instrumentation. This varies slightly from year to year but includes virtually all traditional instruments (though no harp presently, for instance) and tops out at chamber orchestra. The players are extraordinary and approach each piece with enthusiasm. Though the conference is all about new music, the concerts feature new works alongside well-known (and occasionally obscure) pieces from a variety of periods. When I attended the first Wednesday concert last summer I was preoccupied with the fact that my piece was going to be played that evening; I was sweating bullets, no doubt. When I sat down and looked at the program, I saw the other works to be played and initially thought, “Okay, a little Schumann, some Bach, some guy I’ve never heard of from the early 18th century. I’m sure it will be lovely, but aren’t we all here for the new stuff?” Then it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to hear just another run-through of one of the Brandenburg’s; I was going to hear a really good version of it. It added a whole new element of excitement and anticipation to the proceedings, and the players (while certainly top-notch new music performers) were also impeccable interpreters of the canon.

Rehearsal for Dan VanHassel's work Even Exchange

Rehearsal for Dan VanHassel’s work Even Exchange

Thursday nights are reserved for presentations by the guest composers. Though these composers typically change from year to year, it just so happened that both years I’ve attended the guest composers have been Melinda Wagner and Eric Chasalow. The presentations typically involve a discussion of the composer’s life and work as well as a live performance of at least one work, as well as recordings of previous works. They are, like all of the concerts, free and open to the public. Wagner’s live piece, Wick for Pierrot plus percussion, was fast and furious with only a brief respite while Miranda Cuckson’s performance of Chasalow’s Scuffle and Snap exhibited her deft technique alongside his rhythmically complex fixed media. Past guest composers at the conference have included Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Jacob Druckman, John Harbison, Lee Hyla, Earl Kim, Donald Martino, David Rakowski, Shulamit Ran, Gunther Schuller, Joan Tower, George Walker, Ollie Wilson, Charles Wuorinen, and Chen Yi.

Mario Davidovsky, Emily Cooley, and Jenny Beck chat after the Meet The Composer evening

Mario Davidovsky, Emily Cooley, and Jenny Beck chat after the “Meet the Composer” evening

One of the particularly fun moments early on in the conference was when the group of fellows learned that public speaking was part of the fellowship. Tuesday nights are the “Meet the Composer” nights, and there’s nothing like a putting the spotlight on a bunch of nervous composers who spend much of their time working alone. Though the law of averages would seem to dictate a few awkward moments, all of the composers gave compelling snapshots of their backgrounds, the pieces to be performed at the conference, and their plans for the future. It’s good that these presentations happen relatively early in the conference as it presents an opportunity for the amateur players (“ammys” as they’re affectionately known around the campus) to get to know the composers and perhaps get a snippet of information that might spark a conversation at lunch. It’s been a long-standing goal to introduce the ammys to new music, since very few of them perform it with any regularity. The Chamber Music Center portion of the Wellesley experience is largely a separate entity in which these talented amateurs typically spend one of the two weeks (they rarely attend for both weeks) being coached by the professional players in several ensembles.

Chris Gross leads an "ammy" rehearsal

Chris Gross leads an “ammy” rehearsal
Photo by by Kathryn Welter

In 1987, the Chamber Music Center instituted a commission to be fulfilled by one of the ten fellows from the previous year. A panel of the ammys selects the composer to be commissioned. The first winner was Lee Hyla, and though his piece Anhinga was written for amateur players, it was well-received by the professional players as well and picked for performance more than once! Among the players I worked with on the commissioned piece this summer was violinist Joseph Singer. Joe has participated in the Chamber Music Center for 26 years and provided me with the following anecdote concerning his and other ammys growth as a result of the conference:

About fifteen years ago, one of the coaches was tired of hearing the amateurs complain about the new music and how dissonant it was. We came to the coaching session (the Scherzo of a Beethoven string quartet) and the coach gave us a line of music he asked us to play. We played it and were perplexed. It sounded familiar; it was the last line of the Scherzo but different; it was the same piece but it wasn’t the same piece. It was awful; it was sickly sweet and boring. “What did you do?” we asked. “You murdered Beethoven!” He smiled. “I changed eight notes,” he said. One by one he changed them back and we played the line each time, and each time it got better and better.
He was trying to make a point. Some of us thought we did not like dissonance, but he was showing us that what made the music beautiful, poignant, moving, what made it move forward and made us want to hear what was next, was—dissonance. It was the notes that did not “belong” that impelled the music forward and created tension that could then be resolved. So it was the structure that created expectations mixed with the dissonance that disrupted them, and all of this shaping moments in time.

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Composer Jenny Beck, a 2013 Wellesley fellow, said of the experience, “The best part…for me was the emphasis placed on getting a good performance and a stellar recording of the pieces we had written. I think I can comfortably say that this was the best experience I’ve had working with an ensemble. Not only were they remarkably capable, but to have them display such commitment to the success of each piece was inspiring. James Baker’s rehearsal process is brilliant, and he seemed to know exactly what I wanted and what I was trying to do in the music without my having to say much. Finally, the recording engineer [Anthony Di Bartolo] handed my recording to me immediately after the concert: a flash drive containing the dress rehearsal and concert, broken down for mixing and also mixed together for immediate listening. You know how frustrating it can be to wait for a recording; it was really nice to skip that part.”


The flash drive was a new addition this year, but I can attest to the high quality of the performance and recording, as well to having been amazed that I got my recording (a fully printed disc with numbered tracks and the Composers Conference logo to boot) during intermission! The methodology of running and recording the dress rehearsal is the result of years of experience on the part of both Baker and Di Bartolo. Baker doesn’t simply run the works once or twice, he makes sure that each section is recorded such that alternative takes are available (and more easily spliceable) in the event that there are any issues with the live performance.

Eric Chasalow, Mario Davidovsky, and the Fellows discuss Aaron Brooks's music

Eric Chasalow, Mario Davidovsky, and the Fellows discuss Aaron Brooks’s music

Again, the stated purpose of the conference is to provide the fellows with quality performances and recordings of their works, and if that was the extent of the offerings it would be time well spent. But the connections and friendships that are made are a large part of what I took from my time at Wellesley. I truly anticipated a more adversarial environment in which various camps and dogmas played a larger role, and while all the composers had distinctive sounds and strong personal opinions, the overall tone was supportive and genuinely inquisitive. Most people seemed as interested in hearing and learning about other people’s work as they were in discussing their own. The daily schedule was also thoughtfully constructed. A three-hour morning seminar (with coffee break!) followed by lunch, three hours of rehearsals for the fellows’ works (attendance encouraged but not required), dinner, then a concert or presentation provided just enough structure to keep us focused. But it was flexible enough that we could take care of upcoming projects, get in some practice, or just take in the picture postcard that is the Wellesley campus.

To cap it all off, there are the infamous nightly parties which are held in one of the larger rooms in the same dormitory where fellows, players, and amiss alike retire in the evening. Like any conference, having a few hours to unwind with your colleagues after a long day provides the perfect opportunity to really let one’s hair down. Discussions veer away from music in particular to life in general and back again. It was particularly nice to have frank, workaday conversations about gardening, exercise, and cooking with people who had negotiated one gnarly nested tuplet after another just an hour before.  War stories from the road gave way to the challenges of raising a family while maintaining a career. I heard more than one story about the role that Skype played in traveling musicians’ lives; about the quick and often harried trip to or from a concert to make sure that time with a partner or child would not be missed. These shifts from the sublime to the daily grind are not part of every career, and in the world of art the focus is typically on the former and rarely on the latter.  The Wellesley Composers Conference puts a frame around all aspects of this path, providing perspective on our present condition and giving insight into our future.

Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival: Victoire and Pride

I’ve commented in recent stories on sea changes in the Austin landscape, both musical geographical. It’s hard not to be a bit curmudgeonly about the growing pains that are impacting the place I’ve called home for 13 years, but it comes with the territory. I suspect that even those who’ve been here for only a few years would have a few things to say as traffic, construction, and festivals pile on, making the most stoic of us think wistfully of the salad days of, say, 2008. A manifestation of this change is the move of blues club Antone’s from its downtown location (not the original 6th Street establishment mind you, but one maintained for some time) to Riverside Drive, just southeast of downtown on the other side of the river. I used to live about two blocks from there over a decade ago, and at the time the building housed a succession of clubs in which things occasionally got shooty and stabby. The area housed all the vices of an early-’80s Times Square and stood in stark contrast to the lovely homes and neighborhoods west of I-35. Despite my concern about change, it was nice to pass by my old digs and to be reminded that sometimes change can be good.
Antone's
As part of the Austin Chamber Music Center Festival, Victoire was invited to play a show at the new Antone’s venue. This was my first trip there and my first time to see Victoire, so I was primed for something new and different and I wasn’t disappointed. Austin Chamber Music Center’s core audience does skew toward the traditional, so I was also curious to see how the show would be received. For their first appearance in Texas, Victoire chose to perform their debut album in its entirety, and though it’s not a “concept” album, the moods and themes explored did create continuity among the ten or so tunes played that evening. By and large the strings, and to a lesser degree the clarinet, were relieved of their traditional roles and assigned smaller circling riffs throughout much of the set. The opening track, A Door in the Dark, stands as a great example of indie classical in its moody, detached coolness,; a slightly intellectual character showing up in the 4+4+4+3 phrasing, clearly indicated in the conducting and cueing of leader Missy Mazzoli.  Perhaps a nod to the Pixies/Radiohead/Kinks school, subtle alterations of typical pop song structure (such as the lopping off of a single beat from the end of four bars) are among the key elements of this style, and Victoire fires on all cylinders in this department. Cathedral City, the title track, bore these features as well. The piece rides in on an electronic intro featuring a post-808 [1] hi-hat track hyperkinetically chugging along in a pattern that had just enough hiccup in the pulse to keep you guessing. This framework was set up in stark contrast to the longer, measured vocal and violin lines that intertwined above. While recorded elements served as preludes to individual tunes, at other times they carried the banner for an entire work. In A Song for Arthur Russell, this treatment lead to a harmonically static but rhythmically active texture, with punchy sixteenths kicking around above the pulsing electronic bed.

It’s in the vocal parts that Victoire separates the indie from the classical. The lyrics (at least in this performance—the sound and mix were great but you never know!) were uniformly obscured and it was difficult to hear distinct words when they were used, much less get a sense of sentence or meaning from the lyrics. This is not at all meant pejoratively, and truly it could just be that I couldn’t make things out clearly for any number of reasons aside from composer intent…but I think it was in fact composer intent, and that the use of the voice here was as an instrument primarily as opposed to a lyric delivery device.  Even in the music of the late Beatles one finds (not always, of course) the use of lyric and story which are altered based on presumed listener expectations. [2] Victoire simply doesn’t have this discussion and presents the vocal elements as music artifacts, pure and simple. And it works like a charm.

Victoire takes a bow at Antone's

Victoire takes a bow at Antone’s

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Moving across town from blues club to St. James Episcopal Church, ACMC’s annual Pride Concert marked its fifth year with an almost exclusively new music lineup. Hosted by composer Russell Reed, local and national composers and performers celebrated the musical contributions of the LGBT community.

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

Following a rousing performance of three Szymanowski mazurkas by Jim James, Reed was joined by baritone Phillip Hall for three sections from David Del Tredici’s Gay Life as well as “Matthew Shepherd” from his Three Baritone Songs.  From the lilting sway of “In the Temple” to the tongue-in-cheek earnestness his setting of Ginsberg’s “Personal Ads,” to “After The Big Parade” a lyrically solemn and musically spiky rumination on the impact of AIDS in the early 1990s, the three songs were musically and lyrically crystal clear and made for a well-placed run-up to the final piece of the set. The murder of Matthew Shepherd is horrifying, but Jaime Manrique’s text—which imagines Shepherd’s final moments—is a gripping meditation on transfiguration, and Del Tredici’s encapsulation of the text, from the descending lament-inspired bass line which never fully descends to  the whole-tone ascension representing the spirit leaving the body was completely spot-on and riveting.

Reed’s Fantasy Variations on “Una Furtiva Lagrima” played hide and seek with its theme, the flute, harp, and bassoon trading long lines in odd time, while Pauline Oliveros’s To Valeria Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition Of Their Desperation added piano and clarinet to the mix. An initial thrum-thrum-thrum from all instruments was among the few times that homophony trumped polyphony in the work. Having said that, the various lines did all follow the same gravitational pull, moving to and fro in a flock-like fashion throughout the bulk of the work. Ben Stonaker’s Soliloquy for clarinet alone provided a workout for Jon Guist, whose wonderful tone was complimented by his technical agility. A quiet introduction ornamented with grace notes led to a series of increasingly complex and intricate sections that put both to the test.

The final work was Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano performed by Reed and Timothy Hagen. A simple ostinato in the piano became a compelling counterpoint to the initially simple flute line of the first movement. Labeled Lento con rubato, the movement built to a fever pitch and fooled most of the audience (all of us? I was clapping…) into applause when we thought that perhaps the movements were played attaca. But when the Presto Energico burst from the gate, we realized that the drive at the end of the first movement was just a taste of what was to come. Hagen and Reed tore through the work, displaying a wide variety of technical virtuosity and musical sensitivity, and the final notes only rang briefly before everyone was whooping it up.
ACMC logo
ACMC has been around for decades—long enough to have existed when the governor was a Democrat [3], SXSW was a baby, and Austin was just a gleam in marketers’ eyes. Its summer festival is more recent, and the inclusion and promotion of new music even more so. I suppose that there were people who (like me with the recent general direction of the city) resisted that change, that growth. Though I’m holding steady with my arms-crossed, head-shaking stance on Austin change, clearly in the case of ACMC programming it’s a trend that’s both welcome and growing.


1. You may remember hearing this all over the place 30ish years ago.


2. For instance, what the hell does, “She came in through the bathroom window / Protected by a silver spoon / But now she sucks her thumb and wanders / By the banks of her own lagoon” really mean? I don’t know, but it works lyrically and manages to paint a picture in the same way that “I Want To Hold Your Hand” does without telling a standard story. The Beatles were great at this (both in terms of music and lyric) specifically because they spent so much time playing and writing standard blues and pop fare that they understood it on a molecular level and could therefore change it just enough to make it new and interesting without losing the essence of the style.

3. Fun Fact. Number of Republican governors of Texas: 5, Democratic: 39.

Austin Summer Festivals: Business as Unusual

The allure of Austin (like many places I suppose) is partly genuine and partly manufactured. Though known for the slogans “Keep Austin Weird” and “Live Music Capital of the World,” (the former coined in 2000 by an Austinite during a radio pledge drive—then in a sad, ironic twist co-opted, trademarked, monetized, and plastered on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia—and the latter created by the city council over 20 years ago), it’s harder and harder to find the weirdness that used to be on every street corner and, while much of the music is still live, the ratio of one-off cover bands playing for tips to original groups creating new music is not encouraging. However, on occasion the city can still live up to both titles. Spending a few days at the New Media Art and Sound Summit and the REVEL Summer Solstice Festival might be all it takes to renew one’s faith in this live, weird town.

Pianist Carla McElhaney joins the Bel Coure Sax Quartet to form the Zenith Quintet.

Pianist Carla McElhaney joins the Bel Coure Sax Quartet to form the Zenith Quintet.

New Media Art and Sound Summit

Lisa Cameron’s Canopy of Sound opened the New Media Art and Sound Summit with about a dozen performers playing cymbals in three spots along the running trails around Lady Bird Lake. Cesar Chavez Street runs between the lake and downtown, and the installation started at a tunnel just below, moved along to Opossum Voodoo Pew, up the trail to the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge, and wrapped up at the Liz Carpenter Fountain. Reading sort of like a high Hz drum circle, the work drew the audience in and invited them to actively participate by picking up sticks and joining the fray. With a specialized boutique festival such as NMASS, which is self-described as “a positive alternative to predictable music festival ‘business as usual,’” events such as these serve to announce the presence of the festival to those who otherwise might not have it on their radar.

Non-profit arts organization Church of the Friendly Ghost has taken up the left-of-center curatorial torch and is lighting the way for interesting art, music, and dance presentations. Celebrating its 10th year, CotFG served as the hub for the rest of the festival by partnering with Experimental Response Cinema to present an evening of short films. Highlights included Speechless by founding ERC member Scott Stark, which used images from a mid-20th-century medical textbook superimposed on various textures and backgrounds. Michael Alexander Morris presented a number of works including his most recent, Fires. His work focuses on the technology we use to record our lives and art and the degree to which that technology impacts our experiences. In particular, Fires spoke to declining technologies in a direct manner in that the film stock the artist used was discontinued as the film was being made.

Friday night was a modular synth feast. Thomas Fang led a workshop on modular synth construction and was later joined for a performance by Rick Reed on a variety of vintage instruments and Frankenstein creations. Mickey Delp of Delptronics, Chris and Ian McDowell of Super Synthesis, and Richard Devine (Warp/Schematic) talked shop with participants for around three hours before the night’s performances kicked off. Though the evening’s sets ranged widely—from the mesmerizing drones emanating from Reed’s setup to the looped constructions of Nicolas Melmann to the patching madness of Doug Ferguson—the common thread was developed directly from (often in real time) the instruments that were created by the players.

Sadly, Saturday was the all-day blowout that I couldn’t attend, but such is the nature of festivals. Among the acts were local improvisers Red Ox vs. Cinders and Symphonic Taint, as well as the Chicago-based group Coppice which combined bellows (accordion, pump organ, shruti box) and electronics. A number of Austin heavies including Karla Manzur and Michael St. Clair joined Lauren Gurgiolo to form The Dialtones and performed songs from their latest EP, Calculated Carelessness, against a backdrop of video designed specifically for the music by Angela Chen. Clay Odom, Sean ONeill, and Adam Owens presented TESSERACT  3.0, the third installment of a series for NMASS. Recalling elements of CLOTS, “the Tesseract series are sound and space installations designed to create a heightened sense of the mutability [of] place and time by creating interactive, variable, overlapping fields of sound, space, and reflection.” Next year I’m putting TESSERACT 4.0 on my list.

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REVEL Classical Band: Summer Solstice Festival

REVEL came on the scene in Austin a few years back and in that time has produced dozens of concerts in Texas as well as in New Mexico where member violinist Cármelo de los Santos and cellist Joel Becktell are based. Austin-based pianist Carla McElhaney co-founded the group with Becktell in 2008 in hopes of providing an alternative to traditional concert presentation by purposefully relaxing concert protocols and presenting shows in unconventional venues.

Their Summer Solstice Festival was held over three nights (I saw the second evening which occurred on the solstice) in the industrially inspired, improbably named mini artist colony Cobra Studios a few miles from downtown. Newly built a few years back, the colony features spartan live-work spaces for artists of all stripes. So hey, it’s actually chamber music, in a chamber, in somebody’s house. Certainly not unprecedented but not all that common either, and worth noting for the impact it has on the listener. Though I spend a fair amount of time turning over rocks to find new and different music and venues, the vast majority of chamber music that I’ve heard has been presented in concert halls, and the difference at this show was both striking and welcome. This was most pronounced for me with the opening piece, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, performed by Becktell and McElhaney. This is a work I’ve heard dozens of times and though only a few of those performances were live, none of them were really at all like this one. There was an immediacy that is lacking when the audience is drastically separated physically from the players and placed in an acoustic environment designed to take off any hard edges. The performance was thrilling, not only because of the virtuosity of the players but also because you could hear every bow scrape, chair creak, and breath taken. This immediacy carried over into a wonderful performance of the Arensky Trio in D minor with de los Santos, followed by another personnel change. McElhaney moved to an electric piano as she was joined by the Bel Coure Sax Quartet to form the Zenith Quintet. This new ensemble gave a short but sweet rendition of Piazzolla’s Fugata, which was a perfect example of “leave them wanting more.” This new version of the piano quintet makes for a very attractive ensemble, one I’ve not seen before though I can’t imagine why. Ensemble member Sunil Gadgil indicated that commissions and transcriptions for the group are forthcoming, so hopefully I’ll have more about this group in particular and the configuration in general in the future.

Steve Snowden and Sunil Gadgil install drivers

Steve Snowden and Sunil Gadgil install drivers.

The centerpiece of the evening was Steve Snowden’s Steam Man of the Prairies, a new work for piano, saxophone, and electronics performed by McElhaney and Gadgil. Recently premiered in Portugal, the piece incorporated speaker drivers placed inside the piano which turned the instrument into a giant speaker. Snowden indicated that the fixed media electronics were conceived such that the work could be played through a conventional speaker system, but the sympathetic resonance created when using the internal speaker drivers makes for a richer, more complex sound. Starting with a huge “welcome to my sound-world” strum inside the piano, the piece blossomed as pre-recorded piano samples resonated along with McElhaney’s real-time playing. Breathy, wandering, gossamer lines from Gadgil hinted at an open, somewhat jazzy harmonic sensibility, coalescing into a section of rising and falling echoes with McElhaney vamping underneath a duet between Gadgil and the electronics. An additive section constructed from simple, growing riffs built towards a series of declamatory downbeats, each diminishing in power as the texture broke down leaving the piano skittering across a drone as the sax keened, howled, and ultimately rose into the ether. The final presentation of the evening was a clever remix of Bolero with all hands on deck, the missing snare replaced by key clicks, finger drums on sound boards, and knocking on piano frames.

The two festivals were quite different, but both embodied Austin sensibilities in their own ways. NMASS was “Keep Austin Weird” writ large, a bold presentation of particular viewpoints that, while certainly open to all comers, speaks more clearly to a specific audience. The REVEL Summer Solstice Festival spoke truth to the “Live Music Capital of the World” moniker by presenting three nights of live chamber music in a truly intimate setting. Concert music has always taken a back seat to rock, blues, and jazz in Austin, but when the summer festivals start to out-Austin the spring and fall behemoths, it’s time for the city to take stock and figure out what it means to hear music in this town.

Sticks and Strings: Houston’s Liminal Space

In the new(ish) world of bootstrap new music development, big things can come from the smallest of starts. In contrast to (or perhaps in response to) the slow-to-change, large-scale organizations that are dodging strikes, lockouts, and other potential extinction events, smaller, more nimble groups that are able to hide from the nuclear winter of dried-up funding, atrophied audience, and fracturing infrastructure are thriving. In contrast to the large institution model which involves the performance of largely 18th- and 19th-century warhorses to an audience whose average age is moving steadily upward, ensembles like San Antonio’s SOLI and Houston’s Musiqua have combined smaller forces and adventurous programming to engage with audiences old and new. Emerging from the rubble, these groups find new life in new forms, and though the Pierrot ensemble has emerged as one of the leading configurations, other families are taking shape as well. While the Pierrot is comprised of traditional instruments, the catch-all potential of the “plus percussion” option is quite compelling and has played a significant role in the development of music for the ensemble. When the percussion is taken out of this traditional context and placed alongside another primarily 20th-century chameleon, the guitar [1], a potent new pairing is created. A few months after seeing the potential of this duo during the Living Earth Show this past spring, I stopped in to hear Houston’s Liminal Space (guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley) present a concert that included two commissioned premieres.

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

Liminal Space at Frenetic Theater
Photo by Nicholas Leh Baker

I arrived at the Frenetic Theater just outside of downtown Houston about twenty minutes prior to the show and had a chance to survey the facility and the crowd. The multi-use venue geared towards dance and theater held a good-sized Sunday night crowd. Spread out in the 100-seat theater, some patrons had taken their chairs while others stood chatting, and it was in this relaxed setting and with little fanfare that Liminal Space walked onstage to start the show.

Originally written in 2008 for two bass clarinets, Mark Mellits’s Black has since been rearranged for a variety of duos and lent itself well to the guitar and marimba incarnation. Rolling lines and punchy riffs which brought to mind a mid-’80s King Crimson were couched in symmetrical phrases and sections, their rock and roll roots showing. Both players were all in for the bulk of the work, and Heathco’s clean guitar tone with just a hint of overdrive for body [2] complimented the mellow tone of the marimba.
The evening’s concert was the closer of the inaugural season, and Hubley took a minute to describe the genesis of the group, which made its debut with a John Cage centenary concert last September. Among their goals is the regular commissioning of new music for the ensemble, and to that end Liminal Space has commissioned nine composers in the Houston area to compose new works for guitar and percussion. The next piece on the evening’s program, Apparatus by Mark Buller, was the second of two world premieres of work written for Liminal Space as part of their 2013 New Music Initiative. Apparatus started with a simple additive process played in unison, the two slowly expanding lines diverged recalling Reich’s Piano Phase, only to eventually return to their original position. The second movement began with pulsing dyads outlined in crescendos and decrescendos, hairpins rising and falling while an initial symmetry gave way to odd groupings and smaller divisions. This lead to a clearer separation of the parts as arpeggios in the marimba formed a framework for leaping octaves in the guitar. A recollection of the first movement had the guy behind me tapping (a bit loudly…) his feet and bopping his head, though it was funny to hear him lose the rhythm as the patterns began to phase once again.

Taking a quick break from the duo action and a modest step back in time, Heathco performed the solo plus tape version of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. The work holds up well 30+ years later, and the relative ease with which an enterprising guitarist can record and playback the parts on a laptop should allow for more performances than ever before. Hubley then took his moment in the spotlight to perform Cage’s In a Landscape. Written for dancer Louise Lippold in 1948, its modest range and bifurcated octaves give the work a controlled and harmonically segmented sensibility. A pleasant, quasi-pentatonic sound resulted as scales rose and fell in comfortable mid-tempo eighth notes, every one taking its place from a list of dance counts provided to Cage by Lippold.
The closer for the evening was the second NMI world premiere of the night, Eric Martin’s You didn’t build that!, which was a nod to some of the rhetoric of the last presidential election cycle. A guitar intro which begged to be joined by drum kit [3] was interrupted abruptly by the marimba, part of the concept of the piece in which each instrument attempts to one-up the other. This led to a more traditional back and forth of sorts, with the guitar backing the marimba for a time and the marimba returning the favor. Harmonically straddling the modal/white-note world, the two instruments morphed comfortably from foreground to background before reaching the work’s conclusion.
Liminal Space put on a terrific show for a clearly enthusiastic audience. The guitar/percussion combo is quite approachable and particularly versatile, and while the idea that the use of these more familiar instruments will make inroads with those outside the new music community is debatable, it can’t hurt. When a traditional string trio or brass quintet takes the stage, adventurous new music converts may be inclined to check out before the first note. However the familiarity of the guitar (or the laptop) has the potential to bring something from an audience member’s world into the one they are about to experience, and who doesn’t like watching someone beat on things with sticks? [4] Regardless, the music on tap that evening was certainly as rich and involved as any one might hear from more traditional instruments, and with the 2013-2014 season lined up, Liminal Space is in a great position to be at the vanguard of a whole new ensemble movement.

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1. In another life, I was a classical guitarist and am well aware of the rich pre-20th century repertoire for the instrument. I’m also aware that a few guitarists out there read that sentence and immediately began harrumphing all over the place, so just relax.


2. It’s a tone I’ve always associated with jazz, but given that I’ve listened to and played very little jazz, you can take my evaluation of this “jazz tone” with a big old grain of salt. Heathco was playing a gorgeous red hollow body, and it’s certainly possible that the hint of overdrive was just a result of the pickups coloring the sound. Or aliens.


3. I’ve played in approximately a million rock bands, so you can take this estimation to the bank.


4. It’s been brought to my attention that there is more to percussion than this.

Composing in the Wilderness

Composers in the wild
Ah, summer; the time when composers emerge from studios around the country—pasty and back-bent, one hand up to block the sun—and get their annual vitamin D supplement at a variety of summer festivals, conferences, residencies, and retreats. Intensive discussions of the nature of their art are followed by the occasional Frisbee toss or trail stroll, but beyond the potential for a thrown-out back while spreading a sheet out on the ground pre-concert, the potential for physical exertion is modest at best. And frankly, donning a T-shirt, sandals, and a fanny pack does not an outdoorsman make. Just ask Stephen Lias.

Lias has a touch of wanderlust. A professor of composition and director of graduate studies at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, he spends the bulk of his year shepherding students through the wilds of academia. But when summer rolls around, he makes his way out of the halls and into the world. Over the last few years, he’s spent his summers in residence at a number of national parks—including Rocky Mountain, Denali, Glacier Bay, and Gates of the Arctic—composing works that have been premiered at major international conferences and festivals in Colorado, Texas, Sydney, and Taiwan. He was featured in National Parks magazine in the fall of 2011 for his efforts and is presently working with the East Texas Symphony and the Boulder Symphony to premiere upcoming pieces about national parks. Taking a page from the “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” book, Lias has figured out a way to combine his love of composition and pedagogy with his love of trail-blazing and bear-dodging with his Composing in the Wilderness project.

Davyd Betchkal talks about sound with the composers

Davyd Betchkal talks about sound with the composers

In the summer of 2012, Lias found a way to involve other composers in his nature explorations, organizing a field seminar in Alaska’s Denali National Park and at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, which culminated in performances at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. Nine composers who came from as far as Australia were transported from a dorm at the university to the Teklanika Field Camp deep within the park. This camp served as a hub for a number of excursions during which the composers not only passively soaked up the surroundings but learned a great deal about the geography, wildlife, and sounds of the area. They were joined by park guide Margi Dashevsky (described by composer Stephen Wood as “our adventurer/environmentalist/protector/mother”) and Denali soundscape scientist and researcher Davyd Betchkal. Betchkal’s activities in Denali were of particular interest to the participants. His position involves the study of the acoustics of the environment via direct observation as well as through the use of recording stations placed around the park in mountains, glaciers, valleys, bogs…everywhere. He takes the data and uses it to draw conclusions about the experience that people will have in the park, as well as how the sounds made by those visitors impact the park itself.

As Wood later explained, “He took us into the field and talked to us about how to analyze the sound…how to draw from the collage of sound and isolate individual regions in terms of specific characteristics and how to develop an understanding of how they work in terms of ADSR [1]. It had a huge impact and made me more aware of what was going instead of simply being overwhelmed by the volume of sound. I’m now actively going into nature and drawing inspiration from it.”

Stephen Wood checks out the soundscape

Stephen Wood checks out the soundscape

While not required to write “about” their surroundings, the composers took inspiration from these treks and many wrote music which spoke to their experiences. Each day in the field included approximately one hour of composing time followed by a return to the campsite. Simple but functional tent-cabins with wood floors, knee walls, and canvas tops welcomed the composers after a long day of hiking. A large yurt housed the dining facility, and an outhouse latrine was “more than adequate.”

As with other summer festivals, rehearsals and performances of the works are part of the deal, but in this case the pieces which were performed were those written during the relatively brief time out in the wild. The compositions were then premiered by members of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival Orchestra at the Davis Concert Hall in Fairbanks. Each composer was pre-assigned a chamber ensemble, ensuring that the festival’s resources were evenly distributed among the composers. Once the group returned to Fairbanks, they had less than 24 hours to prepare their scores and parts for their respective ensembles, and each ensemble only had a handful of rehearsals totaling a few hours to prepare the works for performance. Said Wood, “I had two 30-minute rehearsals for my piece, but you’d never know it. The musicians were amazing. Many of them played on more than one piece (not to mention their other festival responsibilities) but the level was very high.” Among the participating artists was the ensemble-in-residence Red Shift, which includes Fairbanks native Andie Springer.

Red Shift rehearses a festival work

Red Shift rehearses a festival work

The field seminar will be offered again this summer through Alaska Geographic. Following four days in Denali, the composers will then spend another four days in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve ruminating on their Denali experiences and composing works to be rehearsed and performed on the final day of the festival. Though only in its second year, Lias is optimistic about the future. “This convergence of creative artists who are outdoors-minded has the potential to bring together two very different types of people, but also to generate new streams of musical thought.  As a result of last year’s Composing in the Wilderness, we saw a new contemporary jazz group called Chlorophyll created in the Atlanta area, and more national parks are opening their residency programs to composers and finding ways of featuring these new compositions through their interpretive programs.” Along those lines, Wood has taken his experiences in Alaska to heart. Since last summer, he has spent time focused on the flora surrounding the Atlanta area, and will be presenting a concert with his recent oboe quartet diammorpha smallii, based on the plant of the same name, as the central piece. He is also returning to Alaska this year for another round.

1. ADSR is short for “Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release,” which are the four elements of a waveform.

Different Spaces: Erewhon and Fusion

About halfway between Austin and Houston along Highway 290 is the little town of Round Top, Texas. You do have to take a brief jog off of 290 along Round Top road, but beyond that modest detour your trip from Austin is a pleasant but otherwise non-eventful one populated by tractors, fields, and the occasional cow; the whole thing is right out of central casting. Then, a few miles from your destination, a change occurs. You’ll notice tent frames as far as the eye can see, the skeletons of a seasonal economy that will shortly come alive as the Round Top Antique Fair, a semi-annual event that transforms the area from a quaint rural town to bustling marketplace.

Matthew Teodori introduces Erewhon

Matthew Teodori introduces Erewhon

This scene was a somewhat surreal prelude to what actually took me down this particular stretch of Texas road. The real attraction and the area’s claim to fame is only a few miles further along at the Round Top Festival Institute where I recently saw the U.S. premiere of Hugues Dufourt’s hour-long Erewhon. Performed by an expanded line upon line percussion, the setup of around 150 instruments fit perfectly in the cavernous Festival Hall. Take a minute and think of every percussion instrument you’ve ever heard of. Now take a few more minutes and really dig deep. Now understand that every single one of those things was up on stage, with a few doublings to boot, and each was used to great effect over the course of the four-movement work.

Played without intermission, the piece began with rolls on floor toms and bass drums which were passed around the stage, with cymbal filigree serving to cut through the thunder. Marimba played with sticks provided timbral contrast while acting as a preface for the thundersheets and gongs that filled out the movement. The second movement was populated with alternating and overlapping washes of woods and metals with marimba and glockenspiel serving to head each choir. Rhythmic unisons rose from this texture and outlined melodic fragments which were in turn swallowed by rolls on cymbals and gongs, all giving the impression of time slowing down. The third movement began with similar material, though here the chimes outlined more distinctive pitch content above the ominous rumbling. The vibes returned, jittering awake and twisting in the shimmering gong wash, setting the stage for the final movement. The pitter patter of the toms in relatively steady and discernible patterns of sixteenth notes coalesced into a huge unison, perking up the whole room as bass drum and timpani joined the fray. This built to another peak, stopped abruptly, and restarted as a “greatest hits” of textures from the first three movements returned.


With all six players going to town for the bulk of the work, it became clear that density was the order of the day, but I was as or more intrigued by the role the location and its legacy played in my perception of the work. Pianist James Dick founded the Round Top Institute in 1971, and it’s well known for its summer festival and presentations of standard repertoire. It was interesting to see such dense music presented to a festival audience on a spring afternoon and frankly encouraging to hear the enthusiastic reaction to the work. Except for the two kids who I believe earned a week of ice cream for sitting quietly for the hour-long presentation, the piece was quite well received.

*

After leaving Round Top’s ornate hall, I headed back to Austin to check out an experiment.  I’ll admit to some skepticism when I heard about Craig Hella Johnson’s latest project entitled Fusion: Choral Song Meets Slam Poetry. Finding compelling novelty in the combination of two disparate genres (any two genres) is challenging and often simply serves to illustrate the differences in those genres. Further upping the difficulty level, Hella Johnson chose to present this work not in the churches and concert halls where he typically leads the vocal ensemble Conspirare, but at The North Door, the multi-level club where Fast Forward Austin held its festival last year. Of course, audiences come in all shapes and sizes, but in my experience the Conspirare audience does skew towards the traditional. However, they also have come to expect excellence and to accept a measure of guidance in the two decades Hella Johnson has run the show, and as such seemed game to give it a shot.

Hella Johnson took the stage and welcomed the audience to what he described as a “workshop and a work in progress,” the product of several rehearsals during which the three poets and seven singers shared their talents and attempted to see where they might intersect. He then conducted a literal embodiment of that guidance with a brief series of breathing and sound experiments with the audience, asking the members to “shhhh” and “sssss” their way through a centering exercise in hopes of connecting them with the nature of creating sound. Everybody was game and after giving it the old college try, they settled in to hear the pros go to work.

And go to work they did. Reimagined versions of masterworks by Monteverdi and Purcell were juxtaposed with extroverted slam poetry, which was sometimes delivered alone and other times delivered with Hella Johnson improvising at the piano or with singers providing accompaniment. Poets Kevin Burke, Danny Strack, and Lacey Roop delivered polished and thoroughly engaging performances—with all the trappings, gesticulations, and emotive power of a typical slam performance, including the occasional mid-delivery whoop and holler from the audience in mid-delivery. I suspect that some of these initial reactions were from audience members familiar with the give and take of slam poetry, but as the night went on, the rest of the audience warmed to this interaction, gaining confidence from Hella Johnson’s initial invitation to participate and building on it with reactions to elements of the poetry and music that spoke to them in particular. Among the many poetry highlights of the evening was Lacey Roop’s “Shark Boy,” a poem lamenting the almost certain change a young boy will make on his way to manhood, after which we were all a bit of a mess. The poets also played backup at times, quietly vamping on the lyrics from a wide range of tunes, from the aforementioned concert classics to reworked pop tunes. The physical space was used to great effect, with some music played from the stage and some from other points around and behind the audience, including the balcony. This constant change of perspective and content was refreshing and served to refocus each piece into its own vignette.

Poets Danny Strack, Lacey Roop and Kevin Burke with Craig Hell Johnson and KUT's Mike Lee

Poets Danny Strack, Lacey Roop and Kevin Burke with Craig Hell Johnson and KUT’s Mike Lee

Perhaps what drove my initial skepticism was that I was looking for (or expecting) the wrong thing. I was concerned that a pet project built on an arguably acquired taste was going to be foisted upon an audience that had little interest in the material and even less on the delivery, and one that sure as hell wasn’t going to start whooping during Strack’s vivid descriptions of sexuality. I’m sure there were those who would otherwise take a pass on a presentation like this, but there was no mistaking the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the evening’s proceedings. There was no intermission during which I could casually eavesdrop, but there were many people who lingered after the show and I heard nothing but extreme enthusiasm. The word “interesting” was not used once.

Aside from the spectacular content, these shows illustrated (to me at least) the impact of the venue and how spaces shape the experience and help guide the audience. I wonder what these two shows would have been like had they switched venues. How many whoops and hollers would one have heard in the beautiful and ornate hall, performer encouragement notwithstanding? Assuming that all the instruments would fit, how would the presentation of Erewhon go over in a club just east of I-35? Would an audience sit quietly through an hour of such challenging music in an environment in which hopping up and leaving doesn’t involve a break of protocol and a series of eyes staring you down as you exit the hall? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but in the search to understand what drives contemporary audiences to shows, I think it’s important to keep asking them.

Fast Forward Austin 2013

Fast Forward Austin
The first two installments of Fast Forward Austin set the bar quite high. Its goals were to provide a forum for local and national performers of new music, to explore new performance spaces, and to enhance educational opportunities for underserved communities. From its modest beginnings in a small venue in East Austin, the festival moved last year to a multi-level club just east of I-35, and found itself in the even larger Scottish Rite Theater for this year’s show. Located closer to downtown Austin, SRT served as an exclusively Masonic facility (with a few exceptions) until 2004 when it began the Scottish Rite Children’s Theatre program, and not long afterward it became a venue for avant-jazz and other offerings. To enter the theater is to find oneself surrounded by rich, dark woods on all sides. Leather furniture that was carefully placed in its present position during the Eisenhower administration is still wet behind the ears relative to a building that was built in the late 19th century. A certain amount of cognitive dissonance occurs when you leave the hipster/food truck/cosmopolitan what-have-you of downtown Austin and enter the SRT time capsule. Once you’ve turned the corner and passed by the portraits of Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and Jim Bowie in the “Hall of Texas Masonic Heroes,” you can’t help but wonder if perhaps you’ve had a The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe moment. And then upon entering the beautiful main theater, you know that you have.

With a pentient for variety and an eye on the visual, this year’s show built on past accomplishments and added a half dozen commissions to boot. Kicking off the eight hour marathon with Chris Cerrone’s Double Happiness was the Living Earth Show [1]. Hailing from the Bay area, the guitar and percussion duo had premiered the piece just one week prior. High and spacey electronics laid the foundation for unison lines shared between the electric guitar and vibraphone. The gentle plunk of muted chimes played by Andrew Meyerson could be heard over a passacaglia of sorts as guitarist Travis Andrews negotiated his parts. Another highlight of the set was Max Stoffregen’s Quasi-Mason. Derived from his friend Mason Lindhal’s tune, the piece played on bowed vibes riffs and looped layers in the guitar, and had a really nice touch with added pick scratches on the recap. In my notes about Austin’s Weird Weeds I wrote “earworms.” Looking every bit the regular rock band, WW was anything but. Gone was the typical alternating verse/chorus form with a bridge thrown in for good measure, and in its place were monolithic, insistent chord progressions and grooves which stayed around just long enough to make you comfortable before taking an unexpected turn on a dime. Primarily an A/B affair, (that is to say, most of the songs had one big “A” and one big “B”) the tunes were familiar on the surface but so formally polar that the whole affair sounded like the soundtrack to an odd neighborhood. Austin Soundwaves returned this year with a full orchestra to perform Hermes Camacho’s The Bear Prince, with the composer conducting. The charming piece for orchestra and two narrators was performed by a group comprised primarily of students with only a year or two of lessons under their belts. Simple melodies and evocative motives in the vein of Peter and the Wolf populated the work, and the performance was quite polished and communicative, drawing the first standing ovation of the festival. Convergence Vocal Ensemble presented a “mix tape” of pop and rock tunes reimagined by around a half dozen composers, as well as a few straight up covers for good measure. (Full disclosure, I was one of those composers.) Mezzo-sopranos Beth Beauchamp, Tynan Davis, Laura Mercado-Wright, and bass Cameron Beauchamp were joined by guitarists Brent Baldwin and Thann Scoggin as well as percussionists Tom Burritt and Adam Groh for a set that was a study in contrasts. Brent Baldwin’s charming ukulele-accompanied version of The Magnetic Field’s Absolutely Cuckoo was contrasted by the thorny deconstruction of Steely Dan’s Fire in the Hole by Avery Fisher. Caroline Shaw’s work on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face started as a beautiful straight-up a cappella rendering for the mezzos and blossomed into a wonderfully rich take on the work without masking its simple beauty. Joshua Shank arranged the Walt Whitman inspired Sheryl Crow song Riverwide. Preceded by a short prelude of Whitman’s Among the Multitude, the piece featured Cameron Beauchamp’s beautiful solo over a bed of Ebow’d guitar. Rounding out the set was La Llorona arranged by Graham Reynolds featuring Mercado-Wright belting out the jams.


At the halfway point of the festival, flautist Francois Minaux and visual artist Ryan Cronk set up outside of the main hall under the piercing eyes in the Hall of Heroes for an improvised set of painting, digitally fractured flute, and audience participation. A live mic was left on a stand as an invitation for those passing by to join the performance. As people sang and spoke into the microphone, their input was processed along with the signal of the flute, and these sounds informed Cronk’s painting as his strokes influenced Minaux’s playing.

The Meehan/Perkins Duo returned this year with Parallels, a huge new commission by Tristan Perich. Apropos to the title, both players had identical setups consisting of five differently sized triangles and hi-hat and each was flanked by sets of hanging, enclosure-less speakers. Tight hocketed figures were fleshed out and built a larger narrative as the mics picked up the attacks of the triangles and triggered electronics through the speakers. As the piece slowly evolved the hi-hats played a larger role, sounding a bit like snare drums to ears that had spent several minutes living in the high Hz world of the triangles.


An epic work, Parallels provided a great start to the second half of the day and its driving repetitive character was a bit of a prelude to the ending of the festival. Following Meehan/Perkins was Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle’s bass clarinet duo Sqwonk. They continued the evening’s tight hocketing with a performance of Knee Gas (ON) by Russell and Anderle’s Switchboard Music Festival cohort Ryan Brown. Starting off in all its sqwonking glory, the piece eventually backed off on the heavy intensity while maintaining its rhythmic vitality as multiple, overlapping lines developed. Perhaps it was the cyclical riff-like nature of the material or the visual impact of the players, [2] but the character of the piece and its performance begs for a transcription for two electric guitars. Along those lines, Ian Dicke’s Profiteering brought something of a syncopated rock sensibility to the proceedings. Symmetrical phrases and rounded formal cues were overtaken by a sweeping, lyrical middle section which was then followed in short order by polyrhythms which fell over one another before returning to the opening material. Funny, engaging, and highly polished, Sqwonk was absolutely a highlight of the festival. The evening’s finale was a performance (the Austin premier, no less) of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. A number of beanbags, pillows, and other cushions had been available at the foot of the stage for the duration of the festival, but as the performers took the stage a not-too-insignificant percentage of the audience took advantage of this particular seating opportunity. Featuring the University of Texas Percussion Group along with other musicians from UT and the Austin area, the wonderfully played hour plus marathon was a fitting ending to a big day of premiers, education, and community.

Fast Forward Austin has over the past few years branched out from its initial one-day festival concept. It has twice curated the Austin incarnation of Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night, co-presented concerts with the Nonclassical label during SXSW, and brought its brand of Austin sensibilities to New York. With its founders developing new projects throughout the country (as well as in Sweden and Portugal) FFA is certainly on track to continue its pattern of growth in the years to come.

***


1. Best Kickstarter ever.

2. I’m telling you, they got a least few moves from these guys. Right round 2:45-3:00.

CLOTS at the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin

Though clouded in some locational mystery, I finally found myself in the Museum of Human Achievement (mentioned previously here) thanks to composer and percussionist Nick Hennies’s latest project CLOTS. The museum keeps a bit of a low profile, but I can tell you that it’s in a warehouse on the east side of Austin. Finding your way there is apparently enough of a check of your bona fides that, once you arrive for a show, you are given the option of becoming a museum member. If you choose to join, you can select from a few dozen handmade membership cards which are then further customized with your name, the day’s date, and your member number. Given that areas like the once fun, funky, and occasionally unpredictable south Lamar are now populated by row upon row of condos, it’s really nice to find a place that is the antithesis of the “Times Square Disneyfication” that is creeping through town.

Nick Hennies performs CLOTS

Nick Hennies performs in CLOTS

CLOTS, created over a four-year period in collaboration with electro-acoustic musician/visual artist Sean O’Neill and designer/UT lecturer Clay Odom, was conceived as a “large scale interdisciplinary work that parasitically engages and encompasses the entire space of the venue.” The work was presented at the MHA as part of a week-long series of shows curated by Hennies and bookended by the CLOTS performances. Hennies et al. hoped to create a museum-like environment in which the audience members could move through the space and spend whatever amount of time they liked experiencing the art.

I attended the final performance of the week and, arriving a bit early, had a few minutes to survey the venue. Situated throughout the space were colonies of overhead projectors, some with their lamps pointed up to shine through thick translucent plastic sheeting, others projecting images onto the plastic. The sheeting was attached by guy-lines to the ceiling on the left side of the room, then fell across the floor of the stage, and rose again at a forty-five-degree angle on the right side of the stage, climbing over the entrance and terminating at the ceiling. Underneath and to the right of the rising plastic near the entrance was the first projector colony and to the left was an area featuring a lone kick drum tented by another hanging sheet. There was room for the audience to maneuver fully around all the created spaces.
CLOTS preshow
The Projector Colonies
The audio didn’t start with a downbeat as much as it sort of rumbled awake. A drone peppered with metallic filigree whirled around via several speakers situated throughout the space, and after a few minutes Hennies made his way to a vibraphone located in the middle of the stage. A small projector next to the vibes was rigged with a camera pointed into its light source. This image was then projected onto another sheet behind Hennies as he performed. Hanging from a frame above the vibes were several “chimes” built by Travis Weller. Looking every bit like giant metal clothespins, each chime roughly corresponded to a bar on the vibes and had a contact microphone attached to it. Hennies began to play a short, syncopated, repeating figure which only lasted about five seconds, and as the mallets moved from the equally tempered vibes to the differently tempered chimes, wonderfully rich combination tones resulted. I say “differently tempered” as I don’t know what system Weller used, but those guys were separated by just enough cents to make things nice and wobbly. As this figure was performed, people circulated through the space while others set up camp on the chairs and benches. For twenty minutes at a time (the amount of time one is instructed to perform transcendental meditation) Hennies would play the figure. When this time elapsed, he would move to the bass drum, take two beaters, and perform a long quiet roll while sitting cross-legged behind the drum, his head inclined and nearly touching the drum head. This sound was felt more than heard, and after several minutes Hennies would return to the vibes to begin the cycle again, all the while accompanied by the visual and aural electronics surrounding him.


While the various curtains of plastic, lights, and projectors served to frame the space and direct attention, the seating arrangement also played a significant role. Putting a few benches in front of the performer might have been intended as a waypoint for weary travelers, but in the context of a performance they were a magnet (maybe this is where they “clot”?) and focal point, or at least a place to view the focal point. The point is that people who might have had a more circulatory experience ended up planting themselves for large chunks of time and watching Hennies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in speaking with patrons who had been to the opening CLOTS performance, a few commented that some modest changes in the show (including chair placement) had a significant impact on their experience. No one said it was better or worse, but it was interesting to hear that something as simple as seating design could have such an effect.

Despite the invitation provided by the benches, the most compelling element of the show was the degree to which the audience could choose their own experience. While there is a difference between sitting in the tenth row at an orchestra concert and hanging out with the grad students in the third balcony, the performance is still essentially the same. However, a trip to a museum can be different things to different people. You might walk through the whole place or spend an hour fixated on a single work, and these two possibilities played out among the audience members throughout the CLOTS show. And whether they sat, stood, or strolled, all participants experienced a show that, like its venue, was an example of what makes Austin a great place to see new art.

CLOTS was come one, come all

CLOTS was come one, come all

Austin: New Concert Reboot

Big changes often come from the smallest sources. A cough, a rustling of the cough drop wrapper, the realization that the interminable amount of time and noise required by that guy to “quietly” open his cough drop is going to ruin the show for you. The further realization that, while you’d rather not have someone making any noise during the slow movement of whatever is on tap that night, the real issue is as much the forum as it is the noise. Sure, the venue might demand silence with a capital “S” but does the presentation? I’ve taken every creaky door late entrance and unmuted cell phone ring as a challenge to redouble my focus as a listener, though this sometimes makes me feel as though I must look like someone trying to bend spoons with their mind or to communicate telepathically. Then it occurs to me that if I was in a less formal setting, I would naturally take these things in stride and enjoy the show. Jacqueline Perrin has been employing this idea for the last few years with her Classical Reinvention project by presenting interdisciplinary shows in a variety of settings around Austin.

Move On by Shirley Luong set to music by Michael Mikulka

Move On by Shirley Luong set to music by Michael Mikulka

Her first effort took the form of a salon concert. Perrin performed a variety of works at the piano and spoke about the music between pieces. After that initial experience of connecting with the audience through the music, as well as through discussion of the works, she decided to develop a series of shows that have steadily gained in popularity. Her follow up, Music in Real Time, presented five works with visuals addressing the structural aspects of each work as the pieces were performed, including works by Cage and Radiohead. Interviews were conducted between pieces in an effort to bridge the gap between audience and performer. Music Under the Stars was originally scheduled to be performed on the roof of the University of Texas Astronomy building, complete with giant telescope for viewing, but was moved inside to a makeshift blackbox theater as stormy weather rolled in. Audience members created their own art in response to the performances and participated in discussions of the both their own creations and the music that was performed.

In its first move off campus, Disco Classical involved contemporary classical pieces alongside works by Astor Piazzolla accompanied by salsa dancing. Said Perrin, “The show went great, but there were a few patrons who enjoyed the bar access more than we anticipated.” Paint, Play, Plié was a multi-disciplinary endeavor featuring dancers in the FAB Gallery under UT’s Fine Arts Library. Musicians were set up in opposing corners of the room allowing for virtually uninterrupted music as dancers improvised. Artists painted on large glass panels in the center of the room, interpreting works by Paul Lansky, Schubert, Haydn, the Bad Plus, and UT student composer Zack Wilson in real time. I attended their most recent effort, Synthesis, a collaboration between Classical Reinvention and their partner group Dance Action under the auspices of the Cohen New Works Festival.
Synthesis
I know I’ve gone on and on about it in previous posts, but Austin in March is a magical place. Dressed in L.A. weather with blue skies as far as the eyes can see, it is prime real estate for outdoor activities of all kinds and concerts are no exception. Synthesis was conceived as a guided performance originating outside the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus.

Starting with a French horn choir and around a half dozen dancers, the first work, Whispers of a Wall, had the dancers moving on and around the small walls surrounding the pavilion. Though the arrangements (Debussy in this case) were lovely and well rendered, we came upon one of the reasons that performance outside is tricky. The sounds that we are used to having directed into our ears via well-constructed acoustical spaces (or headphones) are disseminated into the air, robbing them of much of their power. Fortunately, though there was a standing-room-only crowd for the show, everything could be heard and arguably the character of the Debussy matched the more modest dynamic. The audience looked up and through the windows to see the dancers on the second floor landing of the interior for the second work Frames, which featured the choreography of Courtney Mazeika and Victoria Mora. It was visually stunning and was beautifully matched by the voices of the UT Collegium Musicum. However, in a “cough drop wrapper writ large” moment, a rock band on the other side of campus had apparently scheduled their “Bud Light Rock Fest Concert” at virtually the same moment. Of course, the singers never missed a beat, and it’s my firm belief that the audience bent every spoon in a ten-mile radius while focusing laser-like on the proceedings.

Inside the Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center

Inside the Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center

Thankfully, the show next made its way into the Harry Ransom Center. Guided by the dancers, the audience walked through a phalanx of singers on its way inside and passed cellist Samuel Johnson as he and two dancers performed Tawny Garcia’s Tether, which while certainly substantial in its own right, served—as the title might suggest—as a connective element between the inner and outer performances. Once settled into the space inside, Ethan Greene’s Inventions and Interludes in Iron began to emanate from the speakers. Broken into several short, distinctive sections, the work featured dance that mirrored the fractured quality of the electronics. Jagged jaw-harps glissed high and low as SOS chirps hopped around a metallic scratching counterpoint. Another section saw regular rhythms surrounded by what sounded like re-imagined car horns, detuned and chromatic. The first movement of Michael Mikulka’s To Summon Rain, Wind, Snow, and Thunder for timpani had a quasi-military quality which matched the choreography as well as the imagery of nuclear destruction projected behind the dancers. The second movement featured glissando gestures mirrored by a solo dancer and was a respite from the initial strength of the first movement. The final movements saw a return to the military character of the first, with matching repetitive, angular moves by the dancers. It was a great closer, and frankly there are few more definitive ways of ending a show than with a guy wailing away on timpani.

Classical Reinvention is doing it right. By acting as a clearing house for collaborative work and by moving concert music to different venues, Perrin is bringing music to a new audience. She’s also not afraid to try something new in every presentation instead of simply offering a recurring concert series. In each of these shows, musicians, artists, dancers, and audiences create shared experiences that serve to broaden the perspective of all participants. And even when the Gods of Rock make their presence known, the audience is prepped to focus, listen, and bend their own spoons.

No Idea Festival 2013: Improv Anywhere

Chris Cogburn
Chris Cogburn recently curated the 10th annual No Idea Festival with six concerts in Austin and San Antonio. Hailed by the Paris Transatlantic as “one of the finest improvised festivals in the world,” this year’s gathering featured performances by nineteen musicians who made domestic treks from Austin, Houston, Jackson, and New York, as well as those who braved customs with loads of arcane gear from New Zealand, Germany, France, and Mexico. Grizzled veterans were joined by new players in a variety of collaborative efforts over the six-day event, one in which new relationships were formed and existing relationships were strengthened through brief but intense rehearsals to facilitate “free improvisations, composition, noise, and sonic interventions.”
A free show on the Pfluger pedestrian bridge served as a somewhat casual pre-festival opener. Hailing from the streets of Mexico City by way of New Zealand and Spain, Misha Marks was joined by Austinite Ralph White for a bit of off-the-cuff busking on a spectacular Saturday afternoon. The Pfluger pedestrian bridge is quite well traveled on any given day and even more so on the weekend, so there was no shortage of people passing and pausing to hear Marks, and White trade fours. The second set featured Cogburn and Dafne Vincente-Sandoval in musical conversation. Their interaction was somewhat more sparse and introverted, but still quite communicative and expressive. Perhaps the most compelling thing about these sets was the fact that the audience had no frame of reference. Some walked by without so much as a turn of the head while others stopped and soaked in every nuance, not necessarily realizing that this was a planned show and not another Austin oddity. Children had some of the most interesting reactions, eyes big with wonder when the sounds would come together in a recognizable form, invisible worlds forming in those little craniums.

Dafne Vicente-Sandoval and Chris Cogburn

Dafne Vicente-Sandoval and Chris Cogburn

I headed to the Salvage Vanguard Theater for the opening event where Cogburn, Vincente-Sandoval, and her fellow Parisian laptop artist Xavier Lopez performed a set of live improvisation. Among the goals of the festival is to bring artists together not only for one-off shows but also to build multi-year relationships; relationships that serve to more fully develop the depth of communication in each improvisation. Immediately following a brief introduction by Cogburn, a siren dopplered its way down the street outside as if to signal entry into a world in which every sound is musically fair game. Vincente-Sandoval began with chirps and clicks on her bassoon reed as Lopez invoked punches of static from the laptop. Cogburn placed a cymbal on the snare, creating resonance with friction from a dowel placed in its center, which combined cleanly with a rising (and piercing) set of frequencies from Lopez’s laptop. Something about the level of volume and the particular frequencies, all quite high in pitch, filled the room and got into my head, which while not painful was a bit scary. I kept thinking, “One false move with that dial and we’re all toast.” As the work progressed, Vincente-Sandoval gradually assembled her bassoon, continuing to coax sounds that had more body and resonance while retaining the short, sharp character of the opening. The players clearly had respect for each other’s space which resulted in clear background and foreground during the performance with very little stepping on one another’s toes. This was made all the more clear by the very different palettes utilized by each player. Lopez’s static and wholly electronic world played out in stark contrast to the others. Cogburn was able to create long tones which had characteristics in common with elements of Lopez’s world, though they were timbrally distinctive. Vincente-Sandoval’s staccato arsenal could at times echo the static of Lopez but also had an organic quality that served to contrast with those electronics and while blending well with Cogburn’s offerings. Very cool.

The No Idea performance I attended last year was at The Broken Neck, a large warehouse on the east side. In a marked contrast to that visceral space, I found myself at The Performance Loft, an uber-swanky venue in the heart of downtown Austin. I was initially unsure about whether to even go in, thinking I must be in the wrong place, but when I saw Bonnie I knew all was well. I arrived several minutes before Bob Hoffnar (on pedal steel) and Aaron Allen (on upright bass) began their set. Hoffnar and Allen performed a commission by Catherine Lamb, one that involved an unorthodox tuning designed to correspond with the 60 cycle hum generated by standard US voltage as well as the 50 cycle European standard. Bowed harmonics on the bass shared space with low pedal swells, the two combining to form resultant tones that echoed bells with no attack. As Hoffnar swelled up and down in volume, the hum from the pickups lent a body to the sound not unlike what you might hear when walking under a lamppost. It struck me that it didn’t seem incongruous to the work, and Hoffnar mentioned afterward that because the piece was based on voltage cycles, the pickup hum actually fit right in.

Chris Cogburn played a piece written by Bryan Eubanks which was not only the brightest spot among many that evening, but one of the simplest and most compelling pieces I’ve heard in a long time. It’s so simple that I’m not sure how to convey the impact to you, but here it goes. Cogburn began with a roll on the snare, near the rim. Over the course of five or six minutes he gradually increased in volume, though his overall dynamic journey was essentially from mf to f. I suppose that Eubanks borrowed a bit from a magician’s sleight of hand-book, because as I was intently listening to what essentially appeared to be a drum roll I began to hear something else. Or did I? I thought I was hearing some kind of very quiet hiss or static and figured it must be my brain reacting to the prolonged roll. I began to turn my head a bit to “feel” the sound and realized that many people were doing the same thing; looking around the room trying to figure out if that “other” sound was a real thing or some crazy artifact of the roll. I should at this point tell you that the Performance Loft has a very involved surround sound speaker system (360+ speakers!) that is carefully integrated into the walls such that you hardly notice it, and it was from these speakers that a gradually increasing white noise signal was emanating. Maybe it was the shared “A-ha!” moment with other audience members, or the simplicity of the sort of 21st-century Bolero vibe that the piece had, but when the Cogburn and the static reached critical mass, held it, and cut off abruptly to end the work, the place went nuts. It was simply awesome and everyone was excitedly talking about it. I’m not sure if it would have the same impact the second time around or if it would suffer as the movie “Sixth Sense” can on a second viewing because you know what’s coming, but that first time…whoa.

Remi Álvarez, Damon Smith, and Alvin Fielder

Remi Álvarez, Damon Smith, and Alvin Fielder

The last set of the evening featured Alvin Fielder on drums and percussion, Damon Smith on upright bass, and Remi Álvarez on saxophone. On a night with static lurking in the darkness and pedal steel guitars tuned to electric sockets, this final set was arguably the most conventional, though I don’t use that term pejoratively. Fielder set up delicate textures with bells, shakers, and other hand percussion while Álvarez comped harmonics. Damon Smith pulled out all the stops, coaxing a wide variety of sounds and attacks from the bass. Clearly part of the conventionality was that the drums/bass/sax setup has a long and storied history which informs any performance, even if that performance strives to be something completely different. However, these players were clearly above all that and spent their set as the other improvisers had at the festival; focusing on each moment and event as they assembled them into a new work of art.

I was struck by this year’s festival—not only by the music, but also by the diversity of audience and venue. Presenting this music in typical concert halls will only go so far and connect with so many. Outdoor afternoon bridge concerts with kids and dogs in attendance, an evening show in otherwise private performance space populated by the usual suspects, and shows in hidden museums all speak to the need to put this music in as many different places as possible so the largest number of people can find it. Cogburn is ten years into this journey, and in that time he has done a great deal to bring the diverse world of improv to the experienced as well as uninitiated in central Texas.