Author: AndrewSigler

Wolfgang’s Hipstamatic and Other Pictures on Exhibit in Austin

I recently saw two shows in as many nights that were presented by a couple of fantastic arts organizations in Austin: Ballet Austin and the Austin Classical Guitar Society. They both featured something old and something new, though refreshingly (and surprisingly, given that these are not new music groups) there was more of the latter in both shows. And they utilized two of the newest and most beautiful facilities in town; the Long Center (which is home to the Austin Symphony and the Austin Lyric Opera) and the new black-box-writ-large Moody Theater in the heart of downtown. Both of these organizations warrant their own profiles focused on their performance and commissioning activities, but we’ll stick with their most recent presentations for now.

The Mozart Project. Yes, I know—wrong composer for NewMusicBox. And while half the concert was straight-up toe-shoes, the other half was not straight up in any way, shape, or form, and it is this portion we’ll discuss here. The Mozart Project is the brainchild of Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills and features music by Graham Reynolds, DJ Spooky, and Mr. Wolfgang himself. Mills commissioned Miller and Reynolds to reimagine two of Mozart’s masterworks, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and the Piano Concerto 12 (K. 414), which was also the featured piece in the aforementioned (and really fantastic!) toe-shoes section of the evening.

Though the Earth Gives Way – Photo by Tony Spielberg

Reynolds’s Though the Earth Gives Way featured violin and cello with real-time processing accompanied by pre-rendered percussion tracks. There were nine movements, each of which came in at around two or three minutes. Says Reynolds, “I took fragments directly out of the piano concerto score (some very small, some eight bars long) and created my music with them. In most tracks it’s very hard to hear the Mozart, but in one or two it’s a little more overt.” The piece began with a percussion line run through some delay and reverb to create a quasi-ambient bed for the main theme of the work. Most of the movements involved one part wandering line, two parts reverb/delay, and one part percussion loop (accompanied by the occasional tap on the acoustic instruments) so ultimately the piece was held together musically by texture and rhythm, and visually by the dance and the staging. The stark staging featured three large panels with fluorescent light bulbs (the long ones from high school, not the squiggly pigtail ones) placed vertically at the back of the stage. These were flanked by two similar constructions on either side, creating a large box in which the dancers performed. Dressed in black and white, the dancer’s simple but effective costumes coupled with the staging stood in contrast with the sensual choreography. The music was compelling and evocative, but often as soon as something interesting began to materialize it got lost in the echo and a new piece began. The exception was the penultimate movement, which involved running the string signals through distortion to create the impression of two metal guitarists chugging along, one of whom had clearly been spending time with his scales. It played provocatively in that we were hearing metal at the ballet, but it also seemed at times kind of odd, in that we were hearing metal at the ballet. Accompanying the distortion were quick snapshots of light from the fluorescents which caught the dancers in a variety of poses. It was very striking, and at times had a really creepy horror movie vibe to it. Very cool.

Echo Boom – Photo by Tony Spielberg

DJ Spooky/Paul Miller’s piece Echo Boom (based on Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) began with the string quartet playing a straight run through the allegro (with a bit of reverb and panning) while a video presentation involving graphics of notes and words moving across and up and down played on a screen above them. It wasn’t clear if the text was intended to be read or experienced graphically, but there was a stream of consciousness element to it that was compelling, if only because its juxtaposition with the music seemed to invite the audience to find the connection between the two. Having said that, a few people (perhaps saddened by the lack of dancing at the ballet) decided to get up and stumble over their neighbors (including yours truly) to seek out other sources of entertainment. If only those few non-believers had cooled their heels a few more minutes, they would have seen some of the most compelling dancing of the night accompanied by DJ Spooky’s remix of the Night Music. Says Miller, “Sampling and collage are what DJ culture is all about, so I wanted to figure out what would make a collage possible that looked at Mozart like a ‘record,’ but then allowed me to figure out some ways to compose around Mozart.” Here we saw, among other things, a number of landscape scenes projected behind the dancers, including several shots of Antarctica (the topic of Miller’s new book, The Book of Ice). As the piece built to a head, the sounds of the string quartet got progressively more and more obscured by the big beats and the disassembled form of EKNM broken down to such a degree that the effect was ultimately a total move from the concert hall to the club. By this point there were more than a few bobbing heads in the audience, and judging from the comments in the lobby afterward, Ballet Austin had a hit on its hands.

*


Matthew Hinsley, executive director of the Austin Classical Guitar Society, holds court at all ACGS events like a mild-mannered P.T. Barnum, conjuring incredible spectacle. He also serves as a connecting hub for various elements of the Austin landscape, including the business, art, education, and commerce sectors; a feat that requires a mind that can see a dozen moves ahead on the chessboard and the vision to see how the game might be changed. ACGS hosted last year’s Guitar Foundation of America’s International Festival and Competition, which was the largest, most diverse, and most successful in its history (and the first not hosted by a university) so inevitably the question became, “What’s Hinsley going to do to follow up?” The answer was “Austin Pictures,” inspired by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and used as a theme for ACGS to spin its own musical variations. The show was held at the recently opened ACL (Austin City Limits) Moody Theater, which looks like what people who had never been to the original ACL theater on the University of Texas campus probably always imagined it looked like.

It’s big.

The show started with Austin Pictures a five-movement work commissioned from Joseph Williams II specifically for the event. The piece was performed by the Miro Quartet and a giant guitar orchestra, with Peter Bay of the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the helm. The concerto grosso of sorts began with “The Hill Country,” a lush, bright, flowing piece that started quietly and blossomed beautifully as it progressed. “Dance of the Grackles,” (What’s a grackle? Think ravens or blackbirds…) featuring the bird Austin loves to hate, was full of sharp hits and something of an old-world vibe; fun with plenty of sound from the 100 guitars on hand. “Violet Crown with Cicadas” featured long string lines and huge guitar thrumming strums that faded to nothingness. The closing movement, “Capital City Construction” (which describes the town I’ve lived in for over a decade to a “T”) was arguably the most visceral movement; its Stravinskian rhythms and powerful interplay between the orchestra and Miro brought the whole work to a thunderous conclusion. Following the intermission, the second commissioned piece of the night, Jorge Morel’s Songs and Dances, featured Miro along with the extraordinary guitarist Jorge Caballero. The three-movement work paired well with its predecessor, contrasting Austin Pictures‘ large-scale gestures with more intimate interplay among the five performers.

Photo by Jon Shapley

The pieces that followed, Boccherini’s Introduction and Fandango and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, were wonderfully rendered, the latter a real tour-de-force with Caballero performing Kazuhito Yamashita’s infamous (and completely insane!) transcription for solo guitar.

*

Ballet Austin and the Austin Classical Guitar Society have both been around for some time (20+ years for ACGS and 50+ years for the ballet), but their dedication to the performance and commissioning of new music (even if it occasionally ruffles the feathers of certain patrons) has been an integral part of both organizations for years. Both could easily bring the same material back year in and year out to the same (though likely dwindling) group of willing followers, and in doing so likely find themselves in the same sinking boat so many large organizations are frantically rowing (or have rowed) into oblivion. But by challenging their audiences to try something new, by connecting with their audiences to the events, and by treating each concert as part of a larger concept/vision/mission that extends beyond just that evening or even that season, Mills and Hinsley are models not just for music selection and commissioning, but also for music presentation and audience retention, interaction, and perhaps most importantly, generation.

And that last word is key I think. Generation. One of our most significant issues is getting new people interested in checking out new music, and part of that challenge is getting them to perceive these shows not just as new versions of “Classical” music, but as something that can be so much more diverse, interesting, and communicative. The shows I saw were fun, engaging, challenging, and rewarding. What more do you want?

I want a few less grackles in the city and few more shows like these.

Shall We Sing? Musiqa Marks Its 10th Anniversary

If you’re headed west on I-10, the first highway sign you pass as you leave Louisiana and enter Texas says “Orange 3, El Paso 856.” Texas is well known for its big open ranges, but it’s particularly striking if, after you make it all the way across to El Paso (which will take around 14 hours by car), you reflect on the fact that despite all that time on the highway, you’re still in the same damn state.

Given this bigness, and in the interest of giving a sense of what’s going on throughout the region, I’m going to occasionally travel outside of Austin to explore other offerings. Among the heavy hitters in Houston is Musiqa, a new music organization run by professors from Rice and the Moores School at the University of Houston. In addition to the presentation and commissioning of new music, Musiqa concerts also regularly feature dance, readings, film, and plays. In the ten years since its founding, Musiqa has put on hundreds of concerts and it can boast one of the strongest educational outreach programs in the country. Despite my reservations about seeing anything run by college professors, (I kid! I kid!) I loaded up the car and pointed it east to hear the opening concert of Musiqa’s 10th anniversary season.

The evening’s program centered on the theme of American songs of the last two centuries, and began with the premier of Musiqa Miniatures, a short five-movement piece scored for that popular 21st-century chamber combo, the Pierrot ensemble. Each movement was written by one of the five directors of Musiqa, and they were played without pause. Despite its various authors, Miniatures held together well as a piece for reasons that became clear when conductor Robert Franz turned to welcome the audience at the close of the work. He explained that because it was Musiqa’s 10th anniversary, the directors decided to write Minatures on the theme of a certain song that is traditionally sung at birthday parties. You may have heard of it, but you’ll rarely see it listed on programs by its given name. Even John Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing (which we heard later that evening) features a take on this piece, but labels it Anniversary Song. Franz then said that because the piece was so brief and because it was the world premier, they would like to play it again for us. This was received with loud applause and there was occasional laughter as the theme popped its head up during the second run. I’ll admit to laughing as loud (and being as charmed) as anyone in the place, and I’ll also admit that I did not pick up on the theme the first time around. I just thought I was hearing a bright, colorful, extraordinarily well-rendered chamber work. So congrats Musiqa, you got me! (shakes fist in the air…)

Musiqa Miniatures, second time through.
The concert continued with Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing, which is a ten-movement work featuring alternating solos and canons. Harbison’s take on “Amazing Grace” echoed shades of Copland, the slowly breathing flute lines performed here by Leone Buyse. Stoic chords beautifully played by pianist Tali Morgulis in “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” complimented Maureen Nelson Hawley’s violin part, which twisted and turned almost as a soloist in a choir of other players. “Poor Butterfly” caught me off guard in that it seemed to start off with clarinetist Michael Webster looking off into the distance, perhaps in hopes of finding our friend the butterfly. After a moment or two it became clear that the butterfly he was looking for was the one running the lights, specifically the one that was a bit too low for him to see his page. Once that wrinkle was ironed out, Webster’s rendition of the piece showed his incredible control of his instrument and clear, warm tone.

The second half of the concert began with a reading by author Justin Cronin of an excerpt from his novel Mary and O’Neil. The reading, about a cancer patient and her family, was touching without being overly melancholy and provided a great change of pace and focus in the concert.

Karol Bennett and members of Musiqa performing Mr Tambourine Man. Photo by Bill Klemm

 

John Corigliano

John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man was introduced by way of a “period” performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind” featuring soprano Karol Bennett with Robert Wolf on guitar. This gave some historical perspective, though Mr. Wolf’s decision to not let vi come out and play with I IV V in the chorus was just a little bit too bad.(*) Mr. Tambourine Man’s seven movements (we heard five here) are available for performance in a variety of ensemble shapes and sizes, and Musiqa presented the chamber version. Beginning the cycle, the title track kicked up its syncopated heels and was twirled and dipped with confidence by Bennett’s strong and confident delivery before shuffling off all Gnarly Buttons into the ether. “Blowin’ in the Wind” starts with a light touch before revealing itself as something of a slow march. Layered bass figures that descend heavily throughout much of the movement are contrasted by the ethereal nature of the chorus, which does sound distant and not too little like the wind. The tension and dread leads perfectly to the full frontal attack of “Masters of War” which explodes out of the gate and, despite a brief respite in the middle, really does not let up. These were followed by “All Along the Watchtower,” and “Forever Young,” the last standing in contrast from the preceding material. Closest to its folk cousins, it makes for a very pleasant and peaceful ending to a dramatic work that has quite a few wonderfully pointy parts.

Among the most striking features of the concert was the average age of the audience. Typically at chamber music concerts in this area this number might be, oh, I don’t know…let’s say north of 60, but there were dozens of people in their late teens/early twenties at this performance. Now, given the folks driving this ship, I’ll bet that there might be a student or two among those kids, but it was still refreshing to see so many people who know how to operate a cell phone listening intently to what was offered. The addition of the reading, the appearance of a number of the directors during the concert to announce pieces and talk with the audience, and the generally laid-back atmosphere (about as laid back as you can be at the swanky Hobby Center) served to further connect the audience with the material and the performers. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for more than a few minutes of the post-concert talk, but watching Karol Bennett sit on the edge of the stage, legs casually swinging as she answered questions from an audience that had coalesced around her and the other performers, it occurred to me that while this is the 10th anniversary for Musiqa, in the grand scheme of things it’s just the beginning.


* It’s come to my attention that the original version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in fact did not contain the vi chord that is found in so many other performances of the piece. Therefore the description of Robert Wolf and Karol Bennett’s performance as a “period performance” was even more spot on than I knew! Kudos to Mr. Wolf!—AS

Sounds Heard: Michael Torke—Tahiti

Tahiti is the latest recording released by Michael Torke’s Ecstatic Records, the label he founded in 2003 in order to release his new material and to distribute his older recordings. The current trend of self-publishing/recording composers was still a fairly new and rarely implemented concept in 2003, and the number of established composers leaving the safety of traditional models to set out on their own was virtually non-existent. After the demise of Argo Records in the late ’90s, Torke tried for some time to get the rights for his recordings, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he gained some traction. Andrew Cornall (his former producer) approached Torke with an offer to assist him in acquiring the rights for those recordings, and it was at this meeting that the seeds of Ecstatic were sown.

Launching Ecstatic Records showed that while Torke was already thoroughly established as a composer, he was still looking forward—not only in terms of the music he wrote but also in terms of the life and business of composing. Torke currently spends the bulk of his time in Las Vegas (far from the influence and trappings of contemporary concert music culture), and it’s in this environment that his work on Tahiti began to take shape.

Performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s contemporary music group, Ensemble 10/10 (led by conductor Clark Rundell), and coming in at just over 17 minutes, the album’s first track, Fiji, quickly reveals itself as a Torke joint. Calling for five percussionists and utilizing a variety of Latin-centric instruments (congas, bongos, and claves, oh my!) to create a virtually non-stop bed of percussion, Fiji relentlessly percolates, pausing only during the occasional breakdown and turnaround before returning to a constantly shifting texture that just won’t sit still. Joining the percussion are pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, which are matched with pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, respectively. While the result is five percussionists and six (x2) other instrumentalists, this description does not really convey the weight of the result. The aforementioned are truly paired, as they double every note and rhythm throughout the piece, resulting in a sound with the density of a chamber orchestra but the clarity of a smaller chamber group. Adding to the effect, never have so many percussionists played so little. Joining the drums are a variety of shakers, bells, and the like, but given the simplicity of the lines, the impact is that of a single percussionist (perhaps with an extra arm) working with a very thick group of other instrumentalists to create a deceptively simple texture derived from the rhythms played by the percussionists.

Following Fiji is the eight-movement title track, Tahiti. While the movement titles are drawn from the Society Islands of French Polynesia, Torke points out in his liner notes that they do not directly speak to characteristics of their namesakes. Instead, they are meant to give a more general impression of “the idea of humidity: they attempt to capture the perfume of leisure time in a very warm and sunny beautiful place.” By and large Torke captures this, especially in the second movement, “Moorea—green cliffs.” Here the percussion again mimics a single drummer, but one languidly playing a half-time groove while strings and winds wistfully trade lightly syncopated melodies. “Bora-Bora—lagoon” also calmly leads the listener along with high winds and bright percussion, the only wrinkle in the journey being the 3 + 5 grouping in the chorus giving a slight disturbance to an otherwise balmy trip. “Tahaa—white sand” takes the listener in a new rhythmic direction, notably with straight eighth-note lines that move around the orchestra accompanied by long flowing string lines, which then trade to pizz. strings and long wind lines. While this direction is new, the movement is also notable in that the percussion is almost non-existent.

“Maupiti—by the reef” takes the “drum kit approximation” concept to its most fully realized state. Listeners of a certain vintage might be called back to any number of TV theme songs of the ’70s and ’80s (many of which were fantastic, thankyouverymuch) which featured drum kits along with studio orchestras. Music starting with two bars of loud, staccato, tutti eighths followed by two quieter measures would fit in any number of pieces and could go in as many directions, but the use of the toms and snare to give a pick-up (anacrusis, for those keeping score[1]) into the main theme is the first sign that we might be settling in to watch the ABC lineup of 1983. A straight rock beat (complete with tambourine playing eighths in a spot-on impression of a closed hi-hat, along with complementary eighths in the orchestra that are begging to be played by guitar and bass) accompanies a lovely theme that actually features some of the most rhythmically adventurous and involved music on the disc. This is accentuated (in the ears of this listener) by the harmonic and melodic choices that I can’t help but hear as TV theme-song-ish.[2]

“Huahine—under the moonlight” returns the listener to the islands with slowly pulsing rhythms and a haunting clarinet solo line. The only problem with this movement is that both the clarinet line and the piece end too soon. I could have gone around once or twice more. Finally, we hear “Farwell” which aptly wraps up Torke’s trip to the islands, complete with cymbal crashes (there are those downbeat accents…) seemingly mimicking crashing waves.

In the liner notes, Torke says (not about Tahiti in particular), “I have always wanted to write a composition that would inspire a woman, coming home from a long day of work, to draw a bath, light candles, and listen to it on her pink iPod.” Whether that goal played a role in the development of these pieces or not, he may very well have achieved it in places on this disc. Torke was an unapologetically “listenable” composer before that was fashionable, and in many ways Tahiti shows a continuation of that ethos. While there is plenty of substantial and interesting material here, this is clearly music written with people in mind, not composers. Its overall impact is thoughtful, approachable, and decidedly Torke.

 

***


1.     In college I went to a local CD shop (ask your parents) to pick up a few CDs. On my way to the counter I noticed a CD for a thrash metal band called Anacrusis. While I was checking out the CD cover, the shop owner walked over and noticed my prospective purchases were a bit different than what I was presently checking out. When he asked me why I was having a look at the disc, I told him what anacrusis meant. He didn’t believe me and said he was going to call his mother (who was the staff accompanist for the local university) to confirm. I said that not only was I right, but I was willing to bet the purchase price of the CDs I’d planned to purchase.

And that, my friends, was how you got free music in the early ’90s.

2.     The only movement that is more adventurous is the first movement, “Tahiti—Papeete,” which features three against four polyrhythmic elements that when played straight are quite effective. And when Torke carves out the occasional beat, even more so.

It’s Getting Hot In Here: Highlights from the 14th Austin Chamber Music Festival

Since it’s hot all over, my normal summer scheme of getting out of Austin for a while (short of international travel) is just not happening. Many of the things that make this town so great—like hiking, outdoor festivals, and spicy breakfast tacos—prove to be a bit of a test for anyone wanting to enjoy them during the three-plus months of The Big Sun. Fortunately, it has worked in my favor this time around because if I’d been out of town I would have missed the Austin Chamber Music Festival.

Austin Chamber Music Festival
This is a big year for the Austin Chamber Music Center. It marks the 30th anniversary of the center itself, the 5th year with Michelle Schumann as director, and arguably the biggest year for its annual festival. Now in its 14th year and spanning more than two weeks, the festival features a wide range of performing groups, from the alt-jazz of Kneebody to the Tokyo String Quartet. This year’s festival also has a featured composer in Michael Torke, a first for the festival. Though somewhat string quartet heavy (four groups in all), the festival still showed an impressive diversity of styles while maintaining a strong connection to traditional practice.

The opening concert featured the Miro String Quartet performing music by Kevin Puts, Michael Torke, and Phillip Glass. Puts’s Credo was commissioned by Miro in 2007 and has been in their rep regularly since then. Torke’s Mojave was commissioned by the 2010 Tromp International Music Competition and Festival and written for Colin Currie. Though written as a typical concerto, it was designed (as per the commission) additionally as a “chamber concerto” for marimba and string quartet. It was played wonderfully here by Miro and guest marimbist Thomas Burritt.

The second concert featured Anonymous Four performing music from Gloryland, as well as their trademark medieval repertory. Listening to A4 is a pin-drop experience, and while it’s not new music, it’s something everyone should experience. This concert was followed by the Vienna Piano Trio, who were joined by UT faculty Nathan Williams (whose recent performance of Gnarly Buttons was spectacular) and Naomi Seidman to perform Torke’s Telephone Book.

In a refreshing hard right turn for the festival (both in musical style, as well as venue) jazz improvisers Kneebody played at Austin’s famed Continental Club. As part of their show, they did an arrangement of Torke’s July. The original version is for saxophone quartet, but Kneebody’s re-imagined version for jazz quintet retained the spirit of the original while taking the piece in new and exciting directions. Their whole performance had the audience moving and was very well received.

The Bandini-Chiacchiaretta Duo continued the festival’s migration from traditional chamber fare to the exotic with two sold-out concerts. ACMC worked in conjunction with the Austin Classical Guitar Society to present these guitar/bandoneon concerts, which is one of many examples of organizations working together to present music to Austin audiences. The Chiara String Quartet, fresh off their new recording of the complete quartets of Jefferson Friedman, marked the festival’s gradual return to tradition with a nod to the new with its performance of Torke’s Chalk. As with the Vienna Trio, the Torke was bookended by some real warhorses, which is perhaps advisable when presenting new music to an audience that, while interested in the new, is familiar with the old.

The penultimate concert was an all-Torke event with performances by ACMC Festival Artists and the Young Artists of the ACMC Academy. In its thirty-year history, the ACMC has taught thousands of students. Among its graduates are members of the National, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio Symphonies, as well the Jupiter and Maia String Quartets; a legacy which quickly became clear as the show got underway.

The concert featured three somewhat longer Torke pieces with no intermission, which is a formatting choice I hope to see more often in concert presentation. If we can sit through a movie without an intermission, we should be able to do the same for a concert. (Though I do occasionally have a tough time doing the former while watching movies at the Alamo Drafthouse, I imagine the beer might play a role there.) Anyway, this concert in many ways was the most successful of all (perhaps along with the Kneebody gig) in its ability to show how to program for the future, which should include the following concepts:

1. Change the Venue

2. Include the Kids

This does not mean that we have to be in rock clubs, abandoned buildings, or parking garages for new audiences to check out the tunes, nor does it mean that we should have 5th graders play woodblocks on our new piece so that parents will shell out for tickets. What it does mean is that we need to consider that the churches and halls where so much chamber music is performed feel like exactly what they are; frankly, a bit stuffy and not always inviting. Also, if we don’t get the kiddlywinks interested in playing newer music (in every way, including the experience of putting a piece together that they’ve never heard, especially in an environment where they can be coached by the composer) then they are going to likely spend all their time living in the past, which is no place for a kid. At least not exclusively…

The concert began with Two Girls on a Beach, performed by Waterloo Sound Conspiracy which showcased Torke’s trademark bright pulsing rhythms accompanied by long, lyrical lines. This was followed by one of Torke’s older pieces, Music on the Floor, which featured ACMC Festival Artists along with Young Artists Luis Maria Suarez on violin and Arnold Rodriguez on cello. The latter were notable both for their age (high school, maybe?) and for their fantastic chops. This was not a piece for kids, and both performed at a very high level. It was fun to watch Festival Artist violist Aurélien Pétillot smile every time Suarez cleanly followed him in one of the many complex unison lines they shared. I hesitate to use the word “follow,” as they were clearly playing together, but you get my drift.

Finally, we heard the North American premier of Fiji, which utilized a chamber orchestra comprised primarily of the festival’s Young Artists. This is one of the pieces featured on Torke’s upcoming CD Tahiti with the Liverpool Philharmonic’s Ten/Ten Ensemble. It was a great closer for the concert, and though it seems like too many concerts end with a standing ovation, this one felt quite genuine and heartfelt.

Finally, the closing show of the festival featured the Tokyo String Quartet with the Aeolus String Quartet opening. Though the idea of an “opening” band, as well as the fact that Aeolus played Torke’s Corner in Manhattan, lent a “new music” element to the concert, it did make for a long show. Also, though Aeolus played fantastically, they suffered the fate of most opening groups, namely that no matter how well they play, most people want to:

1.     Hear the Headliner.

And…

2.      Hear the Hits.

And on that note, the Tokyo Quartet delivered, big time. They played Dvorak’s American quartet, Opus 96, Mozart’s Quartet in D Minor, K. 421 (only one of two in a minor key, though both are in D minor), and wrapped up the concert and the festival with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat Major, Opus 44 with Festival Director Michelle Schumann on piano. The performance was what you would expect; beautiful, virtually flawless performances from seasoned veterans.

Bear in mind that the above concerts were just the main shows (actually, there were two other ‘main shows’ I couldn’t attend: one featured the Aeolus Quartet, the other was the 3rd Annual Gay Pride Concert) and so it does not take into account the DOZENS of other free events directly affiliated with the festival. Every “Austin Festival Thing” has its non-affiliated hangers-on who will slap SXSW or ACL on their establishment and get a drunken frat band to play in order to ride coattails, but this was quite different. The free shows, workshops, and master classes featured virtually every above-mentioned performing group, as well as Torke in multiple guises advising string quartets, composers, and coaching/conducting performances.

This kind of connection to the community plays a significant role in why the festival, which has grown every year since Schumann’s appointment as director, grew by 30% in the past year. Audiences want to be connected to music and musicians, and ACMC has shown that by bringing the community into the equation and making connections between the two “sides,” a better experience is had by all.

Now if they can only do something about the heat…

Texas Performing Arts Receives $450,000 Mellon Grant

Andrew Sigler

Andrew Sigler

Ed. Note: In the coming weeks, NewMusicBox readers will be introduced to a new team of regional editors stationed in four cities across the country. These contributors will be our eyes and ears on the ground, surveying the new music landscape in their areas and delivering regular coverage.

To kick things off, we welcome Andrew Sigler of Austin, Texas, to the fold. –MS

Texas Performing ArtsNew music is not new to Austin, but its supporters have largely been of the grassroot variety and its funding has typically come in the form of modest ticket prices, tip jars, and any number of thankless day jobs. Now one of the big players in town, Texas Performing Arts, is using a significant new grant to throw its weight behind not only the creation of new music, but also its presentation to a new audience.

Texas Performing Arts, which serves both the University of Texas and the Austin community, has recently received a $450,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, allowing it to continue its tradition of presenting world-class music, theatre, dance, and conversation. One third of the grant is contingent on matching funds, while the remaining support will then be matched by the executive vice president and provost of the University of Texas as well as the dean of the College of Fine Arts, bringing the total figure to $900,000. A figure worth noting in a world where more than a few of our musical institutions have taken it on the chin as of late, and in a state where the University of Texas has had significant cuts and losses across the board.

The Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Concert Hall

The Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Concert Hall

In some settings, this event might simply bolster the old guard while dealing new music short-shrift, but not this time. In recent years TPA has featured such new music darlings as eighth blackbird (with Steve Mackey and Rinde Eckert), Bang on a Can All-Stars, and the San Francisco Jazz Collective, as well as contemporary artists from a number of other disciplines including writer Bruce Norris, and forthcoming engagements with author Jonathan Franzen and actor John Malkovich. With this significant infusion of funding, Director Kathy Panoff plans to build on her two years at the helm by commissioning new pieces, bringing in artists for residencies, developing interdisciplinary works, and working with area members of the Austin art community to further improve the arts in Austin.

Here’s the breakdown of how the money will be used over the next three years:

45% of the grant is set aside to support interdisciplinary projects including John Luther Adams’s opera Ilimaq, Rappahannock County by Ricky Ian Gordon and Mark Campbell, The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer featuring John Malkovich, and a collaboration between Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet.

25% will feature commissions of new music including a work for string quartet and chamber orchestra by Kevin Puts, and a double string quartet by Dan Welcher, who are former and current members of the UT composition faculty respectively.

25% will support artist residencies including eighth blackbird, So Percussion, and Brooklyn Rider.

The final 5% of the grant will be used to develop a Classical Music Task Force to identify and overcome barriers to classical music presentation in Austin.

Now, even I’ve been guilty of using the well-worn moniker (and city council anointed…its 20th anniversary is August 29 of this year) “Live Music Capital of the World” to describe Austin, but Dean of the College of Fine Arts Dean Dempster thinks that it descriptive of a wider range of music than it is at present. Says Dempster, “The ‘live music capital’ can be and should be a force for reviving live audiences for concert and ‘art music,’ as much as it is for popular and folk traditions. This prestigious grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a resounding affirmation of Director Kathy Panoff’s vision of UT and Austin as a creative hub for the next generation of classical music performance and presenting. Texas Performing Arts’ classical music initiative promises to bring a cutting-edge sophistication to the cultural life of our campus and community.”

New Music in Austin would not be what it is without being a bit funky, both in its content and presentation, and these recent developments will not likely alter that character. However, if Panoff and the TPA are successful, particularly in the exploration of how new music is presented, it could be a significant step towards removing some of the barriers that remain between audiences and presenters. And if the audiences are open to the new ideas, it could open up a few wait staff and dish-washer gigs as well.

New Music Takes the Fast Track in Austin

“Live Music Capital of the World” Austin, Texas, more than lived up to its name this past Saturday with the first annual Fast Forward Austin Festival. Featuring locally sourced talent, community involvement, and a grassroots fundraising campaign (one that raised a surplus which will be applied towards to next year’s event), the festival had all the earmarks of an event uniquely Austin. Once inside, patrons were asked to make a suggested donation of $10-$20 (sliding scale, no obligation, no one turned away) to Anthropos Arts, an organization “working primarily in the East Austin community to bring top professional musicians into Title I, low-income middle and high schools to offer free music lessons, workshops, master classes, and performance opportunities to economically disadvantaged youth.” There were FFA T-shirts, beer koozies, and temporary tattoos. There were baked goods, coffee, and beer. Outside, a Filipino-American food truck called Be More Pacific featured (among other delicacies) longanisa and adobo chicken sliders.

Sounds like Austin to me.

The eight-hour festival was held at Space 12 in East Austin and began with Tim Doyle‘s still under construction piece A Gathering of Strings. Conceived for larger forces and dancers, this arrangement featured three guitars, viola, violin, and the mother of all string instruments, the French horn. With Doyle on the stage and the other players spread out among the audience, the piece began as a single tone and slowly gathered speed and density. This gave way to a second movement that in places echoed Robert Fripp and his Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, and in others felt a bit like Bolero without all that pesky rhythm. Doyle commented on the pieces, lending a loose, laid-back feel to the performance which was a great way to kick off the festival. Contrary to the typical formal opening of a concert, this one seemed to just start out of nowhere while audience members were still coming in the front door, grabbing a drink in the back, and gathering at the seats and tables located in pockets around the stage.

Also worth noting were the programs, which featured the performers but not the pieces. A small point, perhaps, but interesting in that it obligated the performers to communicate with the audience to let them know what they would be listening to. It’s also worth noting that virtually every group not only gave a rundown of what they would play (typically before each piece) but actually spoke in detail about the pieces, composers, and relationship between the two.

Fast Forward Austin
Line Upon Line Percussion
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Next up was Line Upon Line Percussion who played a fantastic set, starting with part one of Reich’s Drumming and including pieces by festival co-founders Steven Snowden and Ian Dicke, before heading to the Round Top Percussion Festival for another performance that evening. Consisting of current and former students from The Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin, LUL were the first of the three featured groups (and one jaw-dropping soloist) affiliated with the university who performed at the festival. LUL not only performed with incredible precision but also with a real sense of drama and the stage presence required by the newer pieces. Dicke’s Missa Materialis, a commentary on consumerism and waste featured trashcans and plastic bags from the supermarket. Snowden’s A Man With a Gun Lives Here featured, among other things, buckshot and a bass drum. Though performed in Texas, no one was harmed in the performance of this piece. Both pieces contained some of the most engaging moments in the festival, not only because of their musical content but because of the impact on the audience. Sitting in front of me were two mothers with their toddler daughters. Both little girls were fascinated by the variety of instruments and sounds that came from the stage and consistently asked their moms (pretty quietly for toddlers) what it was that they were hearing. The focus of this festival was not only to promote new music and rethink its presentation, but also to develop and cultivate future audiences. In a typical chamber music concert, those little girls might have been escorted out by apologetic hushing mothers before the buckshot hit the bass drum. Instead they experienced new music in the most real, organic way possible: by hearing it performed and asking about it while it was happening. Walking the line between presenting music such that it can be heard clearly and comfortably and presenting it in an environment where people are not compelled to sit in antiseptic silence, hands clasped, is a tricky one but certainly worth the effort.

Trombonist Steve Parker‘s set started in a corner of the hall and began informally, such that the audience didn’t realize the piece had started until he’d played a few notes. He then talked briefly about his second piece, Berio’s Sequenza V. The wide range of effects in the piece, bolstered by Parker’s insight and incredible playing, seemed to have a real impact on the audience. A piece that under other circumstances might have seemed pure abstraction to an audience unaccustomed to new music instead made a real connection. Steve Snowden’s Ground Round and UT composition faculty Bruce Pennycook‘s Broken Bones followed the Berio and featured a mic’d Parker playing along with pre-recorded material. Again, the variety of sound and the strong playing by Parker made for strong performances.

Fast Forward Austin
Bel Cuore Quartet
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The Bel Cuore Quartet performed music of Higdon, Ligeti, Victor Marquez-Barrios, and festival co-founder Robert Honstein. Though formed at UT only two years ago, this group of doctoral students performed as though they had been together much longer. In particular, the Marquez-Barrios piece Saxteto displayed not only the group’s virtuosic technique and ensemble cohesion, but their ability to engage with the audience. Each member took time to discuss the pieces as well as to describe and to give examples of the extended techniques that were employed.

Austin new music group Mongoose creates original music based on John Zorn’s Cobra rules. They were the first group to fully refocus the staging by performing at the “back” of the room. The instrumentation included (among others—I knew I should have written this down) guitar, bass, French horn, vocals, dancer, drum kit, laptop, and a variety of other bells and whistles. The performance was fun, provocative, and whimsical and provided a nice counterpart to the rehearsed performances of some of the preceding acts. Not better or worse, just different. And frankly, if you’re doing eight hours of new music (or likely any music) variety is essential.

Fast Forward Austin
Aeolus String Quartet
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Recent grand prize winners of the 2011 Plowman Chamber Music Competition, the Aeolus String Quartet was the last of the UT Austin-affiliated groups to perform at the festival. Of the four pieces the quartet played, two were premiers written for Aeolus (Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroid and Lady Isabelle Was That Kind of Woman by Alexandra Bryant) and one was the FFA Call for Scores winner, Black Bend by Dan Visconti. All three composers artfully combined American vernacular (including blues riffs and Appalachian folk melodies) with contemporary techniques to create thoughtful new works. These pieces were performed in the above order with a small break between the Bryant and Visconti for Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet.

You know, to clear the palate.

This is not Aeolus’s first rodeo, and they really played the hell out of the Bartok. This performance was the closest in feel to a traditional chamber music concert not only because it was the oldest music played on the festival, but also because there is a certain gravity to watching one of the paragons of traditional ensembles, THE STRING QUARTET, perform that puts in the mind of the audience a quasi church-like reverence which festivals like this hope to deflate. Also, this was quite late in the festival and while it’s only April, it is Austin, and it was getting pretty warm in there. However, concerns about etiquette were put at ease at the end of the fourth movement when, after spontaneous applause, Aeolus graciously smiled and thanked the audience before performing the final movement.

Next, Ellen Bartel and Mari Akita performed butoh with Adam Sultan on guitar. Butoh is not a piece, but a technique developed in Japan in the mid 20th century involving very slow articulated movement, surreal and often grotesque gestures, and painted performers, though all these parameters may vary. While beautiful and thought provoking, this work seemed initially like an odd duck at the festival given that Bartel and Akita are dancers and that the dance was arguably the focus of the performance. However, the guitar work by Sultan along with other prerecorded sounds clearly provided significant form, structure, interactivity, and counterpoint to the choreography in the single long-form performance.

Representing the somewhat established “establishment” of Austin new music, Austin New Music Co-op took the stage to perform Kinship Collapse by Arnold Dreyblatt, a piece originally commissioned and performed at the 2006 SXSW Music Conference. The piece featuring electric bass, guitar, two upright basses (one of which was strung with piano wire), cello, drums, and violin. It lasted the entire set, starting quietly with an imperceptible violin tremolo and building slowly from there. The sections ranged from long tones marked with percussive hits to tutti rock jams that had heads moving. Though it was the longest piece of the festival and the penultimate performance, the audience appeared thoroughly engaged throughout.

Fast Forward Austin
Festival pros and Anthropos students performing In C
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The final performance of the festival brought students from Anthropos Arts together with festival performers from various ensembles to perform In C. Though starting a full seven hours after the festival kickoff, the performance (and the audience) was full of life. Arranged around the room, small groups of young students paired up with seasoned pros to perform Riley’s pulsing notes and rhythms, while a few performers (including Honstien doing his best Pied Piper with a single bell) roamed the room. It was a great experience watching the audience consistently change their focus as the music evolved, looking around the room as parts started and ended. In many ways this was truly the most compelling and engaging performance of the festival, not necessarily for its precision or because it will be remembered as a seminal performance of the piece, but because it seemed to embody the spirit and purpose of the event.

“New Music” is not going to bring itself to a new generation. It needs festivals and performers like these to connect those for whom new music is a regular occurrence to those for whom new music is only eight hours, one weekend, in east Austin.

***

Fast Forward Austin
Andrew Sigler

Andrew Sigler is a composer and guitarist. His concert music includes music for chamber ensembles, orchestra, dance, theater, and film and has been performed by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony orchestra, and the New World Symphony. Recent performances include the premiers of Four Movements for Flute, Viola, and Piano at the National Association of Composers New Music Festival in Portland and Sparrows Jump Nine Sandpipers by Simple Measures in Seattle. His work in the commercial field includes studio work as a guitarist and vocalist as well as composition and sound design for video games, advertising, and animation for a number of clients including Microsoft. Andy lives and works in Austin and is pursuing his doctorate in composition at The University of Texas.