Tag: Austin

Different Cities Different Voices – Austin

The skyline of Austin, TX

Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.

Since folks from all over the world made their first post-pandemic pilgrimage to Austin for SXSW in mid-March, we waited a bit for the dust to settle so we could shine light on some of the extraordinarily creative people who are an important part of the Austin music scene all year round. – FJO

Kenzie Slottow

Kenzie Slottow

Kenzie Slottow

I came to Austin from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2010 to study flute at the University of Texas. The composition department and electronic music departments especially at the UT Butler School of Music were full of creative, collaborative and bold students and professors – there used to be an annual showcase called Ears, Eyes and Feet, in which composers, choreographers and media artists from three different departments worked together to create multi-disciplinary performances. I didn’t know at the time that Austin had only a few new music ensembles playing very experimental stuff, and there wasn’t a big contemporary classical scene. However, there was some spark at UT in those few years – several of my colleagues at UT went on to start contemporary classical / new music organizations and collectives themselves (Fast Forward Austin, Density512, Tetractys, Line Upon Line Percussion), and some spectacular crossover classical groups came to town as well and stayed (Invoke Sound, Kraken Quartet), intermingling with the existing long-standing organizations that already championed experimental music and cross-disciplinary collaboration in Austin (Church of the Friendly Ghost, Fusebox Festival, and others). It felt like the beginning of a special period of growth for the Austin new music scene, and it has just continued to blossom since then. I was very moved by this year’s ATX Composers Showcase at SXSW, 12 years later, where many of these groups played on the same stage. Especially 2 years into the pandemic, it felt like a joyful reunion and celebration remembering that yes, we are committed and excited to make wild and strange music and soundscapes and improvisations in our city.

Part of the magic of Austin for me is its open mics. I’ve heard it’s not the same in other cities – they are an extremely collaborative and supportive environment with wildly talented musicians playing almost always original songs. I briefly moved away from Austin after doing my masters at UT and returned as I was starting to write my own music, and every week there were at least 4 incredibly welcoming open mics I could go to and try out my new tunes and arrangements, with a lot of the same supportive, friendly faces frequenting each one. I felt so comfortable finding and refining my musical voice in that environment, and met many friends, future collaborators and even partners. Now you can find that vibe at Mozart’s and Opa’s, with the same open incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic open mic leaders ushering in musicians new to Austin or new to writing their own stuff.

And then there’s the fact that I’ve always been able to find creative projects here. Austin’s known for lots of styles of music and its growing tech scene, but along with that there’s so much other creative activity that happens here – film, dance, visual art, improv comedy all have these vibrant communities around them. If I don’t have a project, and if I didn’t have a network of people to check and see what they were up to, I know I could always go to one of the many amazing local coffee shops and meet an artist or a musician, or if I’m in a more film/theater mood I could find a pre-production meeting happening at least one table. I also love that I can reasonably expect there to be a guitar to jam on in anyone’s house (or at the very least, a ukulele). There’s a vibrancy here of people just generally being excited to make art. I hope this energy can continue to flourish as Austin grows rapidly as a city (which, even without a pandemic, can be hard on creatives). It’s been incredibly challenging during the pandemic as early on, gigs disappeared, and then later venues – even iconic ones – have had to shut down. There is energy and determination here for collective action among artists though, and a few great organizations to support and advocate for musicians (Austin Music Foundation, HAAM), and I hope that we can continue to push for this city to financially support its artists.

I actually ended up finding a new Austin community and creative outlet during the early part of the pandemic. The Hideout Theatre, Austin’s longest running improv theater, moved all its classes and shows online within a couple of months of March 2020. At the time I had just produced and conducted a big experimental concert of improvised chamber music in person, before the shutdown. I was taking inspiration from theatrical improv and improv comedy to see how cross-genre musicians might relate to and connect with each other to improvise in large groups. The Hideout community was so full of creative determination and energy, and they invited me to experiment with livescoring narratives with groups of improvising instrumentalists ONLINE. It was a great feeling to bring many of my musician collaborators into the new improv community I’d entered. Since most of us suddenly had a lot of time on our hands, there was creative fuel and really talented people who would otherwise be busy gigging and touring and whatever, available to experiment with online performance art forms. With some incredible collaborators, I ended up taking part in some projects that really pushed virtual theatre boundaries in 2020 and 2021, and I like to think we’ll all bring the insights and the deep connection we found in those challenges into our work back in person in 2022.

You never know what kind of creative work or wonderful people you’re going to find around the corner here, and as a person who thrives with a variety of creative activities and values community, I can’t think of a place I’d rather call home than Austin. The sunshine also helps! While the various artistic communities haven’t really deeply cross-pollinated much up to this point, there’s definitely a lot of energy of coming together, and room for interweaving those communities, which is something I look forward to in Austin’s current chapter.

Music picks…

Kenzie Slottow: “Neverland” from the EP Hold It Up to the Sun

Cassandra Elese: “Coming In Hot”

Craig Hella Johnson

Craig Hella Johnson conducting

Craig Hella Johnson (photo by Scott Van Osdol)

Austin kind of chose me through a job offer from The University of Texas. I was just finishing a doctoral program at Yale and I had an interview which I decided to do just for fun. I never thought I would actually live in Texas as I had a funky, terrible Northerner’s bias. I enjoyed the interview and had a great time visiting this city. It surprised me with all of its green and beautiful places and all the diversity of music happening. I was offered the job and the rest is history.

Austin seemed like a really great place to set up camp. Much to my delight and surprise, I worked for 10ish years as the Director of Choral Activities at The University of Texas and made many friends there. I got to know so many musicians during that time and also began Conspirare during that period around 1993.  Someone told me something once which was very helpful. I remember it and live by it today: “Welcome to Austin. In Austin we take our work and passions seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.” This was fabulous input for me and I have found that to be true of Austin cultural generally.  It makes it a really pleasurable place to live and work.

I experience a sense of play, curiosity, and exploration that weaves together Austin’s new music scene. There’s a spirit in which all of these musics, and I am saying that deliberately as a plural, kind of comingle together. The classical music scene here feels quite naturally at home next to the indie scene and next to the country and blues and soul and rock and roll and Americana. I think it’s just beginning to almost explode in a wonderful way just like the rest of the city.

The cancellation of SXSW trumpeted the arrival of the pandemic in Austin. For me, it meant more time at home, more time to have that interior relationship with my soul, my heart and my interests. There were times when even though it was very busy there could also be time for reflection and pause.

At Conspirare we were dedicated from the first day we knew this was happening to doing everything we could to continue to engage our artists, to offer them work that could be creative and meaningful but also to just be able pay them and help support them through this period. I feel immensely grateful that we were able to do that. Throughout the pandemic period we created concerts at great distances from one another for online presentations. It felt like the demands of this medium called us out to expand the boundaries of the choral music. I got to meet some wonderful new collaborators –editors, filmmakers, videographers, and creatives of all types. Even as we all felt the great burden of this time, we continued to make art, to express ourselves, and to support people in remembering that we are still here, we’re still alive, we still have beating hearts. There is still a need for art that continues to support us moving forward in our lives and invites us into more awareness and the deeper experience of what it means to be human, to be alive.

Music picks…

Craig Hella Johnson: “We Tell Each Other Stories” from Considering Matthew Shepard

Eliza Gilkyson: “Reunion”
She is a favorite singer-songwriter and a cherished friend

Omar Thomas

Omar Thomas

Omar Thomas (photo by Izzy Berdan Photography)

I moved to Austin mid 2020 to begin an appointment as Assistant Professor of Composition and Jazz Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to moving here, I had completed two separate residencies as the featured composer for the UT Wind Ensemble and the UT Symphony Band. Having participated in many composer residencies all across the country, one of the standout aspects of my UT residency was Austin itself, being a place that feels uniquely its own with amazing culinary offerings as diverse and ubiquitous as its live music venues.

Working predominantly in the wind ensemble field these days, Austin offers a special and unique combination of a world-class conservatory-style music institution surrounded by (and increasingly incorporating) local and popular music styles, while being centrally located among some of the strongest educational music programs and performing ensembles in the country. The wind ensemble field is one that is leading the way in the creation of new works for the medium, and Austin offers access to some of the nation’s leading ensembles who are willing to breathe life into these pieces on some of the field’s largest performance arenas.

The largest challenge of the past two years in my field has been navigating creating music safely (or at all) with ensembles that average forty musicians blowing air through instruments – clearly not ideal for helping to curb the spread of a respiratory virus. It has been truly amazing (and exhausting) to watch large ensemble instrumental and choral music adapt, as composers came together to create music designed to be played by any combination of very few instruments, conductors reached out via Zoom to inspirational figures within the field and beyond to keep musicians motivated as we waited for the opportunity to safely return to making music, and students took it upon themselves to use technology to not only connect with one another via virtual performances, but also to create music that capitalized on our virtual reality. We kept each other motivated long enough to make it to out current moment where we are back sharing space, art, connection, and community with one another and with audiences, grounded
by deeper gratitude than any of us has ever felt.

Music picks…

“I Am” performed by the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble

John Mackey: “Immortal Thread, So Weak” from Wine Dark Sea (Symphony for Band): performed by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble conducted by Jerry Junkin

Stephanie Bergara

Stephanie Bergara on stage singing with a microphone.

Stephanie Bergara (photo by Jake Rabin)

I’m a born and raised Austinite, so for myself, working and living as an Austin musician has always just been, The Way. It was invested in to my heart and mind at an early age that musicians deserve respect. I have been consuming live music for so long, I couldn’t even tell you what my first concert was. It had just always been the thing that you do. When my son was born, just over four years ago, I knew I Austin would be home forever, or until he finishes school. I love Austin, I am Austin, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is just a different unique energy that runs through this town in a way I haven’t quite seen anywhere else. I worked in the music industry for nearly ten years before starting my band where I got to travel the globe, and playing music has allowed me to tour in some of the greatest music cities in America. When the band travels to different places, and we tell people we are Austin musicians, that comes with it’s own branding, it’s own meaning. It’s special, it means something.

Musicians were the first members of the work force to be asked to stop working and they have been the last to be asked to come back to work in any pre-covid capacity. It’s been hard, we’ve been forced to get creative, learn new skills, leave old business models behind and be quick to adapt to change. I also chose to release my first solo effort during the pandemic, which was not ideal, but it was time. The Banda has been lucky to continue to play across the country. We’ve relied heavily on social media to stay in touch with fans and are working through mediums like TikTok to stay active with our audience. Onward through the fog, as they say.

Music picks…

My two selections are my song, “Rear View” —

And a song from Austin band Nané, (who’s lead singer, Daniel Sahad, passed away just two weeks ago) called “Ladybird.”

Alan Retamozo

Alan Retamozo

Alan Retamozo

I moved to Austin about 12 years ago and have since been working across various music and art scenes as a performer, composer, administrator, and teacher. As a jazz guitarist and composer, I’ve worked with various small groups, big bands, and my own conducted group improvisation octets and chamber ensembles. Some of the more experimental and classical Austin ensembles and organizations I’ve worked with include Church of the Friendly Ghost (COTFG), Less Than 10 Music, Collide Arts, and Future Traditions Festival.

Even in my own short time here, the city has gone through dramatic changes. Like most large and mid-sized American cities, Austin has continuing––and in many cases worsening–– problems with gentrification, racism, lack of affordability, inherited and perpetuated segregation, and problems with police brutality. But, Austin is also home to a great variety of community and activist organizations fighting tirelessly against the systemic oppression of our state and sometimes local governments. As Austin booms and tremendous amounts of money comes in through tech and other industries, artists see firsthand the way that that money, and the publicity around it, doesn’t ultimately benefit the communities that give this city its cultural identity. In spite of these challenges, this city generally still takes pride in trying to celebrate inclusivity, acceptance, and counter-culture values, and the artists, ensembles, and organizations that make up our cultural landscape do amazing work. In short, Austin’s economic and social reality is complex and our art communities are forever adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by these realities.

Austin’s music and art communities are full of the most giving, creative, and determined people I have ever met. And the way that the people of this city embrace and honor music and musicians is truly special. For example, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) provides health insurance, dental coverage, hearing clinics, access to professional mental health services, housing assistance, and more to Austin-based musicians at no cost. When the pandemic caused the sudden collapse of the entertainment and live performance industries, HAAM and other organizations like Austin Creative Alliance, and the City of Austin itself, provided grants, groceries, and other aid specifically for artists.

The onset of the pandemic brought the momentum and direction of my work––rooted in group improvisation and interaction––to a sudden stop. Being unable to work in person with other musicians was shocking and disorienting (an experience so many of us in the performing arts world can relate to). One of the things that kept me going was the opportunity to join a wonderful group of classical new music friends forming Less Than 10 Music, a new music ensemble producing weekly virtual concerts featuring guest artists from around the country. Just having the communication and weekly concert deadlines really helped keep me going and kept me from falling too far into a sense of aimlessness. Some of the guest highlights and collaborations have included Ocelot, Nina Shekhar, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, and a masterclass with George Lewis.

So, what about the actual music scene?  Well, there’s too much to possibly cover here, but I’ll do my best. Some of the many experimental performing arts organizations and ensembles include: Epistrophy Arts; COTFG; Salvage Vanguard Theater; Rude Mechs; Sonic Transmissions; Liminal Sound Series; New Media Art and Sound Summit; Fusebox Festival; dadageek; OUTsider Fest; and Six Square. In addition to year-round performances and premieres by local artists, these organizations have hosted guest artists including Henry Threadgill, Maria Chavez, The Necks, Thumbscrew, Turning Jewels Into Water, and Peter Brötzmann. Among the ensembles and organizations more closely rooted in classical new music, there are groups such as line upon line, Tetractys, Invoke String Quartet, Austin New Music CO-op, and Density 512. There are music education organizations doing great work with young musicians such as Golden Hornet, Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Classical Guitar, and Austin Soundwaves. Larger institutions like the Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin, and Big Medium have recently commissioned and hosted large scale sound installation works by local and international artists like Steve Parker. KMFA, our classical radio station, has a wonderful new concert and recording space where they frequently host and promote new music performances. The University of Texas Butler School of Music composition departments and Electronic Music Studios (UTEMS) do a great job fostering up-and-coming composers and performers from around the world.

Of course, Austin also has a vibrant jazz scene with various weekly jam sessions and performance opportunities. Spaces like The Elephant Room, Parker Jazz Club, and Monks Jazz Club host a year-round lineup of local and touring artists, big bands premiering new works, and live recordings. We are also blessed to have luminary jazz artists and mentors in our community such as trombonist Andre Hayward and pianist/composer Dr. James Polk, among others. Vocalist, Joshua Banbury, splits his time between Austin and New York and has recently worked with The American Lyric Theater, The National Black Theater, The Kennedy Center, and made his solo debut at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. I’ve attached a link for him below, and I extremely encourage all to listen. Local jazz musicians frequently play and tour as band members in the pop music industry and during Austin City Limits Festival, SXSW and more. I couldn’t even begin to cover that side of the music scene, let alone our thriving dance, visual, and performing arts, food, and improv comedy scenes, in this short essay. Lastly, I can’t forget to mention the amazing Indian Classical Music scene here, supported by organizations like The Indian Classical Music Circle of Austin (ICMCA).

Recently, at a SXSW show featuring Austin composers, I was deeply moved, running into so many people I hadn’t seen in person in years. It was a wonderful experience and sparked a new sense of enthusiasm and hope for continuing my own work that had been dampened for some time. As we sort of continue to emerge from the ups and downs of the last two pandemic years, I’m feeling hopeful about who will be coming through town and what we will be creating together in the coming years.

Music picks…

Ghost Play
Alan Retamozo (guitar, electronics) and Katherine Vaughn (dance)

Brightest and Best
Forgotten Folklore featuring Joshua Banbury and Kevin Sherwin

Tara Bhattacharya

A costumed Tara Bhattacharya holding a small radio and standing near a group of foghorns.

Tara Bhattacharya in the performance of Steve Parker’s Foghorn Elegy (2021) at The Contemporary Austin, Laguna Gloria. (Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons)

I moved to Austin around a decade ago to live and work with experimental composer and synthesizer player Rick Reed. His releases can be found on the local Austin music label, Elevator Bath. We were married for about four years and he was the reason I started playing the ARP Odyssey. Some of my most fruitful collaborations have been with Rick including live scoring for the films of Aldo Tambellini (at the Austin Film Society), Andy Warhol’s Batman Dracula (at Alamo Drafthouse) and composing work together for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival (at Anthology Film Archives and Secret Project Robot in New York City as well as First Street Studio in Austin).

I was born and raised in London, U.K. to Bengali parents and my early musical exposure is of great importance to my work. My musical training started as a child with Indian music; my mother is a well-known Tagorean artist and she taught me how to play harmonium and learn all the songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. Throughout school, I learnt to play flute and sang in chamber choir. Also, since I grew up around a large Afro-Caribbean Diaspora in West London, I witnessed the Notting Hill Carnival annually and became closely familiarized with the traditions of reggae and calypso. Both traditions play an important role with the rhythmic aspect of my music, as subtle as it is. By my late teens, l started to experiment with guitar feedback and radio art and started following the Onkyo music scene from Japan. Onkyo expanded my understanding of electroacoustic music, prepared instruments, and analogue synthesizers.  As a curator, I brought Toshimaru Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama to play in Austin in 2015, which was a total dream come true.

Before I moved to the U.S.A. in the late ’90s, I worked for British guitarist Derek Bailey whose book, Improvisation, which was later turned into a Channel 4 docuseries of the same name, seen throughout many households in the U.K. when I was a child.  I worked for him and his wife Karen Brookman at their label Incus Records for a few years. I was 18 years old when he convinced me to move to NYC. I did and have lived in the US for almost 25 years now. He passed away in 2005. I thought about Derek a lot during the pandemic and what he would’ve felt about it, had he been alive. He preferred playing with other people, much more than playing solo. I share a similar sentiment to him. Playing on my own is a dull activity. Not being able to play with folks because of the pandemic and hospitalization numbers going up and down so rapidly really brought down my spirit and stymied my creative output for about two years. I strive to partake in musical banter with my peers. The pandemic frustrates me because it took away those opportunities.

Also, I missed seeing live music performed. Before the pandemic you could see music every night. Austin is a tight knit community of musical creators and producers. There are lots of organizations in this town dedicated to presenting and promoting non-commercial music in favor of free jazz/improvisation, contemporary classical and experimental genres.  Keep Austin Weird? Actively weird?  Yup, we most definitely have!!!

When I first moved to Austin around 10 years ago, I went to a lot of Church Of The Friendly Ghost (COTFG) events at Salvage Vanguard. COTFG also organizes the NMASS festival (New Music Art and Sound Summit), a genre defying local and national festival of multimedia. This festival continues to this day. Also, throughout the years, I’ve had the great pleasure of attending new music concerts performed by folks like Panoramic Voices, New Music Co-op, Line Upon Line, and Atlas Maior etc. Organizations such as Epistrophy Arts and festivals such as No Idea and Sonic Transmissions have also brought in some of the best national and international free jazz acts to town. Also, in recent years more locally curated music labels have been sprouting up more regularly. Labels such as Astral Spirits, Aural Canyon, and Holodeck Records have done numerous tape releases throughout the years (sold in local stores) in addition to releasing material digitally on Bandcamp. Running any kind of a label is super impressive to me and an essential activity for performing artists.

The one thing Austinites were having a really hard time grappling with prior to the pandemic was gentrification. It had started to become a huge problem in our creative communities and shows very little sign in slowing down, of course. The most well-known casualty (in our experimental music community) of that “first wave” of gentrification was Church Of The Friendly Ghost, who lost their home, The Salvage Vanguard Theater in East Austin. Many smaller spaces stepped in and continued facilitating art, music, and culture. One such example is the local D.I.Y. space and stalwart, The Museum of Human Achievement, which has consistently supported locals film screenings, experimental music, theater, performance art throughout the years.  Other thoughtfully curated spaces such as Dimension Gallery, Co-Lab Projects, Cloud Tree Studios, Volstead Lounge and Ground Floor Theater also carried their weight in supporting the scene. I’m so thankful to belong to this community of folks.

I hope that these venues and support for one another continues to thrive post-pandemic. Rent has sky-rocketed through Austin, TX in the last few months alone.  Big music venues have shuttered through the pandemic. Finding performance spaces continues to be a consistent struggle for artists and presenters alike.

I have been a curator in Austin, TX since 2014. I have organized experimental film screenings with the Experimental Response Cinema collective under Scott Stark. I have also curated my own music events and sound installations under the name Antumbra Events + Installations. I started Antumbra in 2013 to present performance art and sound projects from across the globe.

I did manage to do some really cool and meaningful things during the pandemic.  I organized my festival online called Interference Fest-Women Making Noise in December 2020. The festival headlined a mix of multimedia artists and musicians including Angel Bat Dawid and Sistazz of Tha Nitty Gritty, Yuliya Lanina, and Amanda Gutierrez w/Norman Long. I invited local and national artists to partake and every single person who participated gave it their all. I felt so honored and so amazed by everyone on it. The festival was plagued by technical difficulties and was delayed two weeks from its original date. The themes I had in mind for 2020 were care, consideration, and concern. December 2020 was a particularly bleak period during the pandemic and I wanted to bring myself and people out in the world some joy. The festival aims to be an inclusive space for free expression and artistic experimentation in all forms/genres including film, video, movement, poetry, music, sound, and even mind-body practices. Online wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it was the best I could offer, given the state of the world, at that moment. I actually organized Interference Fest in-person at North Door (now shuttered) in 2019, which was also a very heartfelt festival. I hope to resume to in-person this year. As a curator, as well as someone who is concerned first and foremost with the well-being of others, I don’t want my participants or audience members to get sick from Covid-19 and so that’s why I’m waiting to announce the dates for 2022.

Due to grief and depression from losing friends and family during the pandemic and for being isolated on my own for almost two years, I have started to learn Tai’Chi with local dancer/choreographer Heloise Gold, progenitor of Deep Listening Retreats. Her collaborator and friend was Houston-born composer Pauline Oliveros. Heloise in one of Austin’s most famed residents and her movement-based training has impacted countless artists throughout the years. I am proud to be her pupil and hope to heal from her tutelage.

Music picks…

Here is my collaboration with Rick Reed; a live score for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival at Anthology Film Archives in 2016. It was one of my proudest moments as an electronic musician:

Ken Jacobs / Rick Reed & Tara Bhattacharya @The Nervous Magic Lantern Festival 2016 from Ken Jacobs on Vimeo.

This is work by one of my very favorite musicians in Austin, TX. Her name is Henna Chou. She is one of the original founders and main curators at Church Of The Friendly Ghost and the NMASS Festival:

April: Texas, New York, and the Oppositions

In the early evening of April 22 I sat depleted outside an apartment house in Red Hook, Brooklyn. From that stoop I could see the choices and oppositions of my life laid out like they were chalked on the sidewalk. Sometimes it feels like life is a tug of war—between east and west, life and career, social and personal, work and play, urban and rural, composer and singer-songwriter, professional and academic, serious and jocular, art and business, collaboration and solitude—and I can’t seem to choose my side.
April had been a rapid-fire reunion, a gonzo retrospective. It was like one of those broadly staged final scenes in Wes Anderson’s films where all the characters are seen together at once, their relationships’ dynamics laid bare. In just three weeks, I had visited most of my important places and seen many of my important people. I set foot in New Mexico, Colorado, and Iowa; I played shows in Chicago, Austin, New York City, and at my alma mater Illinois Wesleyan University. After April 26, I had no further gigs on my calendar. Plans, but no dates.

This happens to freelancers. We build a run of work, and then the run ends. It can be a difficult transition. I think of my days in theater, when the closing of a show would effectively disband a group of friends. At the end of each season, we were sent back to the drawing board; professionally, creatively, and socially, we had to reconstitute ourselves.

One time, during one of these reconstitution phases, a friend encouraged me with the words of his teacher: “Growing into yourself as an artist requires lots of time feeling lost.”
Here is Rebecca Solnit, the poet laureate of being lost:

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word “lost” comes from the old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.

We disband our armies, we find ourselves alone. We find ourselves.

Many creative people experience their first disbandment, their first dramatic, forced reconstitution, when they leave school. Such was the case for me when I left Austin in 2009, after completing my master’s degree. I’ll borrow the idiom again, abused as it is, because it is so terribly precise: my two years in Texas were when I found myself. I left town as soon as I finished the degree because I felt I had to keep moving forward, but when I landed in Chicago that fall, I immediately missed Austin’s atmosphere. I have heard Austin called “the world’s largest retirement community for young people”; no similar description applies to Chicago. There are swarms of creative twenty-somethings there; most of them work from nine to five at Groupon. There is bohemian culture, but it doesn’t feel endemic. Office jobs feel endemic. Commuting feels endemic. Sleet feels endemic.

I eventually found collegiality and inspiration in Chicago’s new music community, but in late 2009 I felt a bit like the narrator of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” the best song ever written about wishing one was in Austin. I walked the neighborhoods, kicked the pavement under granite skies with cold winds slipping between me and my jacket. Chicago didn’t need me. The city is a vast, fascinating patchwork of deep, disparate stories, but it’s stretched over a reservoir of such infinite sadness. It hides it well; the patchwork holds. But Austin was warmer. It felt like it had some holes, and I could find my way in.

My favorite composer these days is Morton Feldman, whose late music I find unimaginably brave. This spring, after the April fury wound down, I discovered that WQXR had posted a complete recording of the FLUX Quartet performing his String Quartet no. 2 (1983)—that’s the one that’s six hours long. As mentioned, I had no further gigs on the books, so it was time to conduct some business, and one day I dialed up the Feldman as I set to an afternoon of emails and tasks. The piece susurrated in the background, but every once in a while it leapt out and grabbed me by the spleen. It sounds like a field René Magritte might have painted, the grass glowing midafternoon green, the sky above black and starry. It’s like you’re walking a wide meadow of rolling hills, of night flowers, and occasionally you find an old wooden trap door set into the hillside. It could go anywhere. But actually you don’t open it. You keep walking the meadow instead, for hours and beautiful hours.

Feldman’s quartet lay over my emailing like so much diaphanous cloth, and in it I heard the magic of the everyday. I used to be terrified of routines, always coveting more adventure, but I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of assembling a life durable enough to make sense multiple days in a row. We don’t always see the magic in this, but as artists we simply have to trust in its presence, beneath our daily rituals, in all of our work, in the revision, the tedium, and the suspicions of futility.

I hadn’t seen much routine during April. A few weeks previous, on April 9, my bandmates and I landed in Austin a few days in advance of the Fast Forward Austin new music festival. We had a lot of rehearsing to do. We had been separated for most of the previous four months, and we were preparing two separate sets for the weekend: one with piano for Fast Forward Austin, another without piano for a bar show the previous night. A number of friends and collaborators were in town for the festival, and there were meetings and reunions to balance with our work.

Grant Wallace Band in Austin

Grant Wallace Band performing in Austin, TX.

Our subsequent New York trip, the very next weekend, was a wilder whirlwind. Ben and I landed on Friday and caught the new Anthony Braxton opera. On Saturday, Elliot Cole and I split a show at Spectrum. On Sunday Ben and I spent some time with Elliot in the studio, contributing some singing to an emergent track. On Monday we heard Bearthoven rehearse our pieces at New Amsterdam Records’ warehouse space in Red Hook, then walked to the Fairway by the water and ate grocery store sushi in the sun.

Rehearsing with Bearthoven

Rehearsing with Bearthoven at New Amsterdam Records.

That night, Ben and I heard TIGUE and So Percussion at Le Poisson Rouge. I was electrified by this show. Chris arrived from Chicago that night, and the three of us walked the streets of midtown until late, talking band talk, scheming schemes.

TIGUE performing at LPR

TIGUE performing at LPR.

Our show was the next day, at the New Amsterdam space. We found our way back to Red Hook and the apartment of Chris’s brother, Danny Fisher-Lochhead. Danny is a saxophonist and composer, and his place is just around the corner from New Amsterdam. We rehearsed, sound-checked, and returned to Danny’s place for burritos. I was so spent, I could barely socialize. This was the point when I removed myself to the stoop and admitted aloud that I felt totally empty. I was looking another reconstitution phase in the eyes. I had no home, no plan, and no way to unify the oppositions.
It hit me hard, that evening, that my work is in one place (the city) and my soul is someplace else (the west), and I don’t know what to do about it. The music in New York is so powerful, but I just don’t think I’m personally constituted to live there. In May I fled back west. Over the summer I’ll spend some time in Chicago with the band, play a few shows, and finish our album. We’ll be back in New York in early September, to play on the Resonant Bodies Festival. By then Ben will have moved to North Carolina; he recently accepted a teaching position at Appalachian State University. Chris is still working on his doctorate at Northwestern.
I used to feel, if one was very rural and ten was very urban, that I might someday be happy in some sort of three and a half. But I’ve lived one and ten in recent years, and it’s made me doubt that the middle, in America at least, can really share the benefits of either extreme. I grew up in a five-sized town and I didn’t hike mountains on my off days, nor did I have regular access to a standing, working community of world-class musicians. Subsequently I lived in Rocky Mountain National Park for four summers, then embedded in Chicago’s new music community for two years. I suspect that deepest life will always be in the ones and the tens. But I wish there were some way to live moderately.

I think again about Edward Abbey and our culture’s opposition of wilderness and civilization. The American environmental ethic has always been about extremes, about subjugating nature (see: Iowa, industrial agriculture) whenever we are not enshrining it (see: Colorado, national park system). Is there a model in which civilization and wilderness can coexist more fluidly?
The presently dominant code of wilderness travel is Leave No Trace: when passing through a wild area, one is instructed to “impact” it as little as possible. (Yes, you bury your excrement, and you also eat the nasty little food scraps from your dirty dishes rather than dispersing them on the ground or in a stream, and you find a spot for your tent where there isn’t any vegetation.) Isn’t “impact” a funny word? In environmentalism we are supposed to minimize it, in art we are supposed to maximize it. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

A similar opposition plays between life and music. In America we have excised art from the daily flow of our lives, sequestered it to safe, respectful shrines built for its enjoyment and study (museums, concert halls, universities). We don’t play music with our kids as part of our social existence; rather, we buy them music lessons. And we are perpetually surprised to learn, to paraphrase the critic Dave Hickey, that in the special, clean spaces we set aside for culture, culture doesn’t work. Can’t life and art be hopelessly intertwined, every single day?

One and ten, life and art, work and play. Austin was all lifestyle to me, Chicago all career. The space is in New Mexico, the music is in New York. Do I have to pull myself back and forth so rapidly? It has become so exhausting. It is, to brandish the word of our era, unsustainable. Isn’t there some way to live moderately?

I think about Eric Holthaus. I don’t know if I can do this without flying, but I can try. I can try to slow down, travel with intention, stay for a while when I go, take trains instead of airplanes. Have you taken a train across the country? It’s so civil. You get treated like a human being, and no one is in a hurry: delays of multiple hours are not uncommon on long routes, and without our usual sense of entitlement toward punctuality, time takes on a different tint, and you sit and look out the window for hours as the land steadily changes and the light moves from east to west, from a glow to a blaze to a glow again before it disappears over the horizon, leaving you in limpid flowing darkness.

It’s like listening to Feldman’s second quartet. It rolls on and on.

Last August, a New Mexico friend came to visit me in Chicago. We used to work together as wilderness guides, and it was pleasantly incongruous to see him in the city. I even took him to his first new music concert. One day we went to the beach, sat and watched the waves of Lake Michigan.

“We talk about time like it’s money,” he said, his feet speckled with wet sand. “We ‘spend’ it, we ‘waste’ it. I wish we didn’t think of time as something we can gain or lose. We should just think of it as a shifting of light.”
Beach ending

Sounds Heard: Akropolis Reed Quintet—Unraveled

Akropolis Reed Quintet - Unraveled
Akropolis Reed Quintet: Unraveled
Performed by:
Tim Glocklin
Kari Dion
Matt Landry
Andrew Koeppe
Ryan Reynolds
Buy: Order from CD Baby or

I don’t get time to listen to music like I used to. The past few years have been so busy for me that sitting still in a room and letting sound be the sole focus (live or recorded) has gone from being a regular occurrence to an occasional indulgence. Maybe indulgence isn’t the right word, but as anyone who does music for a living will tell you, you have to fight for the time to do what you do. The diligent carving out of minutes and hours and the thoughtful use of those resources becomes more and more of a struggle as the responsibilities of life crowd in, but that’s the gig right? Life piles on and you say, “Thank you, Life. May I have another?”
Part of it is the double-edged sword of multi-tasking; I’m always doing more than one thing. When I say “listen to music like I used to,” I’m thinking of the times in high school when a new album would come out. I’d lie down on the floor of my bedroom with the speakers of my stereo positioned on either side of my head (at a reasonable distance and volume; I still hate headphones), close my eyes, and just listen. These days I still get down on the floor, but it’s usually for some serious tea-time with my daughter, and on these very regular occasions my head is surrounded by toys, not speakers.
I bring all this up because I’ve had this album staring me down for a while now, and I finally got a chance to stretch out and have a listen.

Akropolis Reed Quintet – photo by Lauren Landry

The Akropolis Reed Quintet is having a good year. In addition to their gold medal-winning appearance at the 2014 Fischoff Competition, they’ve released their second album, Unraveled. Like their debut, High Speed Reed, Unraveled features works written for the group through their ongoing commissioning project. For those unfamiliar with the reed quintet genre, the instrumentation is much like a wind quintet with the flute and horn swapped for saxophone and bass clarinet. The album is filled from stem to stern with tight writing by young composers, and the spectacular playing engages both intellect and emotion throughout. Bursting out of the gate, Paul Dooley’s sharp and pointy Warp and Weft pushes forward with a constant, relentless intensity. Four-Letter Word by Robert McCarthy seems at first a calm pairing with the Dooley, until it too launches into a dense, rapid texture underpinned by bassoonist Ryan Reynolds’s ostinato. In three movements, the highlight of the piece is the second movement. Largely homophonic with glimpses of a sort of Copland-esque jazz harmonic language, this movement dials down the notes-per-minute for the most part until about 2:45. at which point rapid sequences drive round and round briefly, speeding through for a bit before the longer, plaintive lines return.
True to its name, Roger Zare’s Variations On Reverse Entropy starts off as though the piece is pulling itself apart and does a hell of a job of it until around the three-minute mark, when a very simple ostinato begins to bind the work together. This little machine has been operating all along, but it doesn’t really become obvious until that mark and it does give the impression of a slow-motion reverse explosion. Jason Turbin’s Morse Code features solo lines couched in lush chords which provide a brief intro to the popping and locking that one might expect from a piece with this title. You can imagine the players feverishly counting all the little hockety entrances as they try to piece together the complicated texture which shortly becomes background to oboist Tim Gocklin and saxophonist Matt Landry’s melodies.

All of the music on the disc is quite engaging, and as compelling as it was to hear, I really wanted to see it performed. Jason Turbin’s Morse Code in particular evoked that emotion. Though the hocket framework is aggressive, in reality it’s quite delicate; it’s the kind of thing that can totally fall apart if everyone isn’t a rock star and not fully on their game while performing it. That danger can’t be sustained forever, but it’s part of what makes live performance what it is. Florie Namir’s clever, three-movement Delevarnu wins the award for best title. A slow, languid opening movement with a deft use of crescendo/decrescendo (such as the effect that occurs when two winds play a minor second rising from niente and what the listener hears is the beating between the notes…very cool) followed by a second movement that is at once noir and nostalgic, the effect enhanced by pitch bends and dense chords. Elliot Bark’s Autumn in New York picks up on the nostalgia with clean, simple melodies that offer a lamb-like bookend to Dooley’s opening lion.

I like it here on the floor. The music is pretty cool.

Houston: River Oaks Chamber Orchestra

Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships.–Alecia Lawyer

Based in Houston and drawing on some of the finest players in town and from around the nation, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is gearing up for their tenth season. Since its inception in 2005, ROCO has presented hundreds of concerts to a wide variety of audiences and in many different forms. Founded by oboist Alecia Lawyer, ROCO has commissioned or premiered 34 new works and during their upcoming season they will pass 40, including a co-commission in partnership with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry for a piece by Derek Bermel. Lawyer was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to fill me in on how ROCO got started and where it’s headed.

Andrew Sigler: How did ROCO come about?

Alecia Lawyer: I had been a part of many start-up orchestras in NYC and in Houston and had had an entrepreneurial trio in NYC while at Juilliard.  While in Houston, when my church was being renovated I knew a chamber orchestra would be perfect there in this lovely Frank Lloyd Wright-style building with seating for around 550.  I wanted to build something for Houston, but also something very authentic and relevant to the classical music world.
I thought of the musicians who were with me at Juilliard and different festivals who actually smiled when they performed and took joy in their craft on stage; who could be vulnerable and open in performance; who could talk to an audience and engage them, not just entertain them; who performed with such fluency that the music became the language, not the entity.  I was lucky to have hired Suzanne Lefevre as personnel manager, who helped form the orchestra, as well.

AS: What are some areas of presentation that set you apart?

AL: We have many simple ways to make the audience feel comfortable without changing our product of fantastic classical music.  The concerts start at 5 p.m. and are over before 7 p.m., so people can do more than one thing in a night.  I put pronunciation guides for composers’ names [in the program] so people don’t feel dumb, and I include timings of pieces to allow people to get a sense of the scope of a piece. (And if they don’t like it, they know how much longer it is!) I married the idea of a kid’s night out with the concerts and now have ROCOrooters, a music education/childcare program during and after our concerts.  We don’t have a regular intermission.  It’s “Take 5” [style] and musicians actually clip on nametags and walk into the audience to greet our audience. ROCO is known as “the most fun you can have with serious music.” Our season consists of four main concerts with all 40 professional musicians (half of whom fly in to play) with repeat performances.  The rest of our 25-30 concert season is made up of chamber music in various venues and with many partners throughout Houston.  We actually perform in ten zip codes here.

AS: Your mission statement is to “shape the future of classical music through energizing, modernizing and personalizing the orchestral experience.” That’s a tall order. How do you accomplish this?

AL: We energize through musician involvement in programming and creative direction, rotating conductors ([the ensemble has] no named conductor), annual conductorless concerts, and world premiere commissions. We modernize through streaming live concerts into patient rooms at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Hallmark Retirement Home.  We are dedicated to bringing this music to immobile communities like the V.A. hospital, where we performed a veteran’s concert this season. We also have a Listening Room where you can hear our past concerts for free and also download them.  We offer ring tones by our individual musicians so you can carry your favorite ROCO musician with you wherever you go.  We have been broadcast nationally over 60 times on Performance Today. We personalize through accessibility where musicians and audience and board have relationships; through our musical collaborations; knowing our audience members by name; keeping the house lights up the whole concert to feel even more connected to our audience; having individuals or groups support each musician’s chair throughout the season (every musician has a sponsor or group of sponsors); commissioning and programming with actual people in mind and involved.
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra
AS: You have a pretty spectacular group of players from all over the place. How were they assembled?

AL: They are not just from Texas!  NYC, Vancouver, Boulder, others I cannot think of. It’s more about people I knew and ROCO’s personnel manager, Suzanne Lefevre, who has a wide group of musicians she knows.  Plus her job is not what you would expect.  She is now named associate artistic director and has always been a partner in building the orchestra.

AS: You have had 34 world premieres (and counting!) in less than ten years. Are any/all of these commissioned works? How do you go about selecting these works/composers?

AL: Yes, all are world premiere commissions.  We have more that are either Houston premieres, or world premieres that were not commissioned by us. Some composers came to us in the beginning, but now that we are known for this I get submissions constantly and love it! I am constantly getting suggestions from the musicians in ROCO, as well, for repertoire and commissioning. Our big news this season is that we are doing a co-commission with New Century Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry having Derek Bermel compose the piece.  ROCO will get the world premiere on Valentine’s Day next season.

AS: Houston is a large cosmopolitan city with many outstanding musical organizations of all sizes. How does ROCO fit into this?

AL: Many people don’t realize the difference in groups for classical music.  There is a 100-piece symphony orchestra on one end and then chamber groups on the other.  In between you have string orchestras of around 18-20 players and then a full-size chamber orchestra like ROCO of 36-40 performers.  Each of those four categories is its own animal with repertoire specifically for it.  We have other groups in the different categories, but are the only one occupying the full-size chamber orchestra space and truly sticking to that repertoire.  I love the flexibility we have for the main concerts with the full group and then chamber groups throughout the rest of the season.  It is intentionally being built as a Lego model, where small groups like our ROCO Brass Quintet have their own series of concerts under the ROCO brand.

AS: You’ve presented at Yale, SMU, Round Top, Juilliard, UT Austin, and the Texas Music Festival concerning your entrepreneurial approach to community-specific orchestra building. What is your approach?

AL: I call what I do “Wildcatting in the arts” which might need explaining if you are not from Texas! I meet with the performance majors and the arts management students and talk about starting ROCO.  The talks have gone in many different directions from development and board building to programming/commissioning.  However, my favorite thing to do is to talk about ROCO as a case study of reactions to my own past in performance and then have individual appointment times for students to come discuss their own ideas. I believe that orchestras should not be cookie-cutter and actually have a personality like the city in which they are created.

I love the process of connecting people together through the arts.  Each conversation, whether about music, money, or venues, is one of discovery and craft.  Every single problem in the arts can be fixed by working on personal relationships. Gratefulness, joy, and connection are our panaceas.


World Premiere/Commissions by ROCO for the full chamber orchestra
Brad Sayles – Echoes of Invention for narrator and orchestra (2008)
Karim Al-Zand – Visions from Another World After Illustrations by JJ Grandville (2008)
Carter Pann – Mercury Concerto (2009)
Brad Sayles – Buffalo Bayou Suite (2010)
Scott McAllister – Concerto for Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra (2010)
Karim Al-Zand – Handel’s Messiah Pregame Show (2011) In collaboration with Houston Chamber Choir
Paul English – Lumiere Lunaire (2012) (In honor of the 100th anniversary of Pierrot Lunaire and based upon JoAnn Falletta’s poem about Pierrot)
Tony Brandt – Maternity (2012) based upon neuroscientist David Eagleman’s writings about women throughout evolution back to the amoeba.
Reena Esmail – Teen Murti for string orchestra (2013)
Carter Pann – The Extension of My Eye, Le Tombeau d’Henri Carter-Bresson (2014)

World Premieres
Steve Laven – Beyond the Odyssey (2006)
Tony Brandt – Nano Symphony (2010)
Todd Frazier – “Save the World” in Memorium; Richard Smalley (2010)

Houston Premieres
Derek Bermel – Natural Selection (2006)
Michael McLean – Elements for solo violin and strings (2006)
Daniel Kellog – Mozart’s Hymn for String Orchestra in 16 Parts (2008)
Pierre Jalbert – Autumn Rhapsody (2012)
Huang Ro – Folk Songs for orchestra (2013)

Chamber Music World Premiere/Commissions
22 Works for our annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) musical and literary ofrenda. Composers write small pieces about life, death, remembrance, or other themes for an oboe, viola, and cello trio from ROCO with a singer.
We also have commissioned and premiered two other chamber works on our chamber music series we are now calling ROCO Unchambered.
Alecia's Pet Peeves

Austin: Mozart Requiem–Undead

Requiem WEB
I’m a bit OCD about arriving on time. My wife is laid back about these things, but I just can’t be late. Can’t. Be. Late. So even though I arrived a good fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled downbeat of Mozart Requiem: Undead, when I came upon a line of about 100 people I got nervous. I thought, “I knew I should have gotten here when the doors opened an hour before the show, but we’re at the French Legation Museum…How many people could possibly show up?”
Built in 1840, the French Legation Museum is a sprawling outdoor affair featuring some of the oldest surviving structures in town, and it’s surrounded by huge lawns and six-foot stone walls. The place is so big nobody’s filling it up, especially with concert music.

As I shifted from one foot to the other, I noticed that several people around me had the same worried look, and soon a guy walked past saying, “We’re not getting in. They are contacting the Fire Marshall to see if more people can be allowed in, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.” I poked my head over the wall and saw this:
French Legation WEB
You know how it is when you’re trying to take a picture of something huge and the photo just can’t do it justice? See above. You can see a bit of the orchestra and maybe ¼ of the main lawn. On a Wednesday. After seeing that, I knew something had to be done. Suffice it to say I finagled my way in to see what was happening on the other side of that wall.


Mozart Requiem: Undead is the brainchild of Graham Reynolds, Peter Stopchinski, and Brent Baldwin. The trio commissioned Glenn Kotche, Caroline Shaw, DJ Spooky, Adrian Quesada, Kate Moore, Todd Reynolds, Petra Hayden, and Justin Sherburn to “finish” the Requiem based on a computer analysis of the original manuscript that “definitively separated out what Mozart had written.” The composers were asked to keep the original vocal parts intact, but otherwise all bets were off. Of course, putting this all together requires a marshalling of considerable musical forces. Reynolds and Stopchinski’s Golden Hornet Project was joined by Baldwin’s Texas Choral Consort, Texas Performing Arts, Fusebox Festival, and Convergence Vocal Ensemble to put on the event. Presented as the kickoff for the 2014 Fusebox Festival, the performance featured over 200 artists (including the chorus, full orchestra, rhythm section, and electronics).

Twelve movements and ten composers—in addition to the commissions, Reynolds and Stopchinski took a few movements—make for a very full plate, and the arrangements ranged from full re-imaginings to more subtle alterations. Todd Reynolds “Dies Irae” was one of the former, with whispers building to shouts and a smattering of hi-hat on half-time drums. Pizzicato strings held the power of the work in check for a time, but the chorus would not be denied, belting out the lines until the final moment when they all fell down. Which they did (all fall down, that is). Glenn Kotche’s “Rex Tremendae” came in like a lamb with marimba, crotales, and shaker, the drum kit entering as Rex along with big choir roars before the whole thing drifted away in the wind. Stopchinski’s “Lacrimosa” had a Middle-Eastern flavor and featured violin soloist Roberto Riggio performing twists and turns over drones accompanied by strings and organ. DJ Spooky laid some beats over “Hostias” while Justin Sherburn (of Okkervil River) and Adrian Quesada brought a rock vibe to the proceedings. It was the loosening of an already colorful tie when Quesada and his band took the stage, strapped on their guitars, and began doling out the power chords to a wildly diverse festival crowd, complete with little kids doing cartwheels in front of the stage.

Many in the new music community are preoccupied with broadening the audience by changing venue and ceremony, and at times it seems a bit forced, like parents trying to be cool. When Golden Hornet Project puts a show together, there’s never any of that “Try it, you’ll like it!” earnest convincing going on, they just lay it out there and see what happens. The confidence that comes from curating hundreds of events in many shapes and sizes really shows when you see them pull off something this big. From the diversity and geographic range of the composers to the breadth and depth of performers to the ginormous attendance, the whole thing stood as an example of what you should do if you’re trying to reach a wider crowd.

And what a crowd it was. Seeing people of all stripes enjoying adult beverages while kicking back on blankets before an outdoor orchestra is one well-worn thing, but seeing them on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of a school/work week attending a concert featuring a single tune is another. Granted, the Requiem is a big old piece, but still. Graham, dressed in a suit and ten gallon hat, and Peter in a tux with tails provided just enough funky formality while Brent Baldwin ran the whole thing like a champ. Notable also in this endeavor is that the whole thing was free. This year’s Fusebox Festival, once a ticketed affair, is now accessible to all. As board member Joe Randel explained, “We felt that making the festival entirely free was important in order to facilitate the discovery of new work for the audience, but that was just part of our goal. There is a common misconception that if people buy tickets to a performance, they’re “covering the tab,” so to speak. In reality, the box office receipts rarely cover the cost of presenting this kind of work, and they don’t even begin to recognize the artist’s costs associated with creating the work, so we hoped to stimulate a broader conversation about the reality of those costs.”

Free concerts combining hundreds of artists in town with some of the best composers from Austin and across the country? I want to have that conversation every day.

Austin: Fast Fo(u)rward

I’ve complained on more than one occasion about the changing of Austin into a theme park, and I feel comfortable saying that if you’ve only been here during SXSW or the Austin City Limits Festival, than you haven’t really seen the town. It’s not the gentrification alone but the rate of change which makes for a real baby-with-the-bathwater situation in a town that got weird off the radar and for so many years stayed that way. The cache of interesting events and people that really make this town unique is being lost at a breakneck pace, replaced by stylized food trucks and Formula One Racing [1]. I like funky tacos and fast cars as much as the next guy, but at some point the value that is being traded on will be gone, and any number of other towns will be just as attractive assuming that they have buildings that will take a coat of paint.

So how is a festival that exemplifies Austin’s classic quirks so perfectly being run from LA, New York, and Hong Kong [2]? Shouldn’t I boycott these interlopers and demand that they get off my lawn? No, because Fast Forward Austin is run by three Austin ex-pats who know what the town is all about and who keep that in mind when putting this annual circus together.

Loadbang - Photo by Steve Sachse

Loadbang – Photo by Steve Sachse

This fourth installment of the all-day festival returned to The North Door with another fantastic line-up of local and national performers. Loadbang cranked up the show with offerings from Christopher Cerrone and Andy Akiho, the latter’s three movements from six haikus hinting at the percussion deluge to come with each player eventually trading their trumpets and clarinets for pot-top syncopation. The Skyros Quartet paired with the composers of West Fourth New Music Collective to present a number of quartets and trios written by the group. They opened with Matt Frey’s Procession which featured a repeating chord progression played largely in unison that eventually broke apart, each player moving mechanically away from the original material. Ruben Naeff’s Jackass, which was initially written for the JACK Quartet, closed their set. Quick, quirky, and rambunctious, the piece popped right off the stage.

Tatsuya Nakatani - Photo by Steve Sachse

Tatsuya Nakatani – Photo by Steve Sachse

To say that the music and performances of Tatsuya Nakatani are idiosyncratic and mercurial is an understatement. Perhaps FFA co-director Steve Snowden put it best during his introduction when he said, “I can’t really put into words what this guy does.”

I will now attempt this.
Nakatani began by working a large hanging tam-tam with a large bow [3], one that had a particularly arched stick and looked a bit like an archers bow. Intermittent hits with a large beater colored the sound and after several hits he grabbed a second bow and began to work another tam-tam along with the first. This was all well and good, and I figured we were in for a nice set of screeches and overtones.

He eventually moved to a little trap kit with a kick, a handful of toms, and a grab-bag of goodies. Shortly after arriving at the kit, everything went nuts. Singing bowls danced on the head of a tom as he stacked half a dozen cymbals on one another, slamming them on and around the bowls until most were on the concrete floor. One cymbal with a hand-sized hole in the center was bent, and scraped rapidly across the head of the tom, producing a sound like a bowed saw run through a distortion pedal. Nakatani clearly had a few go-to sounds (such as the tam-tam bowing) that he used and manipulated convincingly, but it was when he seemed to be winging it that the real magic happened. The afore-mentioned cymbals and prayer bowls came and went frequently, and while Nakatani was able to keep the energy going (at full speed, even during the relatively quiet opening and closing portions of the set) it occasionally threatened to fall off the rails. Once or twice a cymbal fell too early or a stacking of instruments just didn’t quite gel and these moments were wonderfully visceral and real. This is what, IMHO, live improvised music is about: at least one part communication with the audience and one part danger. Totally fantastic.

Austin Soundwaves - Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves – Photo by Steve Sachse

Austin Soundwaves returned this year and sounded better than ever. I’ve heard the El Sistema-inspired group play multiple times over the past several years now and not only was this performance much stronger in terms of fundamental pitch and rhythm, they’ve also come a long way in terms of their musicality. Their rendition of Cielito Lindo was particularly strong and their works from the canon were very well presented.


Just back from a three-week European tour, line upon line percussion opened with Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, presented as a sort of historical preview of (spoiler) Mantra Percussion’s Timber performance. Watching LUL reminds me of my rock band days when we’d get home from a tour flush with road chops, except that these guys play like this all the time. They are all superb players, and while watching Matthew Teodori in particular you get the impression that every single note is the most important thing in the world. It makes you think that whatever endeavor you’re involved in, you probably need to up your game.

Fast Forward Orchestra - Photo by Steve Sachse

Fast Forward Orchestra – Photo by Steve Sachse

FFA has usually had a featured piece or act, something that gets all the nerds [4] hot and bothered. This year had a two-fer in Donnacha Dennehy’s That the Night Come and Michael Gordon’s Timber. The former was played by the Fast Forward Orchestra and conducted by Austin Symphony Orchestra’s Peter Bay. Featuring an emotionally powerful performance by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen, the orchestra was a perfect example of what Austin has to offer in terms of new music. During the course of the day, sound from outside would make its way inside The North Door, but I swear Austin shut up for the whole piece. Mantra’s performance was no less thrilling, taking the audience on Gordon’s hour-long marathon of pulsing, surround-sound endurance. Finally, The Grant Wallace Band wrapped up the festivities with a set of folk and jazz influenced originals that would have been at home in any number of bars in town as well as they were at the festival.

Mantra Percussion - Photo by Steve Sachse

Mantra Percussion – Photo by Steve Sachse

Places change and grow, and the only constant is the complaint about how things used to be. Checking out eight hours of banging new music is one way of getting your mind off that fact.

1. The 24-gate regional airport that serves Austin has a direct flight to/from London now, so those from overseas can see F1 without connecting flights. This has been a dream of Willie Nelson’s for some time now.

2. Last year it was Sweden, Portugal, and New York. It’s my understanding that the next one is going to be run from the moon.

3. Actually, he began by asking the venue to turn off the AC. When it was revealed that the sound he was hearing was the refrigerator which was keeping all the beer cold, he smiled, shrugged, and started the set.

4. If you’re reading this, you’re the nerd.

Austin: Conspirare’s Moving Light

Craig Hella Johnson - photo by Danny Brod

Craig Hella Johnson
Photo by Danny Brod

What are the first few names that come to mind when you think of Texas music? It’s not a stretch to imagine that Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, or Billy Gibson (of ZZ Top) might pop up, and it should come as no surprise that these are just a few of the people who have been honored as the Official Texas State Musician of the Year in the eleven years that the award has been around. However, it’s not only grizzled road warriors and guitar-slingers getting recognition in the Lone Star state. Selected for a one-year appointment by the Texas Poet Laureate, the current State Musician, and the State Artist Committee, last year’s honoree was Conspirare founder and artistic director Craig Hella Johnson. His career in Texas spans over twenty years, including a decade at UT Austin, and in that time he has taken a one-off project for the Victoria Bach Festival and turned it into a powerhouse of contemporary vocal music. That these accomplishments track in the world of concert music is no surprise, but the fact that they’ve garnered recognition as representative of the state at large is exciting.

Often referred to as “Conspirare’s Craig Hella Johnson” the truth is actually the other way around. Conspirare in many ways is Craig Hella Johnson, and when you see them perform you are seeing his vision come to life. To bring the members of an ensemble (let alone the audience) along on a journey takes the ability to show confidence and sincerity and to instill trust and wonder. I saw him speak about his life in music before a group of composers last summer and about twenty minutes into a two hour chat half of the people in the room were weeping. Several people had to leave the room to collect themselves. These were mostly simple stories about important mentors and moments in his development, but he had a way of talking about them that brought everyone in the room into his world by relating to similar stories from theirs. It was neither a motivational speech nor one that seemed to be engineered to endear; the guy just connects, and it comes through whether he’s on the stage or kicked back in a comfortable chair.

Conspirare Symphonic Choir - photo by Danny Brod

Conspirare Symphonic Choir
Photo by Danny Brod

“Moving Light,” Conspirare’s most recent concert offering, was held on campus at the massive University Presbyterian Church on March 28, and consisted of two light-themed pieces: Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna and Luminosity by James Whitbourne. The former has become a bit of a warhorse in its short life and generally finds itself paired with heavy hitters of the canon such as the Brahms or the Faure, while the latter is even newer and shows it with solo parts for tanpura, viola, and tam-tam. I’ve seen Conspirare’s professional chamber choir, Company of Voices, on more than a few occasions, but this was my first experience with the full symphonic choir. Playing to an absolutely packed house, the 80-member choir filled the stage to begin the concert with the Lauridsen. Cast in five movements and clocking in at just under 30 minutes, the work draws its text from ancient liturgies including the Requiem Mass and its musical inspiration from the late Renaissance. The movements are played without pause, and Austin Haller’s organ accompaniment more often traded moments with the chorus as opposed to playing with it.

It’s no wonder the piece has been played regularly since its premier in the late ’90s. A thoroughly approachable piece overflowing with clean consonances, it struck me that such a texture really does put into stark relief the few sharp edges that pop out from time to time. In particular, the theme which materializes homophonically in the outer movements is not harmonically adventurous (and need not be), but its coalescence in a sea of flowing lines was quite striking.

In contrast, the Whitbourne showed up in some flashier clothes by way of the Shay Ishli Dance Company, which joined the singers on stage. The seven movements draw freely and liberally from a variety of religious texts in which light plays a role, and as these unfolded the dancers moved around and behind several screens through which the light flowed, at times creating shadows and silhouettes and at others showing through what appeared to be smoke from a smoke machine. I was up in the balcony for this one, so it was tricky to see if the smoke played a larger role below my field of vision, but from where I was sitting it was subtly handled. Throughout, Mousumi Karmakar’s tanpura played its foundational role, intoning 5-1 at various points as Sean Harvey accented entrances and colored the texture with tam-tam. Violist Bruce Williams played beautifully and managed to project even through the thickest of moments, all while the chorus delivered a strong performance under Johnson’s direction.

It’s heartening to know that among those named Official Texas State Musician of the Year is a prominent classical musician (two actually; Robert Dick was the inaugural honoree), mostly because it’s not simply a token honor. It’s indicative of Johnson’s impact on Conspirare and, by extension, on the Texas choral scene, and he more than warrants such recognition. I’m not sure that it’s the kind of thing that’s really on his radar though. He’s planning the next twenty years.

Brooklyn in Austin’s House

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Conceived and curated by Joseph Horowitz and presented in partnership with Texas Performing Arts, The Butler School of Music, The Austin Symphony Orchestra, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Copland and Mexico” was a four-day celebration of the music surrounding Copland’s trip to Mexico in the early 1930s. Copland, a Brooklyn composer of the last century, hoped to embrace the folk music of both Mexico and the United States, and this trip had an impact not only on his creative material but his sense of social purpose as a composer. His output following this trip includes works such as El Salón México and Billy the Kid, pieces that spoke to his new populist leanings. The former a hodgepodge of dance hall tunes and folk songs and the latter populated by cowboy tunes, both were wildly popular and signaled Copland’s desire to move towards a more accessible and nationalist means of expression.

Three shows (four nights counting the ASO’s repeat performance) focused on different portions of not only Copland’s output but also that of composers in similar veins, as well as other cultural and artistic endeavors that speak to the period. ASO’s show included wonderful performances of  El Salón México and Two Mexican Pieces (“Paisaje Mexicano” and “Danza de Jalisco”), plus Carlos Chávez’s Chapultepec and Redes (complete with film) with a score composed by Silvestre Revueltas. The final work is significant not only to the populist theme (fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico experience a labor-related political awakening) but also for its connection to Austin. Mexican nationalist composer Silvestre Revueltas is best known for a significant creative period late in life, but he is less well known for the time he spent in the U.S.A. in his early years, in particular the time spent at St. Edward’s College (now St. Edward’s University) in Austin. His contribution to Redes is significant in that, to quote Dr. James Buhler, associate professor of music theory at the Butler school, “Revueltas’s music is beautifully composed to sound as though it must labor mightily against the technology, a straining that is central to its affective character. In live performance this musical struggle with technology is transformed into an opposition, as music is freed from the grim determinism of the recording apparatus.”

I don’t know the original soundtrack version of this music, but the ASO performance was stunning, and the free, organic quality of live performance did make for a compelling contrast to the content of the film. Other events in the series included performances and workshops by Danzonera SierraMadre of Monterrey, Mexico, northern Mexico’s most prominent danzón orchestra, with UT music students and Patio del Danzón dancers as well as the UT New Music Ensemble, UT Percussion Group, and the UT Symphony Orchestra performing works by Copland, Chávez, and Revueltas. I only wish I could have seen them all.


Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider
Photo by Sarah Small

The second concert of Brooklyn Rider’s ten-day Texas Performing Arts residency featured new works by several American composers, as well as Schoenberg’s second string quartet performed by Brooklyn Rider with Dawn Upshaw. Following an opening volley in the form of Schubert’s Quartettsatz was a performance of one of the group’s “Brooklyn Rider Almanac” commissions, Dana Lyn’s Maintenance Music. Inspired by Mierle Ukeles, self-appointed artist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation , Maintenance Music was written to draw attention to the everyday workings of our daily lives. Starting from out of nowhere with a texture like tuning, the piece featured glissandi from one chord to another as the cello played a wandering melody, an arrangement that switched to viola in short order as the other strings took up harmonics. Quick arco interjections played back and forth with pizzicato, building then stopping with a five-note riff. A group of discordant, rising, symmetrical arpeggios marked another section, one of many moods that rolled by in the work.

This was followed by Evan Ziporyn’s Qi, a piece that, in an evening of heavy-duty tunes and stellar performances, stood out as particularly special. The opening movement, “Lucid Flight,” featured pulsing factory rhythms which made way for long, luxuriant lines that developed into pointed sixteenths traded among the players. Big, blocky harmonies reminiscent of the best of the minimalist tradition faded into one another, almost as if the parts were suspensions and anticipations writ large. The following movement, “Garden,” was particularly compelling. Ziporyn spread chords across the ensemble with plenty of double-stops and little vibrato, imparting a pedal-organ impression that was stunning. This was complimented by a later section in which a similar treatment with harmonics sounded somehow like a harpsichord without the attack, which is something I think we can all get behind. His sense and use of rhythm was absolutely spot-on. Though he used relatively little surface complexity (no tuplets were nested in the writing of this piece), Ziporyn’s ability to take a relatively simple harmonic fabric and lay it over a subtly shifting rhythmic foundation left me constantly wondering where the pulse would be next. Though it sounded nothing like the following, it reminded me of how the Pixies sounded when I first heard them; recognizable and alien all at once.

For the second half of the show, Dawn Upshaw joined the ensemble for Schoenberg’s second string quartet as well as a new work by the group’s Colin Jacobsen. The Schoenberg was wonderfully rendered, and clearly Upshaw is still at the top of her game. Jacobsen’s Suite from Chalk and Soot was a five-movement work drawn from a larger piece for quartet and dance with text by Kandinsky from Klänge. It should be noted for those unaware that Brooklyn Rider draws its name from Der Blaue Reiter, a group of artists (Kandinsky among them) based in Munich in the early 20th century, so the use of Kandinsky’s work is not random. The texts in Klänge focus on the sound of words as much if not more than their meaning, so it should come as no surprise that the narrative in each of these is heavy on the whimsical and light on the narrative. Highlights included the slithery sul ponticello edging around the opening movement “Look,” as the quartet juxtaposed Upshaw’s clear tone with a creepy, muttered, singing response. “Curtain” made a reprise of an initial declamatory gesture from “Look,” and then turned a corner with fevered tremolo and talking among the players. The final movement, “Table,” was full of joyful expression, with clapping gestures moving around the quartet and Upshaw in a 5/8 rhythm. Even the light guy got in on the action, bringing in total darkness once or twice before the actual final downbeat.


Sponsored by some of the heaviest hitters in Austin, both projects sought to present hidden gems of yesterday and today to the initiated as well as to an audience that might not otherwise uncover them. Providing great performances and cultural snapshots of Austin then and now, Copland and Mexico and Brooklyn Rider gave us an inside look into where we’ve been and where we’re going.

SXNY – The Big Apple heads to Austin

In a SXSW season that was largely panned as having jumped the shark commercially and was sadly marred by a horrific tragedy, two Big Apple bookends operating outside of the SXSW machine served to salvage an otherwise lost Spring Break. Jace Clayton (who performs as DJ Rupture) was joined by narrator/singer Arooj Aftab and pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo to perform The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, while Brooklyn Rider played the first of two shows of their ten-day residency with Texas Performing Arts.

Emily Manzo and Jace Clayton

Emily Manzo and Jace Clayton (with David Friend who is just out of this shot) perform The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner
Photo by Sandy Carson

Presented by the University of Texas Visual Arts Center and Church of the Friendly Ghost, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is a long-form work for two grand pianos, live electronics, and voice by Jace Clayton. Based fundamentally on two works by Julius Eastman, Clayton combined his live electronics with the pre-existing material and theatrical vignettes to create the new piece.
Clayton’s electronic set-up in the center of the stage was flanked by the two grand pianos, each placed so that the performer was facing away from the audience. Tremolo on single pitches played a significant role in the piece, and both pianists spent a great deal of the early portion of the work intoning streams of these over what amounted to a d minor key center. Clayton’s electronics would bubble to the surface by and by, sometimes manipulating the material we’d just heard and at others creating new textures. Everyone was amplified, so even his most delicate moments were accessible. Much of this would circle around before coming to rest via a big dramatic riff played by the pianos which lived mostly in the lower end of the range.

Lasting over an hour, the minimalist musical portions of the work were broken up by a few short spoken vignettes, brief interludes drawn from Eastman’s material including one of an interview for a position as an Eastman impersonator. Eastman was most active from the ’60s through the ’80s, and as a gay African-American was largely marginalized during his most creative period. It was interesting to get a glimpse into the world of sexual and racial politics, though at times it was difficult to reconcile the vignettes with the bulk of the music. The two seemed to reconnect more strongly towards the end when Aftab began to intone elements of the interview, singing in a smoky alto over dark minor chords coming from one piano while high pedal points came from the other. A provocative and challenging piece, The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner provided a compelling perspective of the political, racial, musical, and historical climate of New York in the late 20th century.

Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider
Photo by Sarah Small

Brooklyn Rider is in town for a ten-day residency with Texas Performing Arts during which they’ll play two concerts and participate in a variety of activities involving the university and the community at large. Their first show had a decidedly eastern bent, starting with Eastern Europe and moving along to the Middle East.

The first half of the show consisted exclusively of the music of Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, and the quartet kicked it off with Zhurbin’s Budget Bulgar, a short engaging Klezmer tune that was “sketched between playing dance sets at a Russian wedding in western New Jersey.” Full of life and energy, it set the tone for the evening and introduced the audience to Brooklyn Rider’s slightly unconventional configuration (left to right) of violin, cello, viola, and violin with all standing save cellist Eric Jacobsen who was perched on a platform. The standing configuration allows for more movement during performance, and the quartet took full advantage of this freedom by taking the standard physical movement inherent in typical performance practice and ramping it up. It never seemed forced or played for effect mind you, and I expect most players freed from the chair would do the same. Here it certainly helped convey the exuberance of both Zhurbin’s opening piece and the longer Culai which followed. The title of the latter comes from the nickname of Nicolae Neacsu who was violinist and vocalist for the Gypsy group Taraf de Haïdouks and who served as inspiration for the piece. Set in five movements, the work diverged from the Klezmer precedent and moved squarely into the realm of gypsy music, complete with shouts and pizzicato basslines swirling throughout the first movement. Eric’s brother, violinist Colin Jacobsen, conjured a languid melody punctuated by rapid lines which swooped in from above. The highlight of the second movement was during the two long solos which, while compelling in their own right, were almost outshined by a simple accompaniment of chords led by violist Nicholas Cords. Simple, unadorned, and only slightly syncopated, there was a drama in their simplicity and in the need for the players to be perfectly synchronized during this somewhat long section.

The final piece, an arrangement of a Romanian traditional work Music of the Roma, came in like a lion and went out like a lamb, its melancholy end accented when, as the final lines were played, Jacobsen and fellow violinist Johnny Gandelsman turned and walked offstage, followed in short order by Cords, leaving Eric alone for the final moments, a pregnant pause before an eruption of applause.

The second half of the concert began with a superb run of Bartók’s second quartet, the applause from the first half peppering the pauses between movements. Following Bartók is no small feat, especially in an evening dominated by eastern European folk-influenced string music, but Jacobsen (Colin this time) stepped up to the plate with his Three Miniatures for String Quartet. Inspired by a trip to Iran, Three Miniatures is a set of works that aim to embody “the tradition in which the epic stories of love, heroism, and allegories of human folly are played out in tiny portraits of incredible detail.” Jacobsen’s works lived up to the model, each a world (and occasionally worlds) of their own. The outer movements shined in particular. “Majnun’s Moonshine” opened with delicate harmonics following wandering pizzicato lines in the viola. Filigree scales feathered up and down, developing as the group came together in a 7/8 figure, the delicate opening forgotten and traded in for a lumbering exit. “A Walking Fire,” Brooklyn Rider’s debut CD namesake, was full of pulsing, nervous energy. The piece didn’t so much build to a climax as live in one. Ostinati and melodic fragments swirled around chunky double stops, the group rising together and fading back as one or another player came forward with a longer solo, only to rejoin the odd-time fray. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening as evidenced by the animated post-concert chatter in the lobby, a chatter that will likely be amplified for the second concert when the quartet is joined by Dawn Upshaw for Schoenberg’s second quartet and a new work by Colin Jacobsen.

Inspired Collaboration: No Idea Festival 2014

The No Idea Festival started its second decade of improvisation with six shows over a four-day period in Austin and San Antonio. Founder Chris Cogburn assembled another amazing collection of performers this year, drawn from across the country as well as Mexico, where Cogburn spends part of the year performing and working in the improv scene.

The festival is a place for performers to develop the relationships started at previous No Idea gatherings and to develop new ones with artists of all stripes, and to that end this year’s lineup included—in addition to the musicians—a writer, a dancer, and a clown.

Michael Zerang and Julie Nathanielsz – photo by Gudinni Cortina

Michael Zerang and Julie Nathanielsz
Photo by Gudinni Cortina

The stage at the Museum of Human Achievement extended to the right of the audience to an intermediate area which served as an open stage-left for this performance and as a connector to another stage used for the second performance, a sort of lazy Z which faced and flanked the audience. Following a brief introduction by Cogburn, Michael Zerang and Julie Nathanielsz opened the third evening of the festival with a collaborative sound and movement performance. Nathanielsz stood completely still as Zerang, seated at a trap kit to our right, produced a series of breaths and tweets from a recorder. As this texture developed, Nathanielsz shuddered and shook, moving more while standing in place than she did when she crossed the stage. In response, Zerang began rubbing something across the head of one of his drums creating a wonderful keening counterpoint to the recorder. I couldn’t make out what he was using, but as he stood up with a frame drum and began walking towards Nathanielsz, it seemed as though he was getting way more vibrating mileage out of that drum than he should have been able to. As he got to the front of the stage, it became clear that he was using something which, when moved across the drum head, drove it like a speaker, ramping up the timbral and temporal possibilities. When I asked Zerang the specifics of the four-inch oblong whatsit, he said, “Well, this is what we call in music a ‘vibrating device’.” I couldn’t help but think that that’s what they call it in any number of fields.

Bonnie Jones and Juan García performance from another festival set.
For the most immersive experience, listen with headphones (though be prepared for the sonic peaks and valleys).
The second set was quite representative of the local meets national meets international flavor of No Idea. Austin-based guitarist Parham Daghigh was joined by cellist Aimée Theriot from Yucatán, Mexico, saxophonist James Fei from Oakland, and No Idea regular Bonnie Jones from Baltimore. As the crowd settled into their second stage seats, Fei began breathing through his instrument, the sound dovetailing with the audience noise. As the last of the latter subsided, Daghigh began applying pressure to the lower strings of his electric guitar, forcing them to touch the pickups and creating a sharp, popping sound. This sound had a slightly different quality when the strings detached from the pickup’s magnet, and the two sounds came across like a telegraph. Theriot joined in with slow, short, quiet glissandi on the C string over a small range, and these low moans made a bed for Jones’s electronic high-pitched echoes.

Jones’s setup allowed her to open and close a variety of circuits with an instrument cable, and while these connections and disconnections fell in the same A/B tick-tock world as Daghigh’s pickup manipulation, they were in a completely different timbral sphere, hers sharp and brittle and his warm and rounded. Jones’s foreground opening gesture became background as Theriot shifted to harmonics, still soft but taking the lead by virtue of their tessitura. Fei picked up on this shift as his breathing was broken up with jagged, pitched attacks. All of this was actually quite quiet and largely pointillistic, so much so that when Daghigh began to use a paintbrush across the strings the windlike continuity of the sound was particularly striking.

Perhaps it goes without saying that none of this music was really living in the twelve-note-to-the-octave world, but occasionally a conventional collection would show up. A beautiful Phrygian moment occurred when Fei picked up on a beating texture between two waves which Jones created. He cruised a half-step above the pitch and back down again, and in context of the surrounding material it had a decidedly tonal character. The group volume increased in a heartbeat, remained so for a brief period, then died down to its former level, all of this occurring together so tightly it almost sounded rehearsed, though it wasn’t. A few final clicks from Jones signaled the close of the set.

Perruque trio - (from left) Aaron Tucker,Kurt Newman, and Chris Cogburn (Bassist Juan Garcia is behind Tucker) - photo by Gudinni Cortina

Perruque trio – (from left) Aaron Tucker,Kurt Newman, and Chris Cogburn (Bassist Juan Garcia is behind Tucker)
Photo by Gudinni Cortina

Aaron Tucker is a circus clown and member of the trio Perruque with Chris Cogburn on percussion and guitarist Kurt Newman. Bassist Juan Garcia joined the group for the third set of the night. I’ll take a moment here to say that my knowledge of clowning begins and ends with the handful of circus shows I saw as a kid, so I was quite interested to find out what would happen.
I’ve seen several No Idea shows over the years and the sets typically fall into two broad categories; the first is a fairly democratic group composition, while the second has a leader of sorts. In this set, the clown took the lead. And he was spectacular. It wasn’t slapstick or pratfalls that made it work either, he was just really good at working the audience and communicating with the other performers. Newman kicked off the set with light pick scraping on the strings while Cogburn rubbed the head of his snare, providing a hollow counter to the bright string sound.

Tucker (dressed the part with big checkered mu-mu pants, a wide and too-short purple tie, a little vest, the big clown shoes, a clown nose, and a mini pork-pie hat perched atop his large bald head) began to respond to these sounds, eventually grabbing a folding chair from the audience and threading his substantial body through it. A bit of Danger Music, no doubt. Garcia played off Tuckers movement, not exactly mimicking it but using his gestures to inform the pulsing gestures coming from the bass. Cogburn pulled out a cymbal which he placed at a 90-degree angle to the snare drum. This was a new one for me, and the sounds generated by dragging the cymbal across the snare seemed impossibly deep and thrumming.

Tucker made his way through and around the audience, sometimes sitting down among us or on the stage. My guess is that I was not alone in my return to childhood, and a few audience members couldn’t help themselves, occasionally interacting with Tucker and the band via crinkly water bottles and the shuffling of chairs. The players were able to interact with his movement without the whole thing turning into foley art, but the audience was not so talented. Fortunately, the performers were able to soldier on even as the audience attempted their own fourth wall excursions.

Tucker threads the needle - photo by Gudinni Cortina

Tucker threads the needle
Photo by Gudinni Cortina

Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the fourth set, but honestly any one of the sets I saw that night could stand alone as a satisfying concert. Cogburn has created a perfect setting for improvisers and audience to experience a variety of distinctive collaborations. Year after year, artists return to Austin to reconnect with those they’ve shared sets with in the past and to make new noise with strangers. Whether in the audience or on the stage, the experience is a perfect antidote to so much of our repeatable, re-tweetable culture—a series of gems created in real time.