Tag: Austin

Aperio: Indie-A-Go-Go


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

All Venues Great and Small

Kevin Puts

Kevin Puts
Photo by Henry Fair

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

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

Great. It was a truly fantastic piece.

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


Chaz Underriner and Colin Wambsgans

Chaz Underriner and Colin Wambsgans

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

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

Brent Farris, Travis Weller, and James Alexander

Brent Farris, Travis Weller, and James Alexander

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

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

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

Other Guitars

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

Les Freres Meduses

Les Freres Meduses
Photo by Arlen Nydam

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soonchan Kwon, Austin Bradley, and Natalie Cummings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composer Daron Hagen and Author Barbara Grecki

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

Natalie Cummings and Samantha Liebowitz

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

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

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

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

Samantha Leibowitz as Asilah

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

SoundSpace: Graphic Notation

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

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

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

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

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

Visual Artist Caroline Wright Photo by Steve Sachse

Visual Artist Caroline Wright
Photo by Steve Sachse

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

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

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

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

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

From Jim Altieri’s Seismicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Travis Weller Instrumentarium

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

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

The Owl in the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin

The Owl in the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin

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

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

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

The Owl in the Berkeley Modern Museum

The Owl in the Berkeley Modern Museum

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

AS: Did it break apart in a dramatic fashion?

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


The Skiffs

The Skiffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Steel Bells

The Steel Bells

AS: How about the Steel Bells?

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

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

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

The Bells with contact mics and mixer

The Bells with contact mics and mixer

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

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

The Bells on site at Laguna Gloria

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

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

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

Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival: Victoire and Pride

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

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

Victoire takes a bow at Antone's

Victoire takes a bow at Antone’s


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

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

Russell Reed introduces the ACMC Pride concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin Summer Festivals: Business as Unusual

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

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

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

New Media Art and Sound Summit

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

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

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

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


REVEL Classical Band: Summer Solstice Festival

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

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

Steve Snowden and Sunil Gadgil install drivers

Steve Snowden and Sunil Gadgil install drivers.

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

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

Different Spaces: Erewhon and Fusion

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

Matthew Teodori introduces Erewhon

Matthew Teodori introduces Erewhon

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast Forward Austin 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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


1. Best Kickstarter ever.

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