Tag: Austin

Vessel and Ceremony: Convergence Vocal Ensemble

Cultures throughout recorded history have used rituals in countless different ways. At its essence, a ritual or ceremony is a Vessel, and each participant is free to fill that vessel with as much or as little significance as she or he chooses.

The above quote was taken from the program notes for Vessel, a recent concert presented by the Convergence Vocal Ensemble. This evening of commissions was the result of a collaborative effort shared by Convergence and a number of composers, and facilitated by the Austin New Music Coop and a number of sponsors including New Music USA. Composers were commissioned to write pieces for four voices combined with a variety of instrumental combinations, including new instruments created specifically for this event. Prior to the concert, we got the lowdown on the conception and creation of these new instruments by Norma Yancey and Travis Weller. Dubbed “Skiffs,” they were built from (among other things) repurposed organ pipes scavenged from an organ repairman who, upon announcing his retirement, was descended upon by a variety of Austin new music folk, every one eager to lay hands on these dormant parts and give them new life.


“Skiffs” built from (among other things) repurposed organ pipes.

Andrew Stolz’s Nomad Unraveling featured members of Convergence (present this evening as a quartet) joined by the composer on harmonium and Travis Weller on the Owl. A sawing, keening sweep recalling the harmonics of an electric guitar cut through the slow rise and fall of the harmonium as the four vocalists shushed and hissed within the texture.  Occasional strums acted as section markers as quarter tones were passed from tenor and bass to soprano and mezzo until all fell silent. Spoken text culled from the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe and a number of articles on “Generation X” provided fodder for the subsequent chant-like section which felt at some points serene and at others like a bizarre church service. The Owl/harmonium combination in this section sounded like a giant, solemn harmonica, fifths and octaves dominating the overtones that echoed through the space. A return to the smaller intervals harkened a final move to consonance, beaters keeping slow time on the Owl as the piece came to its end.

Sarah Dutcher’s Sleep was the only a cappella offering of the evening. Starting with a simple melody performed by Gitanjali Mathur, a polyphony developed, delivered as a closed-mouth hum among the players. Sleep drifted quietly through the hall, vowels morphing from one to the next in a slow six; a soft, short, drifting lullaby. The Water Bowl for vocalists, percussion, horn, and trombone by Brent Fariss circled conceptually around the constant and repeated rituals practiced by those afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and physically around an actual water bowl which took center stage. Divided into sections loosely demarked by Convergence bass and artistic director Cameron Beauchamp’s heads-up conducting (he was performing as well, and would on occasion make his way into the other performers’ lines of sight to indicate section changes), the piece began peacefully with the singers breathing in and out, sometimes together, sometimes subtly affecting the breathing. Laura Mercado-Wright counted out loud in groups of eight and thirteen, a feature which became central to the piece and occurred in the other players’ parts as well. Hornist Mikal Hart joined trombonist Steve Parker in exploring the low range of their instruments; low guttural moans mixed with Nick Hennies’s bass drums scrapes to complete a compelling sound world.

Laura Mercado Wright, Gitanjali Mathur, Paul D'Arcy, and Cameron Beauchamp

Laura Mercado Wright, Gitanjali Mathur, Paul D’Arcy, and Cameron Beauchamp
Photo by Alan Kahler

In Travis Weller’s Hear Rightly, a trio of skiffs joined Convergence in a setting of 95c, an “erasure” by Dorothy Meiburg. Derived from the 1978 edition of “Lutheran Church Worship,” Meiburgs’s text was created (one might say “sculpted”) by removing all but a few words of the existing page to create a new text. For example, a portion of the text came from the prayer “Thanksgiving For Light II” which, when subjected to Meiburg’s sculpting, became simply “Light II.” Screeching drones produced by bows drawn across the skiff’s strings set the stage for vocal lines which began in the tenor and bass and made their way to the soprano and mezzo. Small dowels drawn across strings created a sound like insane wine goblet music, all jagged overtones and a beautiful ending of each attack that recalled the slightest jaw-harp vibe. Hand-held piano hammers replaced the dowels to create a koto-like impression, and the resulting effect was that of a music box. A slightly creepy dollhouse atmosphere coalesced before forming up with solo voice, then duo, all long melodies, wandering. From this, a single angular vocal line staggered about as the skiffs mimicked sitars.

I should back up here. An intermission preceded Hear Rightly, and I took the opportunity to step outside. On my way back in, I saw Travis beneath a lamp in the parking lot manipulating a large air compressor.

“Whatcha doin’ Travis?”

“…You’ll see.”

Whatcha doin’ Travis?

Whatcha doin’ Travis?

From seemingly out of nowhere, the air compressor began to feed the pipes, but instead of blasting their way through in true church organ fashion, they filled the space and gave body and depth to the prevailing texture. Appropriating these found objects, as removed and repurposed as the text they supported, was as contextually compelling and unifying as it was musically satisfying.

Keith Manlove’s into memory, through ritual featured Convergence’s vocals run through a variety of processing, all accompanied by a video presentation. The video featured two alternating vignettes; the first was of a trio sitting at a coffee table and the second was of a lone dancer whose dance was periodically interrupted by other actors covering her with cloths, blankets, and blindfolds. This sort of thing can get derailed quickly if the video is either too abstract (why are we watching this?) or too narrative (wait, is she supposed to be the french horn or the trumpet?), but here the “story” of the video had enough body to seem linear and enough forward motion to suggest development without being explicitly illustrative or, god forbid, didactic. Visceral vocalizations among the quartet realized by quick breathing and timbre manipulation gave way to Paul D’Arcy’s clear tenor solo. A syllabic “language analog” provided a counterpoint to the video in its suggestion of motion and narrative, and was soon filled out by four voice polyphony. Granularization and reverberation transformed the otherwise smooth voice leading as the performers began to accompany themselves with a variety of hand claps, pops, and head shakes, the last of which had as much visual impact as aural. Descending lines came of like something from the Tower of Babel, each voice struggling to dialog, hands waving and eyes popping as all possible avenues of communication were explored.


Beat the Heat: Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival 2012

In a completely unnerving turn of events, by mid-July in Austin we have had an absolute ton of rain and only a handful of 100+ degree days. I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in California only to return to A-town on what turned out to be a record-breaking 109-degree June afternoon, but beyond that anomaly it’s been unseasonably lovely. Usually this time of year marks the beginning of relative cave-dwelling during much of the day; long strolls through books stores and experimental coffee houses dovetail with lunch on the lanai of a café, surrounded by a cadre of mister fans doing their best Wimbledon audience impression, forever sweeping back and forth. With the meteorological gods on our side (for now) however, I’m hard-pressed to be inside for anything less than spectacular, and the Austin Chamber Music Festival certainly qualified.

This annual three-week festival has developed over the years by taking its broad and general title quite literally. It’s not summer classics, new music, or jazz; it’s all that and more. Calling virtually all comers, the festival has something for everyone without spreading itself too thin. Groups like avant jazz trio The Bad Plus rubbed shoulders with the Fine Arts Quartet. Local upstart Mother Falcon tore it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s while Richard Stoltzman and ACMC Director Michelle Schumann split their show into two sets, one classic and one new. The Brasil Guitar Duo performed music from several centuries, and Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley closed the festival with a stunning yet intimate duet concert presented to an absolutely drenched audience, one that certainly must have thought they were anywhere but Austin in July, not because of the music, but because water was falling out of the sky outside.

Mother Falcon

Mother Falcon tearing it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s.

Of course, there were many stellar performances during the festival, and among the highlights for me was the Mother Falcon show. Consisting of a rotating group of between 15 and 20 musicians, Mother Falcon’s quasi chamber orchestra/rock band had the look of the former but for the most part the sound of the latter. Ranging in age from late high school to early college, they packaged all the energy of a garage band at their first gig with the songwriting and performance level of seasoned professionals. There were no programs, so I’m not sure of the various titles that were occasionally announced from the stage (this was a rock show) but the opening tunes essentially had the formal bones of rock dressed sharply in a variety of attractive chamber arrangements. The Falcons were joined for a portion of their show by additional players (younger still, somehow) who were members of the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Summer Program. It was interesting to watch such a large group navigate the difficulties faced by rock bands since time immemorial. Dealing with on-stage communication among players, as well as the challenges inherent in performing with speakers and monitors (especially if you’re playing acoustic instruments which lend themselves to feedback issues and whose tone is often strangled when run through a P.A. system) are all part of “Live Rock 101.” Fortunately, there were virtually no issues, and Mother Falcon treated the nearly packed venue to a great show.

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion’s performance at Bates Concert Hall featured works by Reich and Cage, as well as two pieces written by the performers. Fractalia by TCP member Owen Clayton Condon was a perfect piece to start the show; a short, inviting amuse bouche to whet the appetite. Moto perpetuo figures echoed between marimbas, these figures complimented and set off by occasional accents on toms. The Condon was followed by Reich’s Mallet Quartet, which started off with many of the classic Reich tropes but showed some newer ideas in the second movement. Asymmetrical phrases populated symmetrical sections featuring two marimbas playing four bars figures followed by two vibraphones playing 16 bars, the entire form repeated several times. There was something of a music box texture in the vibes as their chords rang out above large structures in the bass register of the marimba, the latter sounding like strummed guitar chords. On the surface, Third Construction by Cage has a number of features that mark it as a precedent to groups like Stomp and Blue Man Group, whose bread and butter stems largely from creating compelling rhythmic constructions from unorthodox sources. The wide variety of instruments used here (including conch shell) have for the most part made their way into the “mainstream” of new concert music (okay, maybe not the conch), but the visual impact of watching a performer keen away on the shell as the other members of the group perform complex, driving, interlocking rhythms has at least some connection with BMG doing their PVC pipe bit. The couple sitting to my right looked to be straight out of an AARP commercial with the notable exception that they both grooved for the duration of the piece, heads bobbing like bizarre extras in a hip hop video. TCP’s performance of the piece was energetic and thoroughly engaging and the reaction of the audience would not have been out of place at the Mother Falcon show, whoops and hollers and all. The second half of the concert was devoted to David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time. Consisting of six movements played without pause, the work appeared seamlessly at the end of the intermission by way of a prerecorded track. This quiet, sparse material served as a foundation for vibes and marimba figures rising and falling dynamically and building eventually to nearly painful heights, especially with hard mallets on the vibes at fff. The work moved through a variety of moods and textures, and at times had the audience looking around and behind to find other performers on wind chimes and other atmospheric instruments. Though contemplative in tone over all, Common Patterns in Uncommon Time was in like a lion and out like a lamb.

Austin is not hurting for music festivals, and it’s no mistake that the behemoths SXSW and Austin City Limits are in spring and fall respectively to allow attendees to enjoy the nice weather during those periods. Doing anything in Austin in the summer can be a bit of a drag, but checking out week after week of top notch chamber players is a pretty spectacular way to pass the time. The variety and quality of performers and venues, coupled with extensive outreach including free concerts, kept it fresh and interesting throughout the festival. Director Michelle Schumann has worked tirelessly to retain legacy audiences while pushing far outside the boundaries of the traditional summer music fest, so if you find yourself in Austin in the middle of the summer do yourself a favor and check it out.

Talk About Sound: Austin New Music Coop and Cardew’s The Great Learning

Written over several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning was performed over two evenings by the Austin New Music Coop in the spring of 2011. Terabytes of high definition audio and video were recorded during those performances, excerpts of which appear throughout this podcast. (They have been made available as individual listening samples below, as well.) Also included here are extremely detailed and comprehensive program notes and examples of reductions of the score created by the ANMC which were used by the section leaders and conductors to communicate Cardew’s performance concepts to the performers.

Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning

I was joined by Steven Snowden and Ian Dicke in a conversation with ANMC members Brent Baldwin, Nick Hennies, Brandon Young, and Travis Weller about their experiences putting together this massive work. My thanks to all the participants for their time and contributions to this podcast, and in particular to Travis Weller for compiling the additional material.

(Musical excerpts in the podcast appear in the following order: Paragraph 3, Paragraph 1, Paragraph 2, Paragraph 7, paragraph 5, Paragraph 6, Paragraph 4.)

DOWNLOAD Talk About Sound: Austin New Music Coop and Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning


Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning

About Cornelius Cardew and The Great Learning
(from the ANMC website)

Cornelius Cardew was born May 7, 1936, in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, England, and killed in a hit and run automobile accident in London, December 13, 1981. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London as well as other schools. With Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton he formed an improvisational ensemble, The Scratch Orchestra, which premiered the entire cycle of The Great Learning. He was active in the seminal chamber ensemble AMM with Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe, John Tilbury and Christopher Hobbs. Cardew’s concern for human rights and economic justice led him into Marxist politics and renunciation of his experimental music during the 1970s. Instead, he pursued popular styles of music-making. At the very end of his life (and after Mao Tse-Tung’s death), he appeared to be open to reclaiming aspects of his earlier broad approach to sonic art.

Cornelius Cardew’s 1970 masterpiece The Great Learning is a work in seven parts or “Paragraphs” based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound and is composed for trained and untrained musicians. The piece instigated the formation of the experimental musical ensemble The Scratch Orchestra, who also gave The Great Learning its premiere. Now, four decades after its completion, Cardew’s obsessively constructed 5+ hour composition has become an often recalled and imitated masterpiece of counter-culture avant-garde. The influential piece, one of the earliest pieces to be called “minimalist” by composer/critic Michael Nyman, conjures at once Ligeti’s clouds of sound, Webern’s pointillism, Reich’s phasing cycles, and Cage’s conceptual provocations. This feast of varied sound-theater events includes a pipe organ with whistling chorus, cascading waves of percussive sound, loud and soft laughter music, an orchestra of droning contra-basses and large brass instruments, and swirling clouds of a cappella voices. Sadly, a complete presentation of The Great Learning is exceedingly rare, due largely to its demands of 50+ performers, several unconventional instruments, a pipe organ, and necessarily open-minded interpreters.

Perspective: Xenakis—48 Hours In a Surreal Soundscape

Little did I know that the Baylor Percussion Group’s performance of Peaux at Fast Forward Austin last month would be but a glimpse of things to come. Curated by Matthew Teodori, the recent festival Perspective: Xenakis featured local, national, and international performers and scholars plying their wares around Austin. A festival of the music of Xenakis might at first blush seem to be better presented in the rocky and otherworldly terrain around Phoenix, or perhaps one could just double down and hold it on the moon. Ben Watson’s description of Xenakis’s work as “…a music of truly majestic otherness…an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West” fits glove-like this strange, visceral, and largely explosive music. Held at three venues over two days, the festival was dedicated to the chamber works of the composer and architect.

Pleiades performance at the Floating House - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Pleiades performance at the Floating House – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The Floating Box House, from which one could see downtown Austin framed by gently rolling hills, was a pretty rarified venue for the opening concert of the festival. Located on a sizeable parcel of land in the woodsy area of Westlake, the remote location had both an expansive and intimate feeling which nicely mirrored the ensemble percussion of the evening. The Meehan/Perkins Duo was joined by line upon line percussion and Timothy Briones to perform Persephassa and Pléïades. The six percussionists surrounded the audience on the tree filled front lawn of the property, an invitation to look around as Persephassa opened with a slow pulse that developed into polyrhythms. This material slipped and slammed through timpani glissandos and unison floor toms, building to a head before screeching to a halt; a significant pause which was filled uncannily with breeze and spare birdcalls. Real wind and real birds. It was the kind of moment that would have seemed contrived in a film but was breathtaking in the real world. Rejoining the avian conversation were gongs, woodblocks, and wooden simantras that mimicked woodpeckers. Delicate tremolo built to violent attacks which in turn dwindled to sotto voce muttering among the instruments, interrupted by short bursts. The 6.1 Surround Sound effect that was created, part of Xenakis’s work in spatialization, was palpable as lines spun around the audience in swelling crescendos, complemented with thundersheets and whistles which, when all was said and done, left the audience in silence, all except for a few crickets who checked in as the birds made their way out. Following a brief intermission and set change, the percussionists set up in front of the house in a more conventional configuration for Pléïades. As dusk settled in, the sixxen, sounding every bit a mini-carillon, lent a solemn air to the first movement. Overtones piled up in layers and provided a bit of respite from the onslaught of the first piece. The second movement, “Claviers featured vibes and marimba, magical textures conjured in the center of the musicians and chased by delicate, childlike runs across the space. Of course, the following movements, “Peaux and “Melanges,” put an end to childish things, the final movement combining the instruments of the previous three and bringing the work to a dramatic, athletic close.

Michael Zell - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Michael Zell – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church was the site for the solo portions of the festival. Performances of Rebonds and Psappha by percussionist Michael Zell bookended trombonist Steve Parker’s performance of Keren, Xenakis’s only wind solo. Pianist Michelle Schumann, an eminently physical performer, was unrelenting in her performances of Evryali and Herma. These performances were preceded by a showing of Something Rich and Strange, a BBC2 documentary film made by Dennis Marks and one of the festival scholars Nouritza Matossian. Matossian was joined by Benoit Gibson after each performance for a Q&A session, as well as more formal presentations at the Butler School as part of the festival.

JACK Quartet - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

JACK Quartet – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The term “surreal” has lost much of its currency through both mis- and overuse. Often used casually to indicate something that is simply weird, it’s worth remembering that the hallucinatory and dreamlike qualities it should indicate are most sharply experienced through juxtaposition. Watching the JACK Quartet playing the complete string quartets of Xenakis in front of a fireplace with a widescreen TV mounted above it in a very lovely but decidedly suburban home (I live in one of these, it should be noted) was, for me, surreal. Watching violinist Ari Streisfeld negotiate some of the most challenging music ever written for anything while sitting before to a curio cabinet was surreal. Experiencing some of the few moments of quiet and delicacy in these pieces while some insane person emptied chips into a bowl (did I mention that this was one of those open concept kitchen/living room arrangements?) was actually more surreal than infuriating, though the latter was definitely a close second. Challenging music for a challenging venue, no doubt, but JACK simply tore everyone’s face off. Truly, hearing this much Xenakis in a 48-hour period does a number on your wiring, but it was really amazing to experience the relativity of dissonance, to see what your ears can handle if thrown in the deep end and asked to swim [1]. From the big chunky chords of Ergma, bristling and metallic, almost like distortion, to the special-effects bonanza of Tetras, JACK pulled everyone into the alien landscape, and while there were a few folks initially who were not sure if they arrived at the right house, I can tell you that the standing ovation (granted, many of us stood the whole time, but anyway…) went on for some time, and that the Q&A with JACK had to be cut short even though there were several hands in the air at the end.

The plan is to do one of these Perspective festivals every three years, and given the level of performance and coordination on display, I can understand why Teodori might want to take a bit of a break before launching into another. Having said that, I’m really quite interested in seeing who and what is coming down the pike. It’s wonderful to hear a work or two by a given composer, but to spend several days steeped in a particular language, especially one as esoteric and distinct as Xenakis’s, is a different thing altogether. In some ways, it felt a bit like the shared experience of going to a rock concert. You know the tunes, you know the group, and for the most part you’re around people who are on the same page. As we approach mid-year, I still haven’t tired of the Cage retrospectives and I’m more than looking forward to the Rite of Spring centennial, which I imagine will generate more than a few satellite concerts of Stravinsky’s other works. These focused events are just the ticket in a world of hyperdistraction, where if you’re not careful, a few clicks and a few hours later you’ve YouTubed your evening away. It was fantastic to unplug for a while and hang out with Xenakis, and I’m looking forward to catching up with other old friends in a few years.


1. Dude, that is surreal.

Fast Forward Austin II: The Reckoning

When you do a sequel, you can either do Empire Strikes Back or Ghostbusters II.

Which is to say, when you have a hit on your hands, you can take some risks and possibly alienate the fan base that made you worthy of a sequel in the first place, or you can play it safe, give them the same show warmed-over, and collect your pay. Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein, and Steven Snowden upped the ante at this year’s Fast Forward Austin festival by tripling the call for scores winners, bringing in a headliner, and moving to a big, multilevel venue near downtown complete with a bar, soundman, and a dude who stamps your hand.

Precipice perform Coming Together Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Precipice perform Coming Together. Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Precipice, a mixed chamber ensemble from up the road in Waco, started things off. Snowden described them as a group who do “things with lots of stuff”; truer words have never been spoken. They began their set with the first call for scores winner of the day, Shawn Allison’s Towards the Flame, a four-movement work for violin, flute, cello, and percussion. Based on a variety of moth species, Allison’s piece began with flourishes and broken lines before moving to unison gestures in the second movement. The third movement featured extended techniques on the flute while percussion patter coalesced to a rock groove. Daniel Webbon’s[*] string trio For thee, oh Absalom, my son in three movements was an attractive, somber, and contemplative work that served well as a last minute replacement on the program. Precipice finished their set with a powerful rendition of Frederick Rzewski’s Coming Together.

Katherine Hodges and Leanne Zacharias

Katherine Hodges and Leanne Zacharias. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

When I returned after the set change, I found that the chairs in the venue had been resituated around a piano bench surrounded by three music stands and backlit, pastel tulle. Cellist Leanne Zacharias and dancer Katherine Hodges‘s set of four works was bookended by the first and fourth movements from Cage’s Etudes Boreales. They began the performance as the house lights dimmed, each performer seated on the piano bench but facing away from one another. As Zacharias began playing, Hodges sat motionless, moving slowly around the space only after several minutes of music. Delicate glissando and harmonics complimented the slight, intimate shifting as Hodges made her way through the tulle. Zacharias turned 90 degrees to perform Event Horizon by Nicole Lizee. Pizzicato scale-fragment ostinato, percussive sections reminiscent of heavy metal palm muting, and pre-recorded material (originally for violin, cello, and bass, but here recorded entirely on the cello by Zacharias) were woven with a dance that foreshadowed the slurred cello of the final section. Eugen Friesen’s Pizzicato Etude had elements straight out of guitar technique, complete with arpeggios and syncopated, ascending, slurred groups of three. The final work mirrored the first both in musical character and in presentation, as cellist and dancer came full circle, ending where the other had begun.

Spank Dance Company returned to FFA with another engaging butoh performance, followed by composer and bassist P. Kellach Waddle performing a series of his works for bass alone, ranging from the ’80s through last week. A member of the Austin Symphony Orchestra for over two decades, Waddle is a prolific composer, passionate performer, and consummate businessman, and his production company PKWproductions, through its long time association with Strait Music, supplied the piano for the festival. His works were romantic and dramatic, hair flying as slow melancholy melodies in the lower register were countered by virtuosic runs in the upper, a quasi-improvisatory character running throughout.

Baylor Percussion Group

Baylor Percussion Group. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

After a brief set change, Baylor Percussion Group performed Peaux from Xenakis’s Pleadis, which—thanks to my Louisiana heritage—I can pronounce with uncanny accuracy. Peaux is what all guys in drum circles think they sound like, all big and unison and cathartic, and BPG delivered the goods from the second floor loft. BGP moved to the stage for the second movement of Lang’s so-called laws of nature. This quartet features identical instrumentation for all players, including three floor toms, bass drum (with foot pedals), and metal pipes which at first glance resembled re-purposed chimes, but in fact were cut to specific lengths to yield specific pitches. With each performer facing stage-right, the movement began slowly on the pipes and added the toms and bass which eventually take over, developing into a huge pulsing texture far removed from the pitch elements of the initial gestures. The athleticism of the second movement was contrasted by the meditative delicacy of the third. The teacup, crotales, and guiro instrumentation were coupled with pedal-like figures, occasional notes popping up from the tea cup tremolo. The program described an extended diminuendo and ended with applause recalling the volume of the first piece.

Bel Cuore

Bel Cuore. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Bel Cuore Sax Quartet performed Snowden’s Speed Studies, a work that opened slowly, moving to a series of declamatory statements in the high register. Key slaps and other rhythmic effects in the tenor and bari played hide and seek with rips in soprano and alto leading to a funky groove and a slamming ending topped of by the declamatory statement. Matthew Ricketts’s[*] Summerline was quiet and pensive. Thoughtful use of combination tones by Ricketts and careful phrasing by Bel Cuore made for a wonderful tension throughout the work. David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep was the second call for scores winner. The sighing, sleeping, and breathing that opened the piece were sideswiped by a honking Morse code in the bari, which in turn morphed into full-blown syncopation among the players, culminating in complete tutti madness. Finally, Life and Afterlife by Nick Sibicky closed Bel Cuore’s set. A narrative work in two movements, the piece started with bright pulsing rhythms and moved to more solemn lines. In the second section, BCSQ took a seat and took up rainsticks, shakers, and the errant drum to the delight of a number of kids who sat wide-eyed in the front.

Graham Reynolds and Austin Soundwaves

Graham Reynolds and Austin Soundwaves. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

FFA continued its support of non-profit music education for underserved groups this year with Austin Soundwaves, a new program based on Venezuela’s El Sistema program. An orchestra of about 30 students from the burgeoning program was led by Graham Reynolds in providing music and sound effects to a Felix the Cat film. After their short, charming set, Reynolds was joined by several local pros with whom he’d been working on an upcoming commission. The tunes were built from a funky mix of genres and, after several songs, Vicky Chow and Owen Weaver joined Reynolds on stage. Chow and Reynolds banged out several tunes on the keys, and when I say “banged out” I could not mean that more literally. That piano was rode hard and put up wet, and this became particularly clear later in the evening when Chow did her solo set.

Owen Weaver’s set began with Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace. Crickets and other sounds of the early evening were joined by Weaver plucking inside the piano and, as the piece progressed, a background of late night sounds played behind Weaver’s delicate performance. The second movement featured Weaver playing a custom mallet percussion instrument. Made of five or six wooden planks and sounding a bit like a muffled set of woodblocks, the instrument was played with two mallets per hand, one mallet above and one below the planks so that Weaver could provide an extended tremolo that made my arms ache to watch. The tremolo was complimented by electronics that picked up and amplified the natural resonance of the bars. Ian Dicke’s 808 featured loops from the classic Roland 808 drum machine along with real-time manipulation (via MAX/MSP) of cymbals, tambourine, cowbell, and bells, among other percussion instruments. I’ve heard this one several times, and each time it’s a slightly different experience. The use of the crash cymbal in conjunction with the electronics is particularly compelling, giving the impression that the sound not only emanates from the cymbal and through the electronics, but also at times returns to the cymbal from the electronics like a genie returning to the bottle. Vicky Chow joined Weaver for Daniel Wohl’s Pixellated. Beginning with a trill on bells and slaps on piano, Pixellated is initially all fits and starts. A rapid, descending trichord entered the fray adding body to the texture which continued to go all herky-jerky on us like breaking news. Strummed chords in the piano further broadened this texture which eventually broke apart like a fading radio signal.

Vicky Chow, Christoper Cerrone, and Owen Weaver

Vicky Chow, Christoper Cerrone, and Owen Weaver. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Vicky Chow took the stage before an eager audience and began with a collection of miniatures, of which Digital Sustain by Ryan Francis was a standout. Chords held out by the una corda pedal made a bed for rapid, staccato, player-piano-like figures. Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn for piano and electronics was the final call for scores winner. A spare texture of slowly played and largely consonant chords served to describe the experience of waiting for the train at the piece’s namesake subway stop in Brooklyn. The chords split into a counterpoint between the hands, accented by the single tones as a chordal passacaglia of sorts developed in the left hand. I’m hesitant (as Cerrone was in describing the piece at the show) to go into much detail about the electronics except to say that they show up towards the end of the piece and are really quite effective. Daniel Wohl’s Aorta for piano and electronics, all syncopation in the piano coupled and textural electronic elements, and Andy Akiho’s vick(I/y) for prepared piano brought Chow’s set to a satisfying close. But we weren’t done. Joining Chow on stage for a grand finale performance of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union were several of the festival’s performers. The combination of approximate pitch and exacting tutti rhythms among the players was an absolutely fantastic visceral experience, and could not have made for a more definitive end to the evening.

Fast Forward Austin built on the strong foundation laid last year at their inaugural festival. A blend of local, regional, and national acts along with a sense of community purpose made for a day that was as intellectually stimulating as it was warm and inviting. As my penguin hand-stamp fades, I can reflect on the events of the day while looking forward to next year’s festival, confident that it will be more Search for Spock than Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d be happy to watch Vicky Chow go all two-fisted Workers Union on Jar Jar, but perhaps that’s a whole different festival altogether.

*The composer of For thee, O Absalom, my son is Daniel Webbon, not David Webern, and the composer of Summer Line is Matthew Ricketts, not Matthew Prickett, as were originally reported. We regret the errors.

Austin New Music Coop Celebrates a Decade of New Music

“If we need something, we can find it in this town…”

The above quote (overheard at an Austin New Music Coop meeting) is a phrase that describes the attitude of many Austin musicians. Austin is still a relatively small city, but the ease with which one can find a last-minute replacement for that “contrabassoonist who also owns his own unicycle” part is impressive, and it’s this high concentration of strong, adventurous players coupled with a titanic work ethic that has allowed ANMC to flourish in the last ten years.

Austin New Music Coop performs Earl Brown's December 1952. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Austin New Music Coop performs Earl Brown’s December 1952. Photo by Meredith Maples.

The two-night show celebrating their decade of new music making began with a somewhat theatrical performance of William Meadows’s Loose Atoms for graphics tablet and electronics by the composer. Meadows sat before the audience at a small table stacked with papers. One by one he removed the papers from the pile and distributed them around the table until all he was left with was what appeared to be a thick notebook. He then took out a pen, looked up as though planning the first words of a letter, and began to write. The pen and “notebook” soon revealed themselves to be electronic instruments with samples of Meadows’s speech emanating from the speakers as he moved the pen around the tablet. Various effects manipulated the sound as Meadows held the pen at a variety of angles. The delivery was as compelling and enjoyable as the piece itself, and served well as an opener for the evening. Keith Manlove’s The Becoming Machine II for solo voice, electronics, and video involved a variety of vocalizations that sounded at times like dogs, insects, hyperventilation, and what a contact mic would pick up if it was in your mouth when your dentist asks you to “swish and rinse.” All this audio was run through a four-speaker system that surrounded the audience and was accompanied by a video presentation. Despite the unorthodox sound source and the distinct processing (which, in the hands of a lesser composer, might have been the piece, all bleeps and blorps with no structure) The Becoming Machine II was quite organic and made for a satisfying journey.

Nick Hennies performed Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas by Alvin Lucier. Originally in three parts, this is one of those “pieces that can be played by any number of people at any time,” so on this night Hennies was solo on vibes, his only accompaniment a sine wave. The idea behind the piece is that the notes the performer plays (in this case, Hennies only played one pitch, repeated in several long phrases) should be ever so slightly out of tune with the sine wave such that one might hear the resulting combination of tones. I’m not sure how this is supposed to work with vibes, but I think the following describes how the piece was received:

Audience member #1) “I think they were just tryin’ to torture us with that!”
Audience member #2) “That was my favorite piece of the night!”

No gray areas on this one.

Members of Texas Choral Consort and Austin New Music Coop perform Paragraph Seven of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Members of Texas Choral Consort and Austin New Music Coop perform Paragraph Seven of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. Photo by Meredith Maples.

The Viola In My Life was the first of two Feldman pieces of the weekend. Among his first post-indeterminacy era pieces, it was written with absolute control over all parameters in order to outline the gradual crescendo in the viola throughout the piece, which was well represented by violist James Alexander. After intermission, The Great Learning, Paragraph Seven by Cornelius Cardew was performed by Texas Choral Consort and members of the ANMC. Director Brent Baldwin led between 40 and 50 performers who, over the course of the 30+-minute movement, moved around the stage like flocking birds flying in slow-motion. The piece began with an “Om” that spread through the group like a benediction. “In confusion” gradually began to appear among the voices, the first of several short phrases and single words that marked the sections of the work. Among the striking elements of this performance is that TCC is made up of a number of performers who are non-professional community choristers. To watch them become fully invested in (and give a great performance of!) a long and involved 20th-century work was really thrilling.


The second night of performances began with Nick Hennies’s Second Skin With Lungs for five percussionists. Positioned around the audience, the percussionists described circles with their hands on the heads of toms and snares, recalling the sound of rain. This texture was occasionally punctuated by rolls of thunder on bass drums and echo figures played on the snares and toms.

The Owl built by Travis Weller

The Owl built by Travis Weller.

The reflective tone of this piece seemed to pick up from the end of the previous evening, and this continued with Travis Weller’s Toward and away from the point of balance. This piece featured the “Owl,” an instrument built by Weller to more easily perform a number of techniques developed on prepared piano. The piece began with a slow tremolo on the Owl (played with hand-held piano hammers) which developed into unison gestures with the violin, viola, and cello. The gestures gave way to a slow, pulsing rise and fall colored with harmonics and overtones. In addition to the hammers, Hennies also used a “loose” violin bow (essentially two handles with a few feet of hair between them) to manipulate the Owl, creating otherworldly textures with the playing of the other performers. Brent Farris’s I apologize, Julius, for judging you seemed in some ways to be a study in instrument resonance. Sounds like screaming whales (yes, whales, not wails) came from the amplified violin and contrabass and mixed with a constant electronic reverberation in the speakers at the rear of the room that slowly moved forward. A melody in the viola built to a climax, its rise hidden by the amplified strings which then abruptly fell into silence. Cymbal rolls and long tones served as a coda and masked a quiet return of the static rising through the texture before rolling to a halt.

Kinship Collapse, just before the string broke. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Kinship Collapse, just before the string broke. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Earle Brown’s December 1952 is among the most well known and earliest graphic scores. This performance featured thoughtful interplay among the performers, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have sounded like in 1952 with players who had no background in this type of music. The concert concluded with Arnold Dreyblatt’s Kinship Collapse, an ANMC commission from 2008. A definitive closer, Kinship Collapse features amplified violin, cello, and contrabass (the bass player actually had a second bass fitted with unwound piano string), as well as horn, drum set, and an “electric overtone guitar” with four strings and an unusual fretting system that accommodates Dreyblatt’s particular 20-tone just-intoned system. The piece started with rapid sixteenths traded between the violin and horn which were soon joined by similar figures on the cello and on the frame of the snare. The guitar entered speaking metal overtones as the percussion moved from frame to hi-hats, all leading to an early climax which sounded like a dinner bell joined by high register violin with the horn blowing loud and bullish in kind. Riffs and a strong backbeat took over, and while all musicians were chugging along, I noticed that the vamp seemed to be stretching out a bit longer than seemed right. Just then, Weller hopped up, walked backstage, and came back with a new string to replace the one he’d broken in the fray. How he changed the string so quickly, much less retuned with all that swirling around him I’ll never know, but I’ll tell you it took under a minute and they were back on track seamlessly, bringing the piece to a resounding close.


ANMC put on a great two-night retrospective. This report doesn’t cover all the nuances of intermission conversations (Lucier notwithstanding), the mini-museum of Luigi Russolo’s extinct instruments constructed by ANMC [1], or the wonderful reception afterward during which audience and performers casually interacted. For that you’ll have to come to one of their next shows and experience it for yourself. It’s shows like this that make it so wonderful to be a part of Austin and frankly, who wants to live in some backwater where the contrabassoonist has to rent his unicycle?

1. The ANMC intonarumori (roarers, cracklers, and gurglers) are totally different from the ones Berkeley-based Luciano Chessa built around 2009. In fact, ANMC’s first performance with them was on November 2005. It seems both projects developed 100% independently! The Austin project was the brainchild of NMC member Sarah Norris, pictured here playing a crackler.

Sounds Heard: Aeolus Quartet—Many-Sided Music

The Aeolus Quartet, late of Austin, has been making music for several years now. They came together in 2008 in the time-honored tradition—while students at their conservatory of choice, in this case the Cleveland Institute of Music. Prize winners at the Fischoff International Chamber Music Competition and the Plowman Chamber Music competition among others, Aeolus was also the first resident graduate string quartet at the Butler School and they have recently begun studies at the University of Maryland. Before their return to the frozen Northeast, they entered the studios at UT Austin to record Many-Sided Music, an album of new works by American composers, its title taken from Leonard Bernstein’s description of the “many-sidedness” of American music. I’ve had the good fortune of hearing several of these pieces live, fresh, and new, but it’s great to hear them with the benefit of time and reflection.

Dan Visconti’s Black Bend begins with longing, gestural wails accompanied by the pizz. and pop of a lazy river. Stabs and runs fight for space, as abbreviated melodies push their way through a mosquito texture of sixteenth notes. Seemingly out of nowhere, a blues bar opens up “just around the bend,” complete with chromatic strolls to IV and back again. Guitar riffs straight out of the Robert Johnson songbook play out over pizzicato parts in the cello that nod to their string bass roots. A few choruses in, violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro do their best “Devil’s Crossroad,” battling in the upper register as the violist Gregory Luce and cellist Alan Richardson trade in their bass lines for some new chordal duds. The final moments of this 12-bar blues section play no differently than the frozen time at the end of any blues tune, tremolo chords and flying riffs; everybody rocking out so much that you can almost see the cellist give the final downbeat, its only lacking elements the bass drum, cymbal hit, and leap from the drum riser that typically wraps this sort of thing up. Beyond that, the piece flows away, decelerating with just the slightest reference to the opening as the river flows around another bend.

Steven Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroids turns the Americana trajectory of the album towards the wide inland swath of the country where hills meet fiddles. Inspired by the photography of Shelby Lee Adams, Snowden begins with a haunting field recording of Shelia Kay Adams (no relation) singing “Black is the Color.” Quick and seamless integration of the quartet with the recording leads to a pentatonic celebration as the recording ends and the quartet steps to the forefront. Idiomatic double stops pop around all fourthy-fifthy in a frenetic eighth-note pattern as the folk melody makes its way from low to high strings. Sixteenths in the upper register up the ante as the longer lines find their way back to the bass, eventually dominating the competing sixteenths which lose a battle of attrition. The long pentatonic lines and harmonies of the opening material return to bring the piece to a close.

Lady Isabelle by Alexandra Bryant was written for Aeolus as a companion piece to Appalachian Polaroids. Also inspired by a field recording, Bryant uses the quartet to voice the song. Recorded here with separate microphones, the brief vocalizations give a stark, broken quality to the introductory material, a quality that is echoed in the quartet writing which doesn’t fully arrive until nearly two minutes into the piece. Shortly after this arrival we hear the first plaintive melody of the piece accompanied by arpeggiated harmonics and the breathing rise and fall of cello and viola. This dies and is replaced by double stops with glissandi on one of the strings of the cello played over a small range. Just before the halfway mark the melody returns over a newly vibrant texture which is followed by another section recalling the broken elements of the opening. A return to the cello glissando punctuated by pizzicato and wide open chords leads us to a recap of the opening material, vocalizations and all.

William Bolcom’s Three Rags for String Quartet, the oldest music on the album, matches well with the other offerings while fully embracing the characteristics of the rag. “Poltergeist” is playful while flirting with the dark side, occasional whole tone scales threatening to fully pull the piece into a modern idiom, only to turn at the last minute back to the diatonic scales that bring us home. “Graceful Ghost” is a melancholy waltz, firmly diatonic yet still nimble enough to perhaps raise a few eyebrows if it were played in the late 19th century. “Incineratorag,” however, sounds like it could be right out of the Joplin songbook, a fantastic study in the form and characteristics of that music and among the first works of its kind that Bolcom wrote.

Many-Sided Music is very well played and recorded and is extremely approachable. Populated and played by a mostly under-thirty crowd, it’s a welcome indication of the creativity and potential of Aeolus as well as that of the composers. In fact, I think that Bolcom guy has a real future.

SXSW 2012 Postmortem

You can feel SXSW approaching about two weeks before Austin’s population doubles and everybody and their grandmother has a keg and a band in the backyard. The locals can be divided into two categories: those who have made travel plans, and those who haven’t and are preparing like the Mayans got it right. For those in the latter group, supplies are purchased and thoughtful itineraries are carefully outlined. Friends are flown in, stationed on couches, given keys, and told where to get breakfast tacos; specifically where to get them at 3 a.m. Bars, venues, coffee shops, food trucks, transportation, wristbands, multi-level passes, and wardrobe (always tricky with the sketchy weather) are all prepped.

Everything is possible.

And then you end up doing a fraction of what you had planned, you lose your phone, your wristband turns out to be fake (happened to a friend, tragic) and the highlight of your Thursday was the time you spent east of I-35 watching a band from Iceland play chip tune music on rewired Game Boys….

And it’s still a blast.

What strikes me about my SXSW experiences in the twelve years I’ve been here (and what I typically hear from friends and acquaintances) is that some of the best parts were not vaguely planned. What they stumbled upon as they made their way around downtown Austin and the surrounding area is what made their festival experience fun and unique. I, too, have stumbled around downtown Austin (SXSW notwithstanding), and this year found a few shows that I’d planned to see, and a few that just showed up.

Owen Weaver - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Owen Weaver – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

SXSW 2012 was a cloudy, overcast affair. The festival that starts and ends with music is nonetheless dominated by its technology-focused interactive festival which takes place at the start of SXSW and is indoors by and large; a situation that played out well this year. “Yeast By Sweet Beast“ (my stumble-in) is a three-day experimental improvisation and “outsider music” festival founded in 2000 by poet, musician, and film maker Anne Heller. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happenings, these showcases of sound artists were accompanied by installations by video artists Paul Baker, Katie Rose Pipkin, and Laurel Barickman, creating a thoroughly hypnotic vibe.  Held at a number of venues including Skinny’s Ballroom, Trophy’s, and Headhunters, the festival featured a tremendous variety of artists and styles. Highlights included the scattered vocal improvs of Bosco Stravinsky, Futureblondes, the “pop with big beats” of Ichi Ni San Shi, the rhythmic noise trance of Daze of Heaven, and Austin favorites Matt Burnett and Rebecca Ramirez.

The “They Used to Call it Classical” panel was held at the Austin Convention Center and featured Ed Ward, Justin Kantor, Alex Ross, Janet Cowperthwaite, and Carl Stone discussing the classical crossover trend that got its start decades ago but has since become the “It Girl” of new music discussion. The modest crowd heard a number of stories and insights, including Kantor’s take on keeping the doors open on a venue that features different styles nightly, Cowperthwaite’s discussion of the Kronos Quartet’s long-term commissioning project, and Alex Ross’s historical perspective on crossover. This should be required listening, and I hope that there is a repeat/update for next year.

Peter Gregson - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Peter Gregson – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Nonclassical and Fast Forward Austin curated a showcase downtown on the last weekend of the festival. Steve Snowden’s live remixes of music from the Nonclassical catalogue providing a great beginning to the show while offering a buffer for those filtering in a little late. Solo bass performances by P Kellach Waddle of his own compositions were followed by the Bel Coure sax quartet which performed music by Rob Honstein, Jennifer Higdon, and Nick Sibicky, resulting in an enthusiastic standing ovation. Cellist Peter Gregson brought a minimalist vibe to the room with pieces by Reich, and Nonclassical’s Gabriel Prokofiev and percussionist Owen Weaver performed a “sculpture piece” providing one of the more captivating visual performances of the evening. The Aiana String Quartet gave stellar performances of music by Piazzolla, Gabriel Prokofiev, and Bartok’s First String Quartet, the last of which was clearly the “classical” music of the night. Finally, Line Upon Line closed the show with pieces by Snowden, Ethan Greene, and a killer performance of Xenakis’ Okho. Well aware of the time limit imposed on the show (they run a tight ship at the Hilton, folks) LUL performed ninja-like set changes between pieces, a bit of ballet all by itself.

The Innova Records showcase the following night was held in the same “is this really a conference room?” venue as the FFA/NC show the previous evening.  Kicking off the showcase was Prester John  sounding every bit like the Presidents of the United States of America, if they were locked in a room for several years with a metronome, a monster work ethic, and a penchant for scales. I can only imagine that the phrase “quirky pop” is used from time to time in describing these guys, but it doesn’t do them justice. From fun tunes like “Fireman’s Drive Inn,” to the Zappa “Black Page“-esque (at least the intro) of “The Library Thief (with The Half Speed Cakewalk),” Prester John managed to maintain a sense of humor while displaying impressive chops. Sxip Shirey came on stage guns blazing, bearing train whistles, harmonica, prepared guitar, and an effects set up that sounded at times like trains in the distance (his description) and at others like the solo from “Owner of a Lonely Heart (my take, which I think is very cool btw…check 2:35). The Golden Hornet Project dusted off their Prokofiev (Sergei this time) arrangements (among the first pieces the group worked on when they formed) and dropped them, early Mr. Bungle-style, on the crowd. Their hyperkinetic mini big-band stylings, complete with pounding piano and killer horns, would have fit seamlessly into nearly any venue in town.

During the set change, Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” was playing over the P.A. and man, there was a lot of whistling and humming going on in that room. Just sayin’….

Todd Reynolds’s set was, for me, the highlight of an evening full of great performers and composers. His performance of Michael Lowenstern’s Crossroads was absolutely thrilling and had the audience positively grooving. Val-Inc’s Afro-electronica set included field recordings mixed with beats and a theremin-like control interface which made for a compelling show both visually and aurally. Finally Grant Cutler along with Innova’s own Chris Campbell laid a bit of an ambient mix on the audience, a fitting come-down to a very stimulating evening.

Owen Weaver and Adam Bedell – Observations by Tristan Perich (excerpt) from Fast>>Forward>>Austin.


Now that the town has released its seasonal population to the four winds, I can take a moment to reflect on another South By Gone By. Bookended by the weird and freaky YBSB at the front and the somewhat more formal but nonetheless funky showcases at the end, this year’s festival had a lot to offer those who are looking for something other than the usual fare. If there is anything that the audiences at these shows have in common with audiences at the traditional SXSW venues, it’s the fact that it’s hard for anyone to get out and see everything they want to see, especially if your tastes are varied. An embarrassment of riches such as SXSW demands that some shows go unseen, and that’s a bummer. However, the shows I made it out to this year were all pretty fantastic, and that gives me hope that (assuming the Mayans blew it) next year will be even better.

“Matrices and Entropy” from the Austin Museum of Digital Art

This past Saturday, the Austin Museum of Digital Art presented “Matrices and Entropy,” the most recent concert in their performance series focused on experimental music and digital performance art. AMODA has presented a variety of series over the years, including educational presentations, electronic concert music, and live interactive exhibitions. Though AMODA has no physical address (and really, isn’t that what you’d expect from a purely digital outfit?), their presence has been felt throughout the Austin area, and I was anxious to see what they had in store.

The show opened with Sam Pluta’s multimedia presentation data structures/monoliths ii (for chion)[*] which featured a variety of clips (with their original audio attached) from popular mainstream films manipulated in real time via Supercollider. Presented initially in short, two- to three-second bursts, the clips eventually began to take their place as structural elements of the piece despite their familiar origin. Patterns began to develop as the work progressed, though it was difficult to say whether these were intended or simply my brain trying to get its head around all the disparate input. The clips began to fly by more and more rapidly, leading to a climactic moment before slowing down and becoming arranged in such a way that their relative volume levels also decreased. This was followed by an extended (and thrice repeated) scene from the opening montage of the film Carrie which was, shall we say, somewhat calming relative to the hyperkinetic rapidity of the first section. Additionally, the Pino Donaggio music which accompanied this particular scene, all strings and slowly plucked guitar, was quite a “puppies and rainbows” setup for the deluge that followed. Fortunately, I’ve seen Carrie, so when the final iteration ended and gave way to a faster, louder, and more violent series of clips, I at least was able to keep my composure. This fugal section continued without respite, save for one clip featuring a man reaching for an electrical panel from which electricity was arching. This particularly calming image was the respite. Fortunately, the piece screeched to a halt before the guy blew up.

Line Upon Line performs Anders Vinjar

Line Upon Line performs Anders Vinjar’s +/-. Photo by Craig Washburn.

Percussion trio Line Upon Line performed Anders Vinjar’s +/- for assorted percussion and multichannel tape. The piece began with sparse offerings from non-pitched instruments that gave the impression of call and response or birdsong. Slowly, more clearly organized rhythms emerged from the spare texture, coalescing in short unified patterns and phrases and even the occasional pulse. This section came to a close after which the members pulled out sticks and went to work on the heads and sides of snares, timbales, and bongos. Grooves developed, stated even more clearly than before as smaller hand percussion was folded into the larger drum figures, recalling the introductory material and heralding one of the few instances when the pre-recorded audio gained prominence. Following the large, low frequency recorded bit, a section featuring cymbal scrapes and other metallic elements built to a climactic ending involving virtually every drum on the stage.

Steve Parker and Sam Pluta

(from left) Steve Parker and Sam Pluta. Photo by Craig Washburn.

Steve Parker joined Pluta for an improv set featuring trombone and electronics. Following a prolonged silence, Parker began working for a living. Breath effects, short riffs, and flutter tongue were immediately processed through a variety of effects, from common delays and reverbs to stuttered bit-crushing in what became a canonic tit for tat between the two performers. Parker took the trombone apart, played with mutes, removed the bell and created suction with the slide (with his thumb over the tube) to create high pitched, pinched squealing effects. Most notable in this performance was Parker’s ability to go blow for blow with modern technology on a bunch of twisted tubes that are a few hundred years old.

Line Upon Line returned to the stage to perform Cage’s Variations II, which falls squarely into his “meditative/contemplative” category. As much about the silence as the sounds that punctuate it, Variations II allows the listener to become so focused on the silence that when the metal slabs are stroked, struck, or slammed, the sounds serve as markers or borders for that silence. The only downside of the experience was the air conditioner which droned on throughout the work, about which I imagine Cage would have been profoundly indifferent.

Line Upon Line and Sam Pluta

Line Upon Line and Sam Pluta. Photo by Craig Washburn.

The closing work was Pluta’s Matrices featuring Line Upon Line flanked by two televisions. These were the regular old 4:3 CRT monitors (as opposed to the ubiquitous 16:9 flatscreens) tuned to a static channel. With Pluta on laptop, the piece began with loud, piercing oscillations bursting from the speakers, sounding somewhat like the scratchy static from dirty guitar pots. The screens responded to the audio output, horizontal lines dancing up and down, forming, disappearing, and breaking into snowy static as the percussionists and Pluta performed. Each of the percussionists faced microphones and had different instruments to use. These were (from left to right, respectively) two handheld fans, the blades of which were allowed to slap against the mic, a balloon and a paper bag, and a bowed flexatone. In an alternating quasi-rondo form, the music basically alternated between two sections, the first featuring the above instruments played furiously by Line Upon Line and processed by Pluta , the second, shorter, featuring piercing rolls on two blocks of purple heart wood. The dichotomy of the jumpy action of the first section versus the short uniformity of the second was echoed in the juxtaposition of Line Upon Line’s physicality and Pluta’s immobile figure behind the laptop. Further, the piece followed the form of the concert in general, as it was in like a lion and out like a lamb.

AMODA held its concert in the Mexican American Cultural Center, its performance space a relative newcomer to the scene. It was a large “white box” of sorts with a backstage area separated by a delicately curved wall that seemed more like a spot to hang art than a dividing object. The crowd of around fifty was quite diverse, though the average age skewed a bit high, perhaps due to the eight to ten p.m. Saturday night time slot. The show ran straight through with no intermission and little in the way of formalities, short of a brief introduction. It was clean, neat, and well played sir, well played.

* The first piece performed was actually data structures/monoliths ii (for chion), not American Tokyo Daydream I (Calypso Sunrise), as was indicated in the printed program. The swap was brought to our attention after the post of this report, and we have updated it to reflect that change.

We Sing Life: Conspirare

Since its founding in 1991, vocal ensemble Conspirare has become not only part of the firmament of the Austin music landscape but also part of the national and international scene. Led by founder Craig Hella Johnson, Conspirare has recorded a number of CDs and DVDs on the Harmonia Mundi label and has received awards and media recognition, including the PBS television special “A Company of Voices: Conspirare in Concert,” an Edison award (Dutch Grammys), and five Grammy nominations. Among the highlights of last season were “Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now,” a weekend-long festival featuring works by Josquin Des Prez, Orlandus Lassus, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and J.S. Bach in four distinct programs, each featuring a world premiere by series composer-in-residence Robert Kyr. The ensemble’s out-of-town engagements included three performances in New York under the auspices of the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall. This year is shaping up to be similarly busy, and Conspirare has wasted no time in presenting two concerts of new music multiple times over the past few days.

Conspirare led by Craig Hella Johnson

Conspirare led by Craig Hella Johnson. Photo by Karen Sachar

The first concert featured the world premier of Peter Scott Lewis’s The Changing Light, a co-commission between Conspirare and the Sanford Dole Ensemble. On either side of the Lewis were a number of pieces by Eric Whitacre, including Five Hebrew Love Songs and the U.S. premiers of Whitacre’s Oculi Omnium and Alleluia. Conspirare opened the afternoon concert with Whitacre’s With a Lily in Your Hand, a light but driving movement in 7/8 in which faster figures were contrasted with longer, less rhythmic segments. Right off the bat, it became clear that this was a seasoned group of musicians performing at an extremely high level; singers who could probably sing the phone book and sound fantastic. Part of me noticed the nuts and bolts elements, such as communication among the members and the strong direction of Johnson, but another part of me was just floored by the sound both in terms of quality and quantity. The twenty-four singers produced truly impressive volume at one moment, and were able to draw in the audience with the lightest pianissimo the next.

Five Hebrew Love Songs on poems of Hila Plitman was distinctly different from the other Whitacre offerings, partly because of the addition of string quartet and partly because of the structural elements both within each movement as well as in the larger form outlined by the five movements. The second and fourth movements, “Kala kalla (Light Bride)” and “Eyze Sheleg! (What snow!)” were haiku-like in their length and syllabic structure. “Kala kalla,” with its tambourine and 3-3-2-2 contrasting sections had a compelling forward movement throughout before coming to something of an unresolved cadence. The final movement, “Rakut” (Tenderness), began with a “bum-bum-bum” vocalization which changed to what was virtually a speaking part complimented by string harmonics. The effect was a captured texture (I hesitate to say “frozen” here as the immobility was not cold, but static string harmonics can certainly have that effect) which began to move forward via rising tenor lines, their pitches circled by the strings. Alleluia was presented as a tribute to UT Professor of Organ Gerre Hancock, who had passed away earlier in the day. An arrangement of an earlier work for band, “alleluia” was the primary text of the piece, driving the sopranos higher and higher until an “amen” ending closed the work.

The Changing Light by Peter Scott Lewis on text by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and scored for string quartet, vibes, marimba, and choir in four movements was the centerpiece of the concert. The three poems (the second, “Big Sur Light,” was divided into two parts to create the middle movements) describe the light of the sun in various locales and times in California. In “Big Sur Night,” a steady opening pulse gave way to more animated movement, as soprano and tenor wound their way through the text. Throughout, the string quartet mostly followed and supported the choir until the instrumental and vocal roles came together when the pulse returned at the end. “The Moon Stayed Full Last Night” began with an instrumental introduction followed by a warm, lyrical accompaniment. An interlude into which the pulse seemed to disappear was followed by a gentle ending, hints of pulse returning as the final notes echoed through the space.

Conspirare rehearsal

Conspirare in rehearsal. Photo by Karen Sachar.

The second concert featured Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles. On text by Robert Dickinson, Path of Miracles is an a capella oratorio of sorts which describes four of the main stops along the route from France to the cathedral shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Commissioned in 2005 by Nigel Short’s Tennebrae ensemble, the piece features 17 separate vocal parts as well as a crotale here and there. The first movement, “Roncesvalles,” began with a bit of theatricality. An altar lit with red light remained empty for several minutes, allowing the audience to settle into the space in what felt like a brief meditative state. If that seems like a short amount of time to meditate, try to sit quietly for two minutes while bathed in red light.

Slowly and deliberately mimicking stylized pilgrims, the basses and tenors entered from the back of the church, and when they had made their way to the front they continued pacing in a circle for a short period. Eventually they turned to face the audience, the basses singing quite low in their range and developing a slowly rising glissando that culminated in a tremendous climax. They were joined in this climax by the female voices hidden in the choir loft above us. A decrescendo followed as the sopranos and altos came down and took up antiphonal positions along the length of the church. Long, vaguely Arabic motives were traded back and forth for a time as the women transitioned from the sides of the church to their places on stage. A fugal section gave way to declamatory phrases as the basses took the melody from the sopranos. A largely 6/8 section peppered by hemiola provided tension as piercing crotales cut through the texture. All this built to a climax which quickly dwindled to a solo bass ending the movement.

The second movement illustrated the drudgery of pilgrimage through a reflective, slow ostinato topped by various individual lines rising mirage-like over the top. A fever dream staccato tutti emerged from this texture and lead ultimately to a quieter, unsettled harmony, overtones pulsing against one another. Slowly and in turn, the vocal parts dwindled, leaving the basses alone at the end.

The third movement saw previous motives return in ostinato patterns sung by the tenors and basses. In a return to the antiphony of the first movement, the chorus took up a flanking position while the basses spread through the center aisle. Johnson turned to face the audience (and conduct his group) and during these moments it was difficult not to see the music on his face as clearly as you could hear it in the room. Conductors need no excuse to be emotional and effusive, but it seemed less like Johnson was conducting the music and more like the music was passing through him. It was something I’ve witnessed in a handful of experiences with performers, but very rarely with a conductor and it was, quite frankly, a powerful thing to see. The tumultuous motion of the piece culminated in a truly gorgeous arrival, moved briefly to the minor mode, and ended in a preparation for the final movement.

The final movement depicts the arrival at Santiago and starts with the initial motif of the piece. Overlapping entries played like stretti writ large, each voice gently entering in what seemed like an isorythmic treatment of the material. This gentle music moved to a declamatory tutti section, the men joined by the women as staccato major mode 5/4 figures transformed to 6/4. The piece ended reflectively with the members of the choir moving, one by one, out of the room in a reversal of the initial entrances. The wonderful difference was that instead of leaving the audience alone in silence, the singers continued to sing as they walked further and further from the space, which sounded (to listeners of a certain vintage) not unlike the fade-out on any number of albums, though one that lasted several minutes. The effect was tremendous and the audience responded strongly, applauding for some time after the piece ended.

Vocal music has the advantage of text to connect to the listener, but I’m not sure that it’s simply the narrative that keeps an audience connected to a piece like Path of Miracles. The power of the human voice directed and shaped by a significant musical mind like Johnson’s has the power to do nearly anything, including connecting with incredibly diverse audiences like the one at St. Martin’s church in Austin this past Saturday.