Different Cities Different Voices is a series from NewMusicBox that explores music communities across the US through the voices of local creators and innovators. Discover what is unique about each city’s new music scene through a set of personal essays written by people living and creating there, and hear their music as well as music from local artists selected by each essayist. The series is meant to spark conversation and appreciation for those working to support new music in the US, so please continue the conversation online about who else should be spotlighted in each city and tag @NewMusicBox.
Since folks from all over the world made their first post-pandemic pilgrimage to Austin for SXSW in mid-March, we waited a bit for the dust to settle so we could shine light on some of the extraordinarily creative people who are an important part of the Austin music scene all year round. – FJO
Austin is a tight knit community of musical creators and producers. There are lots of organizations in this town dedicated to presenting and promoting non-commercial music in favor of free jazz/improvisation, contemporary classical and experimental genres. Keep Austin Weird? Actively weird? Yup, we most definitely have!!!
I experience a sense of play, curiosity, and exploration that weaves together Austin’s new music scene. There’s a spirit in which all of these musics, and I am saying that deliberately as a plural, kind of comingle together. The classical music scene here feels quite naturally at home next to the indie scene and next to the country and blues and soul and rock and roll and Americana.
Craig Hella Johnson
Austin’s economic and social reality is complex and our art communities are forever adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by these realities.
I can reasonably expect there to be a guitar to jam on in anyone’s house (or at the very least, a ukulele). There’s a vibrancy here of people just generally being excited to make art. I hope this energy can continue to flourish as Austin grows rapidly as a city (which, even without a pandemic, can be hard on creatives).
Austin offers a special and unique combination of a world-class conservatory-style music institution surrounded by (and increasingly incorporating) local and popular music styles.
I love Austin, I am Austin, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I came to Austin from Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2010 to study flute at the University of Texas. The composition department and electronic music departments especially at the UT Butler School of Music were full of creative, collaborative and bold students and professors – there used to be an annual showcase called Ears, Eyes and Feet, in which composers, choreographers and media artists from three different departments worked together to create multi-disciplinary performances. I didn’t know at the time that Austin had only a few new music ensembles playing very experimental stuff, and there wasn’t a big contemporary classical scene. However, there was some spark at UT in those few years – several of my colleagues at UT went on to start contemporary classical / new music organizations and collectives themselves (Fast Forward Austin, Density512, Tetractys, Line Upon Line Percussion), and some spectacular crossover classical groups came to town as well and stayed (Invoke Sound, Kraken Quartet), intermingling with the existing long-standing organizations that already championed experimental music and cross-disciplinary collaboration in Austin (Church of the Friendly Ghost, Fusebox Festival, and others). It felt like the beginning of a special period of growth for the Austin new music scene, and it has just continued to blossom since then. I was very moved by this year’s ATX Composers Showcase at SXSW, 12 years later, where many of these groups played on the same stage. Especially 2 years into the pandemic, it felt like a joyful reunion and celebration remembering that yes, we are committed and excited to make wild and strange music and soundscapes and improvisations in our city.
Part of the magic of Austin for me is its open mics. I’ve heard it’s not the same in other cities – they are an extremely collaborative and supportive environment with wildly talented musicians playing almost always original songs. I briefly moved away from Austin after doing my masters at UT and returned as I was starting to write my own music, and every week there were at least 4 incredibly welcoming open mics I could go to and try out my new tunes and arrangements, with a lot of the same supportive, friendly faces frequenting each one. I felt so comfortable finding and refining my musical voice in that environment, and met many friends, future collaborators and even partners. Now you can find that vibe at Mozart’s and Opa’s, with the same open incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic open mic leaders ushering in musicians new to Austin or new to writing their own stuff.
And then there’s the fact that I’ve always been able to find creative projects here. Austin’s known for lots of styles of music and its growing tech scene, but along with that there’s so much other creative activity that happens here – film, dance, visual art, improv comedy all have these vibrant communities around them. If I don’t have a project, and if I didn’t have a network of people to check and see what they were up to, I know I could always go to one of the many amazing local coffee shops and meet an artist or a musician, or if I’m in a more film/theater mood I could find a pre-production meeting happening at least one table. I also love that I can reasonably expect there to be a guitar to jam on in anyone’s house (or at the very least, a ukulele). There’s a vibrancy here of people just generally being excited to make art. I hope this energy can continue to flourish as Austin grows rapidly as a city (which, even without a pandemic, can be hard on creatives). It’s been incredibly challenging during the pandemic as early on, gigs disappeared, and then later venues – even iconic ones – have had to shut down. There is energy and determination here for collective action among artists though, and a few great organizations to support and advocate for musicians (Austin Music Foundation, HAAM), and I hope that we can continue to push for this city to financially support its artists.
I actually ended up finding a new Austin community and creative outlet during the early part of the pandemic. The Hideout Theatre, Austin’s longest running improv theater, moved all its classes and shows online within a couple of months of March 2020. At the time I had just produced and conducted a big experimental concert of improvised chamber music in person, before the shutdown. I was taking inspiration from theatrical improv and improv comedy to see how cross-genre musicians might relate to and connect with each other to improvise in large groups. The Hideout community was so full of creative determination and energy, and they invited me to experiment with livescoring narratives with groups of improvising instrumentalists ONLINE. It was a great feeling to bring many of my musician collaborators into the new improv community I’d entered. Since most of us suddenly had a lot of time on our hands, there was creative fuel and really talented people who would otherwise be busy gigging and touring and whatever, available to experiment with online performance art forms. With some incredible collaborators, I ended up taking part in some projects that really pushed virtual theatre boundaries in 2020 and 2021, and I like to think we’ll all bring the insights and the deep connection we found in those challenges into our work back in person in 2022.
You never know what kind of creative work or wonderful people you’re going to find around the corner here, and as a person who thrives with a variety of creative activities and values community, I can’t think of a place I’d rather call home than Austin. The sunshine also helps! While the various artistic communities haven’t really deeply cross-pollinated much up to this point, there’s definitely a lot of energy of coming together, and room for interweaving those communities, which is something I look forward to in Austin’s current chapter.
Kenzie Slottow: “Neverland” from the EP Hold It Up to the Sun
Cassandra Elese: “Coming In Hot”
Craig Hella Johnson
Austin kind of chose me through a job offer from The University of Texas. I was just finishing a doctoral program at Yale and I had an interview which I decided to do just for fun. I never thought I would actually live in Texas as I had a funky, terrible Northerner’s bias. I enjoyed the interview and had a great time visiting this city. It surprised me with all of its green and beautiful places and all the diversity of music happening. I was offered the job and the rest is history.
Austin seemed like a really great place to set up camp. Much to my delight and surprise, I worked for 10ish years as the Director of Choral Activities at The University of Texas and made many friends there. I got to know so many musicians during that time and also began Conspirare during that period around 1993. Someone told me something once which was very helpful. I remember it and live by it today: “Welcome to Austin. In Austin we take our work and passions seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.” This was fabulous input for me and I have found that to be true of Austin cultural generally. It makes it a really pleasurable place to live and work.
I experience a sense of play, curiosity, and exploration that weaves together Austin’s new music scene. There’s a spirit in which all of these musics, and I am saying that deliberately as a plural, kind of comingle together. The classical music scene here feels quite naturally at home next to the indie scene and next to the country and blues and soul and rock and roll and Americana. I think it’s just beginning to almost explode in a wonderful way just like the rest of the city.
The cancellation of SXSW trumpeted the arrival of the pandemic in Austin. For me, it meant more time at home, more time to have that interior relationship with my soul, my heart and my interests. There were times when even though it was very busy there could also be time for reflection and pause.
At Conspirare we were dedicated from the first day we knew this was happening to doing everything we could to continue to engage our artists, to offer them work that could be creative and meaningful but also to just be able pay them and help support them through this period. I feel immensely grateful that we were able to do that. Throughout the pandemic period we created concerts at great distances from one another for online presentations. It felt like the demands of this medium called us out to expand the boundaries of the choral music. I got to meet some wonderful new collaborators –editors, filmmakers, videographers, and creatives of all types. Even as we all felt the great burden of this time, we continued to make art, to express ourselves, and to support people in remembering that we are still here, we’re still alive, we still have beating hearts. There is still a need for art that continues to support us moving forward in our lives and invites us into more awareness and the deeper experience of what it means to be human, to be alive.
Craig Hella Johnson: “We Tell Each Other Stories” from Considering Matthew Shepard
Eliza Gilkyson: “Reunion”
She is a favorite singer-songwriter and a cherished friend
I moved to Austin mid 2020 to begin an appointment as Assistant Professor of Composition and Jazz Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Prior to moving here, I had completed two separate residencies as the featured composer for the UT Wind Ensemble and the UT Symphony Band. Having participated in many composer residencies all across the country, one of the standout aspects of my UT residency was Austin itself, being a place that feels uniquely its own with amazing culinary offerings as diverse and ubiquitous as its live music venues.
Working predominantly in the wind ensemble field these days, Austin offers a special and unique combination of a world-class conservatory-style music institution surrounded by (and increasingly incorporating) local and popular music styles, while being centrally located among some of the strongest educational music programs and performing ensembles in the country. The wind ensemble field is one that is leading the way in the creation of new works for the medium, and Austin offers access to some of the nation’s leading ensembles who are willing to breathe life into these pieces on some of the field’s largest performance arenas.
The largest challenge of the past two years in my field has been navigating creating music safely (or at all) with ensembles that average forty musicians blowing air through instruments – clearly not ideal for helping to curb the spread of a respiratory virus. It has been truly amazing (and exhausting) to watch large ensemble instrumental and choral music adapt, as composers came together to create music designed to be played by any combination of very few instruments, conductors reached out via Zoom to inspirational figures within the field and beyond to keep musicians motivated as we waited for the opportunity to safely return to making music, and students took it upon themselves to use technology to not only connect with one another via virtual performances, but also to create music that capitalized on our virtual reality. We kept each other motivated long enough to make it to out current moment where we are back sharing space, art, connection, and community with one another and with audiences, grounded
by deeper gratitude than any of us has ever felt.
“I Am” performed by the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble
John Mackey: “Immortal Thread, So Weak” from Wine Dark Sea (Symphony for Band): performed by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble conducted by Jerry Junkin
I’m a born and raised Austinite, so for myself, working and living as an Austin musician has always just been, The Way. It was invested in to my heart and mind at an early age that musicians deserve respect. I have been consuming live music for so long, I couldn’t even tell you what my first concert was. It had just always been the thing that you do. When my son was born, just over four years ago, I knew I Austin would be home forever, or until he finishes school. I love Austin, I am Austin, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is just a different unique energy that runs through this town in a way I haven’t quite seen anywhere else. I worked in the music industry for nearly ten years before starting my band where I got to travel the globe, and playing music has allowed me to tour in some of the greatest music cities in America. When the band travels to different places, and we tell people we are Austin musicians, that comes with it’s own branding, it’s own meaning. It’s special, it means something.
Musicians were the first members of the work force to be asked to stop working and they have been the last to be asked to come back to work in any pre-covid capacity. It’s been hard, we’ve been forced to get creative, learn new skills, leave old business models behind and be quick to adapt to change. I also chose to release my first solo effort during the pandemic, which was not ideal, but it was time. The Banda has been lucky to continue to play across the country. We’ve relied heavily on social media to stay in touch with fans and are working through mediums like TikTok to stay active with our audience. Onward through the fog, as they say.
My two selections are my song, “Rear View” —
And a song from Austin band Nané, (who’s lead singer, Daniel Sahad, passed away just two weeks ago) called “Ladybird.”
I moved to Austin about 12 years ago and have since been working across various music and art scenes as a performer, composer, administrator, and teacher. As a jazz guitarist and composer, I’ve worked with various small groups, big bands, and my own conducted group improvisation octets and chamber ensembles. Some of the more experimental and classical Austin ensembles and organizations I’ve worked with include Church of the Friendly Ghost (COTFG), Less Than 10 Music, Collide Arts, and Future Traditions Festival.
Even in my own short time here, the city has gone through dramatic changes. Like most large and mid-sized American cities, Austin has continuing––and in many cases worsening–– problems with gentrification, racism, lack of affordability, inherited and perpetuated segregation, and problems with police brutality. But, Austin is also home to a great variety of community and activist organizations fighting tirelessly against the systemic oppression of our state and sometimes local governments. As Austin booms and tremendous amounts of money comes in through tech and other industries, artists see firsthand the way that that money, and the publicity around it, doesn’t ultimately benefit the communities that give this city its cultural identity. In spite of these challenges, this city generally still takes pride in trying to celebrate inclusivity, acceptance, and counter-culture values, and the artists, ensembles, and organizations that make up our cultural landscape do amazing work. In short, Austin’s economic and social reality is complex and our art communities are forever adapting to the challenges and opportunities presented by these realities.
Austin’s music and art communities are full of the most giving, creative, and determined people I have ever met. And the way that the people of this city embrace and honor music and musicians is truly special. For example, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) provides health insurance, dental coverage, hearing clinics, access to professional mental health services, housing assistance, and more to Austin-based musicians at no cost. When the pandemic caused the sudden collapse of the entertainment and live performance industries, HAAM and other organizations like Austin Creative Alliance, and the City of Austin itself, provided grants, groceries, and other aid specifically for artists.
The onset of the pandemic brought the momentum and direction of my work––rooted in group improvisation and interaction––to a sudden stop. Being unable to work in person with other musicians was shocking and disorienting (an experience so many of us in the performing arts world can relate to). One of the things that kept me going was the opportunity to join a wonderful group of classical new music friends forming Less Than 10 Music, a new music ensemble producing weekly virtual concerts featuring guest artists from around the country. Just having the communication and weekly concert deadlines really helped keep me going and kept me from falling too far into a sense of aimlessness. Some of the guest highlights and collaborations have included Ocelot, Nina Shekhar, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, and a masterclass with George Lewis.
So, what about the actual music scene? Well, there’s too much to possibly cover here, but I’ll do my best. Some of the many experimental performing arts organizations and ensembles include: Epistrophy Arts; COTFG; Salvage Vanguard Theater; Rude Mechs; Sonic Transmissions; Liminal Sound Series; New Media Art and Sound Summit; Fusebox Festival; dadageek; OUTsider Fest; and Six Square. In addition to year-round performances and premieres by local artists, these organizations have hosted guest artists including Henry Threadgill, Maria Chavez, The Necks, Thumbscrew, Turning Jewels Into Water, and Peter Brötzmann. Among the ensembles and organizations more closely rooted in classical new music, there are groups such as line upon line, Tetractys, Invoke String Quartet, Austin New Music CO-op, and Density 512. There are music education organizations doing great work with young musicians such as Golden Hornet, Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Classical Guitar, and Austin Soundwaves. Larger institutions like the Blanton Museum of Art, The Contemporary Austin, and Big Medium have recently commissioned and hosted large scale sound installation works by local and international artists like Steve Parker. KMFA, our classical radio station, has a wonderful new concert and recording space where they frequently host and promote new music performances. The University of Texas Butler School of Music composition departments and Electronic Music Studios (UTEMS) do a great job fostering up-and-coming composers and performers from around the world.
Of course, Austin also has a vibrant jazz scene with various weekly jam sessions and performance opportunities. Spaces like The Elephant Room, Parker Jazz Club, and Monks Jazz Club host a year-round lineup of local and touring artists, big bands premiering new works, and live recordings. We are also blessed to have luminary jazz artists and mentors in our community such as trombonist Andre Hayward and pianist/composer Dr. James Polk, among others. Vocalist, Joshua Banbury, splits his time between Austin and New York and has recently worked with The American Lyric Theater, The National Black Theater, The Kennedy Center, and made his solo debut at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic. I’ve attached a link for him below, and I extremely encourage all to listen. Local jazz musicians frequently play and tour as band members in the pop music industry and during Austin City Limits Festival, SXSW and more. I couldn’t even begin to cover that side of the music scene, let alone our thriving dance, visual, and performing arts, food, and improv comedy scenes, in this short essay. Lastly, I can’t forget to mention the amazing Indian Classical Music scene here, supported by organizations like The Indian Classical Music Circle of Austin (ICMCA).
Recently, at a SXSW show featuring Austin composers, I was deeply moved, running into so many people I hadn’t seen in person in years. It was a wonderful experience and sparked a new sense of enthusiasm and hope for continuing my own work that had been dampened for some time. As we sort of continue to emerge from the ups and downs of the last two pandemic years, I’m feeling hopeful about who will be coming through town and what we will be creating together in the coming years.
Alan Retamozo (guitar, electronics) and Katherine Vaughn (dance)
Brightest and Best
Forgotten Folklore featuring Joshua Banbury and Kevin Sherwin
I moved to Austin around a decade ago to live and work with experimental composer and synthesizer player Rick Reed. His releases can be found on the local Austin music label, Elevator Bath. We were married for about four years and he was the reason I started playing the ARP Odyssey. Some of my most fruitful collaborations have been with Rick including live scoring for the films of Aldo Tambellini (at the Austin Film Society), Andy Warhol’s Batman Dracula (at Alamo Drafthouse) and composing work together for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival (at Anthology Film Archives and Secret Project Robot in New York City as well as First Street Studio in Austin).
I was born and raised in London, U.K. to Bengali parents and my early musical exposure is of great importance to my work. My musical training started as a child with Indian music; my mother is a well-known Tagorean artist and she taught me how to play harmonium and learn all the songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. Throughout school, I learnt to play flute and sang in chamber choir. Also, since I grew up around a large Afro-Caribbean Diaspora in West London, I witnessed the Notting Hill Carnival annually and became closely familiarized with the traditions of reggae and calypso. Both traditions play an important role with the rhythmic aspect of my music, as subtle as it is. By my late teens, l started to experiment with guitar feedback and radio art and started following the Onkyo music scene from Japan. Onkyo expanded my understanding of electroacoustic music, prepared instruments, and analogue synthesizers. As a curator, I brought Toshimaru Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama to play in Austin in 2015, which was a total dream come true.
Before I moved to the U.S.A. in the late ’90s, I worked for British guitarist Derek Bailey whose book, Improvisation, which was later turned into a Channel 4 docuseries of the same name, seen throughout many households in the U.K. when I was a child. I worked for him and his wife Karen Brookman at their label Incus Records for a few years. I was 18 years old when he convinced me to move to NYC. I did and have lived in the US for almost 25 years now. He passed away in 2005. I thought about Derek a lot during the pandemic and what he would’ve felt about it, had he been alive. He preferred playing with other people, much more than playing solo. I share a similar sentiment to him. Playing on my own is a dull activity. Not being able to play with folks because of the pandemic and hospitalization numbers going up and down so rapidly really brought down my spirit and stymied my creative output for about two years. I strive to partake in musical banter with my peers. The pandemic frustrates me because it took away those opportunities.
Also, I missed seeing live music performed. Before the pandemic you could see music every night. Austin is a tight knit community of musical creators and producers. There are lots of organizations in this town dedicated to presenting and promoting non-commercial music in favor of free jazz/improvisation, contemporary classical and experimental genres. Keep Austin Weird? Actively weird? Yup, we most definitely have!!!
When I first moved to Austin around 10 years ago, I went to a lot of Church Of The Friendly Ghost (COTFG) events at Salvage Vanguard. COTFG also organizes the NMASS festival (New Music Art and Sound Summit), a genre defying local and national festival of multimedia. This festival continues to this day. Also, throughout the years, I’ve had the great pleasure of attending new music concerts performed by folks like Panoramic Voices, New Music Co-op, Line Upon Line, and Atlas Maior etc. Organizations such as Epistrophy Arts and festivals such as No Idea and Sonic Transmissions have also brought in some of the best national and international free jazz acts to town. Also, in recent years more locally curated music labels have been sprouting up more regularly. Labels such as Astral Spirits, Aural Canyon, and Holodeck Records have done numerous tape releases throughout the years (sold in local stores) in addition to releasing material digitally on Bandcamp. Running any kind of a label is super impressive to me and an essential activity for performing artists.
The one thing Austinites were having a really hard time grappling with prior to the pandemic was gentrification. It had started to become a huge problem in our creative communities and shows very little sign in slowing down, of course. The most well-known casualty (in our experimental music community) of that “first wave” of gentrification was Church Of The Friendly Ghost, who lost their home, The Salvage Vanguard Theater in East Austin. Many smaller spaces stepped in and continued facilitating art, music, and culture. One such example is the local D.I.Y. space and stalwart, The Museum of Human Achievement, which has consistently supported locals film screenings, experimental music, theater, performance art throughout the years. Other thoughtfully curated spaces such as Dimension Gallery, Co-Lab Projects, Cloud Tree Studios, Volstead Lounge and Ground Floor Theater also carried their weight in supporting the scene. I’m so thankful to belong to this community of folks.
I hope that these venues and support for one another continues to thrive post-pandemic. Rent has sky-rocketed through Austin, TX in the last few months alone. Big music venues have shuttered through the pandemic. Finding performance spaces continues to be a consistent struggle for artists and presenters alike.
I have been a curator in Austin, TX since 2014. I have organized experimental film screenings with the Experimental Response Cinema collective under Scott Stark. I have also curated my own music events and sound installations under the name Antumbra Events + Installations. I started Antumbra in 2013 to present performance art and sound projects from across the globe.
I did manage to do some really cool and meaningful things during the pandemic. I organized my festival online called Interference Fest-Women Making Noise in December 2020. The festival headlined a mix of multimedia artists and musicians including Angel Bat Dawid and Sistazz of Tha Nitty Gritty, Yuliya Lanina, and Amanda Gutierrez w/Norman Long. I invited local and national artists to partake and every single person who participated gave it their all. I felt so honored and so amazed by everyone on it. The festival was plagued by technical difficulties and was delayed two weeks from its original date. The themes I had in mind for 2020 were care, consideration, and concern. December 2020 was a particularly bleak period during the pandemic and I wanted to bring myself and people out in the world some joy. The festival aims to be an inclusive space for free expression and artistic experimentation in all forms/genres including film, video, movement, poetry, music, sound, and even mind-body practices. Online wasn’t a perfect scenario, but it was the best I could offer, given the state of the world, at that moment. I actually organized Interference Fest in-person at North Door (now shuttered) in 2019, which was also a very heartfelt festival. I hope to resume to in-person this year. As a curator, as well as someone who is concerned first and foremost with the well-being of others, I don’t want my participants or audience members to get sick from Covid-19 and so that’s why I’m waiting to announce the dates for 2022.
Due to grief and depression from losing friends and family during the pandemic and for being isolated on my own for almost two years, I have started to learn Tai’Chi with local dancer/choreographer Heloise Gold, progenitor of Deep Listening Retreats. Her collaborator and friend was Houston-born composer Pauline Oliveros. Heloise in one of Austin’s most famed residents and her movement-based training has impacted countless artists throughout the years. I am proud to be her pupil and hope to heal from her tutelage.
Here is my collaboration with Rick Reed; a live score for Ken Jacobs’s Nervous Magic Lantern Festival at Anthology Film Archives in 2016. It was one of my proudest moments as an electronic musician:
This is work by one of my very favorite musicians in Austin, TX. Her name is Henna Chou. She is one of the original founders and main curators at Church Of The Friendly Ghost and the NMASS Festival: