A New Contemporary Music Festival Moves Forward in Austin

Ed. Note: Unaware that Andrew Sigler was filing his report from Austin for NewMusicBox today, Fast Forward Austin-participating composer Dan Visconti also typed up his take on the marathon. Apologies for the double-up, but we hope you enjoy this chance for a two-perspective take on this inaugural event.
Fast Forward Austin
Fast Forward Austin festival organizers (left to right Ian Dicke, Steve Snowden, and Rob Honstein)
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

I’ve just returned from a trip to Austin, Texas, for the inaugural Fast Forward Austin music festival, produced by co-directors Steve Snowden, Rob Honstein, and Ian Dicke. By bringing together a diverse group of local cutting-edge artists working in graphic, dramatic, and musical media in a welcomingly relaxed venue unburdened by typical concert conventions, the festival’s marathon concert tapped into what is so great about the Austin vibe: a community of people who are artistically curious, non-doctrinaire, and unpretentious.

The festival co-directors (all three of them successful composers with close ties to Austin) must have had a keen sense of this vibe as they began to plan the festival almost a year ago. This nuanced understanding of the Austin community informed many of Fast Forward Austin’s most successful moves: opting for a venue (Austin’s community center/lounge/gallery Space12) that was hip without being put-offishly trendy, lining up a variety of local ensembles for short sets that made it easy for audience members to discover some new favorites, and even the availability of drinks and homemade baked goods inside the venue and arranging for an upfront food truck (an important detail when the nearest restaurants are a drive away—not losing interested folks to the siren-song of hunger is key!). Perhaps most importantly, the festival jettisoned the all-too-familiar “eat your vegetables—they’re good for you!” apologetics that often plague performances of adventurous new music; instead, the festival organizers programmed material that connected new sounds to familiar and popular roots, and in doing so made a whole bunch of adventurous experimental music sound direct and fun.

One of the ensembles that really developed a rapport with the audience was the Bel Cuore Saxophone Quartet, who chose a set that included Ligeti transcriptions as well as some particularly funky offerings from Jennifer Higdon; anyone who knows Jennifer’s music mainly through her orchestral works such as Blue Cathedral and her Pulitzer-winning violin concerto ought to acquaint themselves with the composer’s Short Stories, just one of her many chamber works which to me explore a dimension more directly related to the rhythms and timbres of jazz and rock. Bel Cuore delivered a high-energy set that blended some of my favorite sax techniques with the group’s considerable classical chops.

Fast Forward Austin
Members of improv collective Mongoose show how important having fun is if experimental performance is to be accepted as accessible
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Mongoose, an improve collective that performed a set using John Zorn’s Cobra rules, turned the kind of event that can easily come off as inscrutable doodling into an opportunity to explain and demonstrate the parameters of the rules system. I’ve rarely seen an audience so engaged in such a performance, but then again I’ve rarely seen an ensemble so committed to letting the audience in on the game. It’s refreshing to consider how successful even the most unfamiliar experience can be when the audience feels included rather than assaulted!

The Aeolus Quartet (winners of the Coleman and Plowman chamber music competitions and one of the quartet world’s rising stars) was perhaps the most “classical” group performing all day, and the group also had the distinction of performing the oldest composition of the entire festival: Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet. I was thinking this might come off as a bit of a stretch, but when paired with other more recent quartet works that explored American folk sources Bartok’s great work felt like just one of the pieces that really rocks. There was no talk of arch forms or pitch-class sets, just a hair-raising performance by Aeolus that I was excited to see connect with all kinds of people who had likely never heard of Bartok.

Fast Forward Austin
Performance of Riley’s In C with students from Anthropos Arts
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

To conclude the evening, the festival featured a performance of Riley’s ubiquitous In C, pairing musicians from the Austin New Music Co-op and other festival performers with students from Anthropos Arts, a non-profit organization that advocates for equality in arts education and brings professional music instructors to some of Austin’s most underprivileged schools. It was great to see the Anthropos students performing together with Fast Forward’s seasoned musicians, but festival co-directors Snowden, Honstein, and Dicke decided to do them one better and donate all proceeds from the festival to the Anthropos Arts organization. This is a major accomplishment especially for the festival’s first year, and I’m glad I had a chance to see everything come together so successfully.

My only regret? Only that I didn’t have time to make it to the Salt Lick, one of Austin’s fabled barbecue joints. As if I needed any convincing to return for next year’s festival!

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