New Music Takes the Fast Track in Austin

“Live Music Capital of the World” Austin, Texas, more than lived up to its name this past Saturday with the first annual Fast Forward Austin Festival. Featuring locally sourced talent, community involvement, and a grassroots fundraising campaign (one that raised a surplus which will be applied towards to next year’s event), the festival had all the earmarks of an event uniquely Austin. Once inside, patrons were asked to make a suggested donation of $10-$20 (sliding scale, no obligation, no one turned away) to Anthropos Arts, an organization “working primarily in the East Austin community to bring top professional musicians into Title I, low-income middle and high schools to offer free music lessons, workshops, master classes, and performance opportunities to economically disadvantaged youth.” There were FFA T-shirts, beer koozies, and temporary tattoos. There were baked goods, coffee, and beer. Outside, a Filipino-American food truck called Be More Pacific featured (among other delicacies) longanisa and adobo chicken sliders.

Sounds like Austin to me.

The eight-hour festival was held at Space 12 in East Austin and began with Tim Doyle‘s still under construction piece A Gathering of Strings. Conceived for larger forces and dancers, this arrangement featured three guitars, viola, violin, and the mother of all string instruments, the French horn. With Doyle on the stage and the other players spread out among the audience, the piece began as a single tone and slowly gathered speed and density. This gave way to a second movement that in places echoed Robert Fripp and his Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists, and in others felt a bit like Bolero without all that pesky rhythm. Doyle commented on the pieces, lending a loose, laid-back feel to the performance which was a great way to kick off the festival. Contrary to the typical formal opening of a concert, this one seemed to just start out of nowhere while audience members were still coming in the front door, grabbing a drink in the back, and gathering at the seats and tables located in pockets around the stage.

Also worth noting were the programs, which featured the performers but not the pieces. A small point, perhaps, but interesting in that it obligated the performers to communicate with the audience to let them know what they would be listening to. It’s also worth noting that virtually every group not only gave a rundown of what they would play (typically before each piece) but actually spoke in detail about the pieces, composers, and relationship between the two.

Fast Forward Austin
Line Upon Line Percussion
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Next up was Line Upon Line Percussion who played a fantastic set, starting with part one of Reich’s Drumming and including pieces by festival co-founders Steven Snowden and Ian Dicke, before heading to the Round Top Percussion Festival for another performance that evening. Consisting of current and former students from The Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin, LUL were the first of the three featured groups (and one jaw-dropping soloist) affiliated with the university who performed at the festival. LUL not only performed with incredible precision but also with a real sense of drama and the stage presence required by the newer pieces. Dicke’s Missa Materialis, a commentary on consumerism and waste featured trashcans and plastic bags from the supermarket. Snowden’s A Man With a Gun Lives Here featured, among other things, buckshot and a bass drum. Though performed in Texas, no one was harmed in the performance of this piece. Both pieces contained some of the most engaging moments in the festival, not only because of their musical content but because of the impact on the audience. Sitting in front of me were two mothers with their toddler daughters. Both little girls were fascinated by the variety of instruments and sounds that came from the stage and consistently asked their moms (pretty quietly for toddlers) what it was that they were hearing. The focus of this festival was not only to promote new music and rethink its presentation, but also to develop and cultivate future audiences. In a typical chamber music concert, those little girls might have been escorted out by apologetic hushing mothers before the buckshot hit the bass drum. Instead they experienced new music in the most real, organic way possible: by hearing it performed and asking about it while it was happening. Walking the line between presenting music such that it can be heard clearly and comfortably and presenting it in an environment where people are not compelled to sit in antiseptic silence, hands clasped, is a tricky one but certainly worth the effort.

Trombonist Steve Parker‘s set started in a corner of the hall and began informally, such that the audience didn’t realize the piece had started until he’d played a few notes. He then talked briefly about his second piece, Berio’s Sequenza V. The wide range of effects in the piece, bolstered by Parker’s insight and incredible playing, seemed to have a real impact on the audience. A piece that under other circumstances might have seemed pure abstraction to an audience unaccustomed to new music instead made a real connection. Steve Snowden’s Ground Round and UT composition faculty Bruce Pennycook‘s Broken Bones followed the Berio and featured a mic’d Parker playing along with pre-recorded material. Again, the variety of sound and the strong playing by Parker made for strong performances.

Fast Forward Austin
Bel Cuore Quartet
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The Bel Cuore Quartet performed music of Higdon, Ligeti, Victor Marquez-Barrios, and festival co-founder Robert Honstein. Though formed at UT only two years ago, this group of doctoral students performed as though they had been together much longer. In particular, the Marquez-Barrios piece Saxteto displayed not only the group’s virtuosic technique and ensemble cohesion, but their ability to engage with the audience. Each member took time to discuss the pieces as well as to describe and to give examples of the extended techniques that were employed.

Austin new music group Mongoose creates original music based on John Zorn’s Cobra rules. They were the first group to fully refocus the staging by performing at the “back” of the room. The instrumentation included (among others—I knew I should have written this down) guitar, bass, French horn, vocals, dancer, drum kit, laptop, and a variety of other bells and whistles. The performance was fun, provocative, and whimsical and provided a nice counterpart to the rehearsed performances of some of the preceding acts. Not better or worse, just different. And frankly, if you’re doing eight hours of new music (or likely any music) variety is essential.

Fast Forward Austin
Aeolus String Quartet
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Recent grand prize winners of the 2011 Plowman Chamber Music Competition, the Aeolus String Quartet was the last of the UT Austin-affiliated groups to perform at the festival. Of the four pieces the quartet played, two were premiers written for Aeolus (Snowden’s Appalachian Polaroid and Lady Isabelle Was That Kind of Woman by Alexandra Bryant) and one was the FFA Call for Scores winner, Black Bend by Dan Visconti. All three composers artfully combined American vernacular (including blues riffs and Appalachian folk melodies) with contemporary techniques to create thoughtful new works. These pieces were performed in the above order with a small break between the Bryant and Visconti for Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet.

You know, to clear the palate.

This is not Aeolus’s first rodeo, and they really played the hell out of the Bartok. This performance was the closest in feel to a traditional chamber music concert not only because it was the oldest music played on the festival, but also because there is a certain gravity to watching one of the paragons of traditional ensembles, THE STRING QUARTET, perform that puts in the mind of the audience a quasi church-like reverence which festivals like this hope to deflate. Also, this was quite late in the festival and while it’s only April, it is Austin, and it was getting pretty warm in there. However, concerns about etiquette were put at ease at the end of the fourth movement when, after spontaneous applause, Aeolus graciously smiled and thanked the audience before performing the final movement.

Next, Ellen Bartel and Mari Akita performed butoh with Adam Sultan on guitar. Butoh is not a piece, but a technique developed in Japan in the mid 20th century involving very slow articulated movement, surreal and often grotesque gestures, and painted performers, though all these parameters may vary. While beautiful and thought provoking, this work seemed initially like an odd duck at the festival given that Bartel and Akita are dancers and that the dance was arguably the focus of the performance. However, the guitar work by Sultan along with other prerecorded sounds clearly provided significant form, structure, interactivity, and counterpoint to the choreography in the single long-form performance.

Representing the somewhat established “establishment” of Austin new music, Austin New Music Co-op took the stage to perform Kinship Collapse by Arnold Dreyblatt, a piece originally commissioned and performed at the 2006 SXSW Music Conference. The piece featuring electric bass, guitar, two upright basses (one of which was strung with piano wire), cello, drums, and violin. It lasted the entire set, starting quietly with an imperceptible violin tremolo and building slowly from there. The sections ranged from long tones marked with percussive hits to tutti rock jams that had heads moving. Though it was the longest piece of the festival and the penultimate performance, the audience appeared thoroughly engaged throughout.

Fast Forward Austin
Festival pros and Anthropos students performing In C
Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The final performance of the festival brought students from Anthropos Arts together with festival performers from various ensembles to perform In C. Though starting a full seven hours after the festival kickoff, the performance (and the audience) was full of life. Arranged around the room, small groups of young students paired up with seasoned pros to perform Riley’s pulsing notes and rhythms, while a few performers (including Honstien doing his best Pied Piper with a single bell) roamed the room. It was a great experience watching the audience consistently change their focus as the music evolved, looking around the room as parts started and ended. In many ways this was truly the most compelling and engaging performance of the festival, not necessarily for its precision or because it will be remembered as a seminal performance of the piece, but because it seemed to embody the spirit and purpose of the event.

“New Music” is not going to bring itself to a new generation. It needs festivals and performers like these to connect those for whom new music is a regular occurrence to those for whom new music is only eight hours, one weekend, in east Austin.

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Fast Forward Austin
Andrew Sigler

Andrew Sigler is a composer and guitarist. His concert music includes music for chamber ensembles, orchestra, dance, theater, and film and has been performed by members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony orchestra, and the New World Symphony. Recent performances include the premiers of Four Movements for Flute, Viola, and Piano at the National Association of Composers New Music Festival in Portland and Sparrows Jump Nine Sandpipers by Simple Measures in Seattle. His work in the commercial field includes studio work as a guitarist and vocalist as well as composition and sound design for video games, advertising, and animation for a number of clients including Microsoft. Andy lives and works in Austin and is pursuing his doctorate in composition at The University of Texas.