I wrapped up my last article with a comment about new music coexisting with the music Austin is most well known for; namely the blues, Americana, indie rock, and country twang that have filled the bars and clubs of Austin since forever. Venues like Antones, Armadillo World Headquarters, Continental Club, and the juggernaut festivals South by Southwest  and the Austin City Limits Festival (not to mention the original Austin City Limits show) have served to spread the sound and style of Austin music, as well as the general vibe of the place; one built on organic growth that was equal parts cheap rent, cheap beer, complete indifference to upward mobility, and an odd hippie/cowboy dichotomy that Austin’s favorite son, Willie Nelson, helped foment in the mid-seventies.
While these venues, styles, and festivals have garnered the lion’s share of interest and publicity, a lower profile and largely behind-the-scenes group of composers, performers, and curators have quietly developed a burgeoning independent new music scene amid the glitz and glamour of the national players–and in some cases these new folks have infiltrated the national scenes. In particular, the last decade has seen a number of significant groups, festivals, and events pop up here in town that share little with their popular cousins except a zip code, and my plan for 2012 is to feature these groups in and around Austin as they ply their wares.
Among these is the Austin New Music Coop, a group of musicians dedicated to bringing new music to a different and diverse audience. Since forming in 2001, ANMC has featured dozens of premiers and hundreds of new works, including “a commission of a program-length work by Berlin-based American composer Arnold Dreyblatt, a realization of John Cage’s Songbooks, music for the extinct instruments of Luigi Russolo, Pauline Oliveros’s Four Meditations for Orchestra (with the composer in attendance), a three-day series of the works of the New York School, and Ellen Fullman’s Long String Instrument Performance at Seaholm Power Plant.” A multi-day performance (and detailed audio and video recording) of the late British composer Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning is ANMC’s most recent large-scale undertaking, and it will be featured in an upcoming podcast by yours truly.
Ten Pounds To The Sound and the No Idea Festival (both curated by Chris Cogburn) have created an environment for improvisation to flourish in and around Austin, as well as nationally and internationally. Featuring a variety of group, solo, acoustic, and electric performances, their concerts display a wide range of improvisational styles and voices, and have fostered fruitful long term relationships among the participants. The ninth annual No Idea Festival promises to be the biggest ever with an international roster of artists and shows and workshops in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.
The Golden Hornet Project has its roots in the Golden Arm Trio and Brown Whorenet groups that came together around the end of the 1990s. Initially featuring post-punk and free improvisation in a number of haunts on Red River Street, Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski (of the two groups, respectively) eventually joined forces and have since made a significant mark on the Austin music landscape, in the area of new music and otherwise. Live performance, film music (live and recorded), orchestral, chamber, jazz, dance, opera, and a number of cross-over varieties have been part of the ground covered by this group. The recent Symphony VI concert (the sixth of a sorta-annual orchestral show) was named “Best Symphonic Performance of the Year” by the Austin Critics Table, beating out performances by the Austin and University of Texas symphony orchestras. This is “new music notable” in that both sold-out shows were organized, rehearsed, and performed without the typically large and long established infrastructure normally required for such undertakings.
New music groups across the nation and around the world will celebrate John Cage’s centenary this September 5. In Austin, “Happy Birthday Mr. Cage” will continue its second decade with another evening-length program of Cage’s works curated by the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Michelle Schumann. This event has become an Austin favorite, partly because of Cage’s notoriety outside of musical circles (which is to say that a similar concert of Partch might be of interest to a smaller and more music-centric community given Cage and Partch’s relative blips on the cultural radar) and partly because Austin cottons to the unusual. When 4’33” is performed, it’s funny to watch a few of those “in the know” roll their eyes at the performance of Cage’s “hit.” It’s not because of the content or concept of the piece, mind you. It’s because these people want the deep cuts, and Schumann delivers.
Not everyone got their start during the last administration. Newcomers Revel came on the scene in 2009, and since then they’ve produced dozens of concerts as well as a CD of early 20th-century works. Based primarily in Austin (with occasional performances in New Mexico and points in between), Revel’s mission is to provide an audience experience disconnected from the formality of traditional concerts.
Fast Forward Austin will celebrate its second anniversary this spring with another day-long festival featuring local and national performers, including headliner Vicky Chow of Bang on a Can All-Stars fame. Last year’s inaugural festival was a huge success and featured a wide variety of music, improvisation, and dance.
Very few of these shows will be held in conventional venues and none of them will be targeted at traditional audiences. There won’t be many ties, clasped hands, or perfectly motionless audience members. There will be lots of people who don’t know what they’re in for, and that’s why most of them will have bought their ticket. They want something new, and they’ll find it here in Austin.
1. One of my favorite parts of SXSW is walking through downtown a month or so after the festival. Here you’ll find recently relocated hipsters (who have made the move to town based on the generally epic spring weather in Austin) sweating through their skinny jeans as the Big Sun takes up its six-month residency