The first two installments of Fast Forward Austin set the bar quite high. Its goals were to provide a forum for local and national performers of new music, to explore new performance spaces, and to enhance educational opportunities for underserved communities. From its modest beginnings in a small venue in East Austin, the festival moved last year to a multi-level club just east of I-35, and found itself in the even larger Scottish Rite Theater for this year’s show. Located closer to downtown Austin, SRT served as an exclusively Masonic facility (with a few exceptions) until 2004 when it began the Scottish Rite Children’s Theatre program, and not long afterward it became a venue for avant-jazz and other offerings. To enter the theater is to find oneself surrounded by rich, dark woods on all sides. Leather furniture that was carefully placed in its present position during the Eisenhower administration is still wet behind the ears relative to a building that was built in the late 19th century. A certain amount of cognitive dissonance occurs when you leave the hipster/food truck/cosmopolitan what-have-you of downtown Austin and enter the SRT time capsule. Once you’ve turned the corner and passed by the portraits of Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, and Jim Bowie in the “Hall of Texas Masonic Heroes,” you can’t help but wonder if perhaps you’ve had a The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe moment. And then upon entering the beautiful main theater, you know that you have.
With a pentient for variety and an eye on the visual, this year’s show built on past accomplishments and added a half dozen commissions to boot. Kicking off the eight hour marathon with Chris Cerrone’s Double Happiness was the Living Earth Show . Hailing from the Bay area, the guitar and percussion duo had premiered the piece just one week prior. High and spacey electronics laid the foundation for unison lines shared between the electric guitar and vibraphone. The gentle plunk of muted chimes played by Andrew Meyerson could be heard over a passacaglia of sorts as guitarist Travis Andrews negotiated his parts. Another highlight of the set was Max Stoffregen’s Quasi-Mason. Derived from his friend Mason Lindhal’s tune, the piece played on bowed vibes riffs and looped layers in the guitar, and had a really nice touch with added pick scratches on the recap. In my notes about Austin’s Weird Weeds I wrote “earworms.” Looking every bit the regular rock band, WW was anything but. Gone was the typical alternating verse/chorus form with a bridge thrown in for good measure, and in its place were monolithic, insistent chord progressions and grooves which stayed around just long enough to make you comfortable before taking an unexpected turn on a dime. Primarily an A/B affair, (that is to say, most of the songs had one big “A” and one big “B”) the tunes were familiar on the surface but so formally polar that the whole affair sounded like the soundtrack to an odd neighborhood. Austin Soundwaves returned this year with a full orchestra to perform Hermes Camacho’s The Bear Prince, with the composer conducting. The charming piece for orchestra and two narrators was performed by a group comprised primarily of students with only a year or two of lessons under their belts. Simple melodies and evocative motives in the vein of Peter and the Wolf populated the work, and the performance was quite polished and communicative, drawing the first standing ovation of the festival. Convergence Vocal Ensemble presented a “mix tape” of pop and rock tunes reimagined by around a half dozen composers, as well as a few straight up covers for good measure. (Full disclosure, I was one of those composers.) Mezzo-sopranos Beth Beauchamp, Tynan Davis, Laura Mercado-Wright, and bass Cameron Beauchamp were joined by guitarists Brent Baldwin and Thann Scoggin as well as percussionists Tom Burritt and Adam Groh for a set that was a study in contrasts. Brent Baldwin’s charming ukulele-accompanied version of The Magnetic Field’s Absolutely Cuckoo was contrasted by the thorny deconstruction of Steely Dan’s Fire in the Hole by Avery Fisher. Caroline Shaw’s work on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face started as a beautiful straight-up a cappella rendering for the mezzos and blossomed into a wonderfully rich take on the work without masking its simple beauty. Joshua Shank arranged the Walt Whitman inspired Sheryl Crow song Riverwide. Preceded by a short prelude of Whitman’s Among the Multitude, the piece featured Cameron Beauchamp’s beautiful solo over a bed of Ebow’d guitar. Rounding out the set was La Llorona arranged by Graham Reynolds featuring Mercado-Wright belting out the jams.
At the halfway point of the festival, flautist Francois Minaux and visual artist Ryan Cronk set up outside of the main hall under the piercing eyes in the Hall of Heroes for an improvised set of painting, digitally fractured flute, and audience participation. A live mic was left on a stand as an invitation for those passing by to join the performance. As people sang and spoke into the microphone, their input was processed along with the signal of the flute, and these sounds informed Cronk’s painting as his strokes influenced Minaux’s playing.
The Meehan/Perkins Duo returned this year with Parallels, a huge new commission by Tristan Perich. Apropos to the title, both players had identical setups consisting of five differently sized triangles and hi-hat and each was flanked by sets of hanging, enclosure-less speakers. Tight hocketed figures were fleshed out and built a larger narrative as the mics picked up the attacks of the triangles and triggered electronics through the speakers. As the piece slowly evolved the hi-hats played a larger role, sounding a bit like snare drums to ears that had spent several minutes living in the high Hz world of the triangles.
An epic work, Parallels provided a great start to the second half of the day and its driving repetitive character was a bit of a prelude to the ending of the festival. Following Meehan/Perkins was Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle’s bass clarinet duo Sqwonk. They continued the evening’s tight hocketing with a performance of Knee Gas (ON) by Russell and Anderle’s Switchboard Music Festival cohort Ryan Brown. Starting off in all its sqwonking glory, the piece eventually backed off on the heavy intensity while maintaining its rhythmic vitality as multiple, overlapping lines developed. Perhaps it was the cyclical riff-like nature of the material or the visual impact of the players,  but the character of the piece and its performance begs for a transcription for two electric guitars. Along those lines, Ian Dicke’s Profiteering brought something of a syncopated rock sensibility to the proceedings. Symmetrical phrases and rounded formal cues were overtaken by a sweeping, lyrical middle section which was then followed in short order by polyrhythms which fell over one another before returning to the opening material. Funny, engaging, and highly polished, Sqwonk was absolutely a highlight of the festival. The evening’s finale was a performance (the Austin premier, no less) of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. A number of beanbags, pillows, and other cushions had been available at the foot of the stage for the duration of the festival, but as the performers took the stage a not-too-insignificant percentage of the audience took advantage of this particular seating opportunity. Featuring the University of Texas Percussion Group along with other musicians from UT and the Austin area, the wonderfully played hour plus marathon was a fitting ending to a big day of premiers, education, and community.
Fast Forward Austin has over the past few years branched out from its initial one-day festival concept. It has twice curated the Austin incarnation of Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night, co-presented concerts with the Nonclassical label during SXSW, and brought its brand of Austin sensibilities to New York. With its founders developing new projects throughout the country (as well as in Sweden and Portugal) FFA is certainly on track to continue its pattern of growth in the years to come.
1. Best Kickstarter ever.
2. I’m telling you, they got a least few moves from these guys. Right round 2:45-3:00.