Scene Scan: Austin, Texas

Scene Scan: Austin, Texas

Robert Honstein

Welcome to Austin, Texas, “Live Music Capital of the World.” Or so claims the conveniently placed eye-level placard that greets weary travelers as they deplane at Austin’s Bergstrom Airport. More than just tourist propaganda, “Live Music Capital of the World” is indeed the city-sanctioned moniker for the Lone Star state’s illustrious capital. Known for the long-running PBS program Austin City Limits, the massive city-wide music industry festival/band bonanza South by Southwest, and a host of luminous musical personalities ranging from Willie Nelson to Stevie Ray Vaughn, Austin is a city overflowing with musical bounty. But in the sea of hipster indie bands, wayward singer-songwriters, grizzled blues men, and hardened rockers, that thing we call new music has sometimes been hard to find.

In the face of the cultural behemoth that is Austin’s bar/club scene, it has been difficult for new music advocates to carve out a niche for themselves. Ask most unsuspecting Austinites about classical music, let alone new music, and they would be hard pressed to mention anything other than the local symphony, opera, and possibly one of the many University of Texas ensembles. However, in the last five or six years things have started to change. Challenging norms of concert music presentation and programming, a handful of dedicated composers, performers, and promoters have succeeded in building a small but vibrant new music community, grabbing the attention of the wider Austin arts scene along the way.

The Establishment

Fortunately, even within Austin’s established classical music institutions, today one need not look quite so hard to find exciting new music. Founded in 1986, the Austin Lyric Opera in its last five seasons has produced operas by Andre Previn (A Streetcar Named Desire), Carlisle Floyd (Cold Sassy Tree), and Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking). This year the ALO will present the American premiere of Philip Glass’ Waiting for the Barbarians, an opera based on the novel by JM Coetzee, himself a UT graduate and former UT professor. Similarly, the Austin Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Peter Bay, has ramped up its contemporary offerings, recently featuring performances of works by Kevin Puts, Chris Theofanidis, and Joseph Schwantner.

Of Austin’s many choral ensembles, the excellent chamber choir, Conspirare, has shown a consistent commitment to new music. Led by Craig Hella Johnson, Conspirare—whose latest recording, Requiem, received two Grammy nominations—has performed and recorded works by a host of contemporary composers, including, among others, Daniel-LeSur, Eric Whitacre, John Corigliano, Veljo Tormis, Paul Crabtree, and UT composers Donald Grantham and Dan Welcher. Recipient of a 2006 NEA American Masterpieces grant, Conspirare will host a major choral festival in January 2007, featuring collaborations between six Texas choirs and the premieres of new works by Stephen Paulus and John Muehleisen.

Tower Music: The UT Scene

Providing the Austin musical community with a steady stream of well-trained and adventurous young musicians, UT’s School of Music has always played a central role in the city’s classical scene, with many local composers and performers having at one point or another passed through the school’s doors. Home to an impressive composition department, led by faculty composers Dan Welcher, Donald Grantham, Russell Pinkston, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, the school has also been a reliable source for contemporary classical music performances.

John Corigliano in rehearsal for the premiere of third symphony, Circus Maximus, at the University of Texas.
Photo courtesy of the School of Music, University of Texas.

UT’s new music ensemble, a cohort of up to sixteen musicians led by Dan Welcher, performs six concerts a year featuring works by prominent contemporary composers along side those of UT students. Jet-setting composers regularly pass through, receiving performances of their works by the New Music Ensemble, and occasionally the UT Symphony and Wind ensemble.

Along with the new music ensemble, the Wind Ensemble regularly presents concerts featuring 20th- and 21st-century works. Under the direction of Jerry Junkin, the ensemble frequently commissions new pieces, including recent world premieres of works by John Corigliano, Michael Daugherty, and UT faculty composers Donald Grantham and Dan Welcher.

For Austin new music fans, the Corigliano premiere was a particularly gratifying event. Playing to a nearly sold-out, 3,000 seat concert hall, the Wind Ensemble’s premiere of Corigliano’s third symphony, Circus Maximus, received a massively positive reaction from an audience filled with university and non-university folk alike. Regardless of one’s esteem for the piece itself, after the performance—with a fully decked out wind band behind them and nearly 3,000 rapt audience members in front—the image of Junkin and Corigliano taking bows was an undeniably encouraging sign, suggesting a public, and an ensemble, quite willing to give new music a chance.

For the electronically inclined, the school’s Electronic Music Studios, by definition of the medium, always offers contemporary music. Run by Russell Pinkston, who also doubles as the president of SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States), UT’s Electronic Music Studios recently hosted Mario Davidovsky, who completed his Synchronism No. 11 for Double Bass and Tape while in residence at EMS.

An outlet for the work of EMS composers, the Electro-Acoustic Recital series, or EARS, presents two concerts a year. Incorporating lighting and visual effects, these concerts sometimes feel more like a theatre production than your standard new music concert. This multi-media theatricality, along with dynamic collaborations between composers, dancers, and filmmakers, contributes to the long-standing appeal of the well-attended concert series.

New Kids on the Block

Golden Hornet Project
Photo courtesy of the Golden Hornet Project.

Outside of UT, a number of dedicated new music organizations have emerged over the past six years. Marked by a preference for alternative venues, a delightfully flagrant disregard for boundaries of genre and style, and an intensely collaborative spirit, the Golden Hornet Project, masterminded by composers Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopchinski, embody the recent sea-change in Austin’s new music scene. Since its inception in 1999, the Golden Hornet Project has presented dozens of concerts featuring the premieres of over 100 works by more than 30 composers. Golden Hornet concerts reject the stuffiness of standard classical fare, presenting works that freely weave jazz, classical, and rock styles in an atmosphere more akin to a club or theatre than a concert hall.

A frequent collaborator with the Golden Hornet Project, composer Kelly Waddle seems to be everywhere at once. A composer of over 250 works, bassist for the Austin Symphony, author, and blackjack dealer, Waddle has crusaded to bring both his music and that of other Austin composers to the public in a non-threatening, non-pretentious way. Consolidating his activities under PKW Productions, Waddle puts on concerts in movie theaters, libraries, churches, and art galleries, frequently incorporating eclectic reinventions of standard repertoire with his own compositions.

Another outlet for local composers, the Barbwire Music Project, brainchild of composer Stephen Barber and Matt Orem, has been producing eclectic concerts featuring a healthy mixture of contemporary classical, experimental rock, and jazz artists since 2001. Featuring numerous Austin-based artists such as Terry Bozzio, Glover Gill, and the Tosca strings, their popular Dia de los Muertos concerts are marathon extravaganzas incorporating a wide range of music.

Having worked with the likes of David Byrne, Keith Richards, and Arto Lindsay, Barber has led a fascinating career as a composer, arranger, and pianist. Before moving to New York to study composition with John Corigliano, Barber, a native Texan, was a member, along with Austin guitar legend Eric Johnson, of the Electromagnets, a prominent Austin-based experimental jazz/rock group. While in New York, he led a duel life as both an arranger—writing charts for the likes of Joe Zawinul and Van Dyke Parks—and a concert music composer. Upon his return to Austin in the mid-’90s, Barber has continued to pursue both sides of his musical life.

In addition to Dia de los Muertos concerts, Barbwire also presents pianist Michelle Schumann’s annual John Cage birthday concert, a program devoted entirely to Mr. Cage’s works. Schumann, an award-winning pianist, professor at University of Mary Hardin Baylor, and director of the Austin Chamber Music Center, is a vigorous advocate for new music. Recently, she joined forces with the Tosca strings, choreographer David Justin, and composer Rob Deemer, in the newly formed American Repertory Ensemble, a group dedicated to innovative collaborations between dancers, composers, and performers.

The Audio Inversions concert series is perhaps the newest act in town. Established in 2005 by composers James Norman, Tony Suter, and flutist/conductor Karmen Suter, Audio Inversions concerts take place at the Austin Museum of Art and regularly include works by local composers. While the Golden Hornet Project, PKW Productions, and Barbwire, have taken a more pluralistic approach to producing new music concerts, frequently including pop-music elements while cultivating a distinctly un-classical feel to their concerts, Audio Inversions takes a slightly more conventional approach, offering the closest thing Austin has to a standard new music concert series (i.e. classically-trained performers, playing contemporary concert music, in a typical concert format). After a successful inaugural season, Audio Inversions is expanding their scope with a summer music festival, featuring concerts, workshops, and the premieres of three new Kelly Waddle concertos.

Noise, Oscillators, Improv, ???

Dedicated to the avant-garde tradition, structured improvisation, and experimental performance and compositional technique, the Austin New Music Co-op, founded in 2001, sits on the fence between Austin’s contemporary classical and experimental music communities. Holding performances wherever it can, including houses, lofts, apartments, ballet-studios, and meeting halls, Co-op concerts have featured premieres of dozens of new works by Austin composers.

A kind of school away from school, the Co-op offers classes in subjects ranging from circuit bending to creative improvisation, brings in prominent guest composers and performers, like Pauline Oliveros, Mary Oliver, John Butcher, and Frode Gjerstad, and holds regular informal house concerts where members can try out new ideas in an informal and intimate setting.

Co-op members with Arnold Dreyblatt at SXSW.
Photo courtesy the Austin New Music Co-op.

In 2006 Co-op members Travis Weller, Nick Hennies, Steve Bernal, and Brent Fariss, performed with Arnold Dreyblatt at the Table of the Elements SXSW showcase. A landmark in itself, as it was the first time SXSW had presented a showcase of a major experimental record label.

Table of the Elements came to Austin for SXSW, but also because they knew they would find an audience for their music. Indeed, for years Austin has been home to a vibrant experimental music community. PG Moreno’s Epistrophy Arts regularly brings in top national free jazz and experimental music artists like the ICP orchestra, Evan Parker, and Mats Gustafsson, while Tina Marsh’s Creative Opportunity Orchestra has been an incubator for progressive jazz for over 25 years.

Austin’s experimental electronic community has been making noise for some time as well. Corry Allen’s Toneburst series, the Austin Museum of Digital Art’s concert series curated by Co-op member Travis Weller, and numerous loft, apartment and house concerts, provide frequent outlets for electronic composers, while the newly minted Spectral House Records, Bremsstrahlung, and Mike Vernusky’s Quiet Design label, have all helped give voice to Austin’s electro-acoustic composers.

What’s Next?

Looking into the future it’s not clear what direction Austin’s new music community might take. Marked by eclectic personalities, a fierce spirit of collaboration, and an intense drive to produce adventurous works, the scene feeds off of itself. And, although small, the community is highly supportive of its members, with performers and composers regularly participating in each other’s concerts and helping with each other’s recordings.

Although pop music looms large, the new music scene does not exist in a vacuum. Many composers and performers are active in both worlds and crossover between the two seems to be increasing. As new music groups begin to build loyal audiences, it seems clear that there are enough Austinites interested in new music to sustain its growth, regardless of its relationship to the bar/club scene.

The prospect for attracting new audiences is promising as well. Many Austin music lovers crave new and exciting music. While there are plenty of bars and clubs where the music is secondary to the socializing, there are also plenty where people come to listen. At a recent concert at one downtown club, The Parish, I recall an impressively attentive audience as the indie band Low played a brilliant late-night set. Same thing when Joanna Newsome rolled through with Smog. When Philip Glass’s Orion played UT’s 3,000 seat Bass concert hall, it was nearly sold out. Same thing when Sigur Ros, David Byrne, and Kronos play Bass. In short, there are many Austinites excited about both listening to music and listening to new music. Down the road, it’s these kind of people who can really give the new music community legs. If groups like the Golden Hornet Project, PKW Productions, Barbwire Music Project, Audio Inversions, and the New Music Co-op, haven’t reached them yet, it’s only a matter of time.


Robert Honstein lives and works in Austin, Texas, where he composes music, plays piano, and sings. He is in the process of completing a master’s degree in composition at the University of Texas at Austin.

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