South by Southwest Points To New Directions

South by Southwest Points To New Directions

Steve Reich speaking at SXSW
Photo by Robert Honstein

Steve Reich came to SXSW. Amid throngs of hipsters, music industry insiders, fans of all ages, and countless axe-wielding, keyboard-playing, and drum-thumping rockers, Steve Reich, sporting his iconic logo-free cap, rolled into town. A far cry from its humble, homegrown, origins, SXSW 2008 (March 12-16) was a madhouse of a music festival, inhabited by some 12,500 registered participants and 1,750 bands. Faced with more than 30 different genres of music ranging from bluegrass to metal, the devoted fan might stumble upon hipper-than-hip indie acts, veterans like Sonic Youth, The Breeders, and R.E.M., grizzled blues men, Scandinavian death metal bands, or…Steve Reich. Yes, if there is a place for Jandek and Bud Melvin at SXSW, then surely there must also be a place for the patriarch of minimalism. Right?

Boosey & Hawkes certainly thinks so. This year, the music publisher—along with partners Gramophone and WMG/Nonesuch records—decided they needed to be heard at SXSW. After attending the festival in 2007, Boosey’s Director of Media Licensing Ken Krasner immediately set to work on making a 2008 Boosey showcase a reality. Though new and experimental music has been a part of the festival in the past—Zeena Parkins showed up in 2006 and the experimental label Table of the Elements has given showcases the last few years—the idea of a classical music publishing house setting up shop in the streets of Austin is without precedent. Judging from the enthusiasm of the packed crowd at the Boosey showcase this past Wednesday, the idea paid off.

A typical SXSW outing involves free booze, loud music, and sweat-soaked bodies packed into cramped spaces. Taking over nearly every inch of downtown Austin’s bars, clubs, churches, sidewalks, parks, and bridges, SXSW artists play anywhere there’s enough space for a human and an instrument. In the face of such a ubiquitous onslaught of constant, loud, amplified sound, if you’re not inside listening to one band, you’re outside listening to five at the same time. But part of the fun of SXSW is navigating this sprawling, free-for-all experience. Weaving among the throngs of people and bands, one can’t help but be swept away by the electric spirit of so much creative action.

Noise, crowds, and beer are not the usual bandmates of classical music, but somehow the Boosey showcase on March 12, titled “Reich, Rags and Road Movies”, fit nicely. Packed into a gorgeous wood-floored space, onlookers maintained rapt attention throughout performances by Michelle Schumann, the San Antonio based SOLI chamber players, Boosey’s own C. E. Whalen, and So Percussion. Although it was a bit surreal to experience concert hall etiquette at a SXSW showcase, the audience was clearly there for the music and seemed to relish the opportunity for a kind of listening experience wholly unique to the festival’s standard fare.

So Percussion performing Steve Reich’s Drumming Part 1 at SXSW
Photo by Robert Honstein

The crowd’s obvious appreciation of the concert is itself a strong case for why new music should have a place at a festival like SXSW. The music performed—including six pieces by Reich, three pieces by Elena Kats-Chernin, and one piece each by Michael Torke, John Adams, and Elliott Carter—displayed strong resonances with popular music (the exception being the Carter piece, which was certainly the odd duck of the program). And Reich’s multi-generational influence on non-classical and classical musicians alike made him an ideal figurehead for the new music community at SXSW. The festival seemed to recognize this aspect of Reich’s provenance, facilitating an hour-long discussion between Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Reich as part of the concurrently running SXSW music conference.

Over one hundred artists identified themselves as “avant/experimental” at this year’s festival, and in this sense new music fits right in a with a larger SXSW trend. Showcases hosted by record label Table of the Elements, Austin’s own composer/performer Graham Reynolds, and the magazine Signal to Noise all featured music that evidenced connections with the new music world. Also riding that wave, Austin-based cellist Leanne Zacharias presented a show mixing SXSW artists such as Christine Fellows with works by contemporary composers, including Christian Lauba, Greg Cornelius, and myself. So while the Boosey showcase was certainly a fresh face at the festival, it was not entirely alone.

Although the shows, the parties, and the people are a huge part of the SXSW experience, it’s really an industry festival. Prices for badges and wristbands, necessary for getting into most SXSW events, are prohibitively expensive for the average fan. Instead the vast majority of festival-goers are the musicians themselves, people working in the industry, and representatives of the media. Aside from showcasing music, the festival is about bringing musicians and industry insiders together to meet, exchange ideas, and make deals. And the last few years, landing licensing deals for commercials, movies, or television shows has become a big part of the festival’s business side. So while Boosey set up shop in part to spread the sounds of new music, surely they’re also hoping to have their music turn up in a car commercial or the next episode of your favorite sitcom.

Whether seen as a bold experiment or evidence of a natural and healthy relationship between popular and contemporary classical music, Boosey’s showcase and Reich’s presence at the festival was a welcome addition. SXSW accommodates a wildly diverse array of musicians, all of whom seem to fit some niche and draw some kind of an audience. Perhaps if it weren’t for the boxes we draw around different types of music, it wouldn’t seem so surprising for Steve Reich and friends to drop in. Jason Treuting of So Percussion, while introducing his group to the audience at Boosey’s showcase, described the music they were about to play as “funky, contemporary music.” He’s right, it is, and there’s no reason why there can’t be more of it at SXSW in years to come. Austin to world: Bring on the new music bands!


Robert Honstein

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

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