When Clara Driscoll planned her lakeside estate, Laguna Gloria, in 1916, she devised the design of the grounds so that visitors could come by boat from downtown Austin and arrive shoreside. Then, guests of the Texan grande dame — whose Italianate manse is now part of AMOA-Arthouse — would proceed through Driscoll’s elaborate terraced garden to the house.
What a promenade.
Composer Travis Weller certainly kept Driscoll’s fanciful legacy and the bucolic idiosyncrasies of the Laguna Gloria grounds in mind as he wrote Concerto Laguna, the site-specific composition debuting Saturday.
The first of AMOA-Arthouse’s new "Spring Sound Series" of outdoor concerts and sound art events, Concerto Laguna is an hour-long piece for solo cello and a small ensemble of percussionists.
Solo cello in a rowboat that is.
Weller’s composition calls for cellist Leanne Zacharias to play while floating in a rowboat anchored in the Laguna Gloria inlet. Percussionists playing large steel tube-like bells will be positioned at points along the shore.
The audience can wander the grounds while listening to the entire amplified piece via headsets or shirk the electronics and experience the changing nature of the sounds acoustically.
Weller, a co-founder of Austin’s New Music Co-op, staged a similar project last year as part of the Fusebox Festival. That composition used the block around Weller’s East Austin home, with musicians in different houses or businesses as the audience wandered from place to place.
"I’ve always been interested in sound pieces where the space is integral to the music," Weller says. "And luckily (cellist Leanne Zacharias) is up for watercraft shenanigans."
The watercraft at the center of Concerto Laguna is Weller’s own boat, a wooden flat-bottomed skiff he bought on Craigslist a while back and which he frequently takes out Lady Bird Lake. A boat style more common to coastal waterways, Weller’s slightly anachronistic wooden skiff garners attention in Central Texas.
"People take pictures of it — and me — whenever I take it out," he says.
A longtime Austinite, Weller is well acquainted with the bucolic Laguna Gloria grounds and Driscoll’s larger-than-life yet idiosyncratic legacy (she saved the Alamo from the wrecking ball in 1903 by simply buying it).
If it might have at first seemed obvious to create a sound piece based around the historic Laguna Gloria villa — an architectural confection of a building filled with surprising nooks and crannies — Weller instead found the unique features of the grounds inspirational.
"Water has the ability to completely alter the normal characterizations of sound and how it travels," Weller says.
What might seem to be sounds originating from nearby might actually, when projected over a body of water, be from some distance.
Weller’s minimalist-rooted musical style often involves slowly morphing harmonic arcs that ebb and flow, typically building in intensity as the piece progresses.
And his own instrumental inventions are as much a part of his compositions. For Concerto Laguna, he used steel tubing to create large singular chimes.
With its combination of aural and environmental qualities, Weller’s site-specific music relies on a singular combination of technical and natural elements.
"It’s as much a physical, environmental, visual experience as it is musical," he says.