Classical music gets a different venue at Fast Forward Austin
On East 12th Street, one block west of Airport Boulevard, past True Hope Church and across from a check-cashing store called Moneyland, sits a lime green building on a gravel parking lot that might just represent the future of Austin's new music scene.
The building is Space 12, a former night club turned ad hoc community center, renting out to church groups, yoga classes and, for eight hours on Saturday, Fast Forward Austin, an ambitious music festival that will try to bring the avant garde out of the concert hall and into a more familiar Texas atmosphere.
This is probably the first classical music event in Austin to simultaneously make its own beer koozies and receive 100 submissions to a competition for new music.
But then again, for the festival's three founders, composers Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein and Steven Snowden, it's exactly what they had in mind.
"It's going to be an open door thing where you can come and go. Very comfortable. You can come in, grab a beer, sit down and listen to some new music," Snowden says.
Fast Forward will feature some of Austin's most exciting new talent, like the Aeolus String Quaret (University of Texas' graduate quartet in residence), the percussion trio Line Upon Line, the Bel Cuore Saxophone Quartet and the Austin New Music Co-op.
Each of these groups is more accustomed to the hallowed hardwood of a concert hall than the low-slung ceilings of a night club, but aside from the string quartet (which just seems to define the propriety of classical music culture) it's hardly a stretch to envision the New Music Co-Op blowing minds at a bar downtown, or the vivacious percussionists from Line Upon Line playing, well, anywhere — on any available surface.
"Really adventurous pop music and really adventurous classical music actually overlap," says Snowden. Take "something like Bel Cuore Saxophone Quartet, and some of their stuff, they could totally just do that in a bar. Or they could do it in a concert hall. I don't think a lot of people realize there is that sort of overlap."
And they should know. Composers in academia hear more music than just about anyone, and from their vantage point they can peel apart most pop songs in an instant, with a radar that detects influences everywhere. And yet, their trained ears also have noticed something else: "popular" music is becoming weirder. Fans of art bands like Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors are embracing more abrasive tones and less predictable rhythms.
"What was fringe 10 years ago is part of a mainstream," says Honstein. Pop has never been closer to art music than it is right now.
"In the classical world, they have moved to this incredibly rigid dynamic, where the audience and performers are locked into this relationship," he says.
"In almost any other context, music is a total, communal, almost participatory event ... there's a connection, almost like a dialogue" between the artists and the audience, he says. "That whole back and forth contributes to that experience being special, and I think new music definitely could use that."
Moving to a venue like Space 12 is, in part, a response to that, says Dicke. "It's a little bit of a gritty place, which I like, because some of the music that will be programmed is gritty, too.
"It's not like some high-end, West End hoity-toity thing. ... It's just right here, in a neighborhood," adds Snowden. They're hoping the trailer in the back lot will still be there, still with its garish painting of a cartoonish man with oversized teeth.
"It gets shined up in these concert halls over at UT, so it will be interesting to see: Does this music work in this kind of environment?" says Dicke.
And several of the pieces at the festival have (somewhat destructive) elements of performance art that steer closer to the Flaming Lips than to the symphony.
Snowden recalls rehearsing his wickedly fun piece for solo bass drum, "A Man With a Gun Lives Here," with Line Upon Line. "They're trying to work it out, and it's all very detailed and notated, and it just doesn't quite feel right. And they're like, ‘Man, this is the slow jam right here,' " as Snowden mimics a deep bass beat that would be at home in many of Austin's cars and trucks.
Inspired by a trip to the San Francisco festival Switchboard, Dicke began brainstorming names for a festival of his own. After seriously dedicating themselves to the idea a year ago, the trio solicited donations through Kickstarter, eclipsing their goal by $700, and reached out to their colleagues and to the city's best new music performers.
"We raised our goal in four days. We set the bar too low, I guess," says Dicke.
One of the rewards for donating was a personalized composition, and two investors anted up enough to have a piece of their own. "One of them was my grandma," admits Honstein, to great laughter, "so I will be making that one," he says, grinning.
The trio also linked up with Anthropos Arts, Austin's nonprofit music education program for kids in Title I schools, to receive all the net profits, and invited a group of Anthropos players in on a performance of Terry Riley's iconic piece, "In C."
The festival is full of new works and premieres.
They selected Dan Visconti's work for Aeolus, "Black Bend," a piece that obviously wowed them. The score is fully notated, Honstein says, but "it sounds like a blues jam."
The New Music Co-op will play a work it commissioned from minimalist composer Arnold Dreyblatt, only the second performance of this piece.
Line Upon Line will play part of Steve Reich's seminal work "Drumming," another piece that wouldn't be out of place in a club (or at a rave, for that matter).
"There'll basically be something happening at each point," says Honstein. "It'll move from inside to outside, there'll be some (music that's) more acoustic, some amplified — there's going to be some dance stuff."
"We think that there's something in the mixture of all these different styles which will speak to the larger community of people," Snowden says. "That's one of the main reasons we're having it here."
After all, this is a festival with a mission. "There are certainly, acoustically, much better venues that we could have used. But the location and the idea of this place is really important to us," says Snowden.
Toward the end of an interview, as if proving Snowden's point, three kids walk into the lot, kicking up dirt, playing, taking turns on a nearby swing.
The venue is the message for each of these groups. "I think they're kind of curious to see what's going to happen, and they're really interested in having a new audience take a listen to what they're doing," Snowden says.