Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Chamber music fest features unusual guest

Luke Quinton

Michael Torke is probably not what you'd imagine of a celebrated composer near the peak of his powers. Instead of cozying up to an academic job, Torke lives half the year in Las Vegas.

Though he keeps a home in New York, the Vegas thing is not a novelty act. "Conductors will say to me, 'You live in Las Vegas? Well, I can't imagine that you ever go to the Strip.' 'Every night!' I say."

Torke is the featured composer of July's Austin Chamber Music Festival.

He writes "interlocking parts," says Michelle Schumann, the festival's artistic director. "It's almost like a pointillistic painting, so if you look at it really closely it doesn't make sense, but if you step back you see this whole progression of what's going on."

"Mojave" typifies this style, with chattering marimba and relentless strings that evoke that peculiar landscape of the drive between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

The players work hard at the intricate parts, Schumann says, "but in the end they realize that it just has to groove."

Torke famously has a neurological condition called synesthesia. "It's overrated, he says. "In my case I see colors involuntarily when I hear music."

"It's a hot topic in brain research, but I think it's all bull." Researcher Oliver Sacks interviewed him on the topic for his book "Musicophilia."

"For me, keys become colors. So D major is blue." But you wouldn't see a little square of blue, he says. "It's like your whole interior 'imagining' is blue. It's kind of like remembering a dream."

Torke turns 50 this year, so the festival is a bit of a celebration and a retrospective. Perhaps it signals a subtle shift of direction.

"I love Las Vegas!" says Torke. "I love the dry weather; I love the heat in the summer. I play poker every night."

Poker? "Composing is a solitary act," Torke says. Poker offers a chance to stroll outside and be social. "That takes my mind off the pressures of the work."

A classical composer as poker aficionado certainly bucks the stereotype, but "Human beings want to have fun," Torke says. And creating something "artistically meaningful, in a way, has nothing to do with the other choices that you make."

Torke is the rare artist who has both the opportunity and the inclination to make music for both the academy and the people at his poker table.

"I believe that audiences are right, not wrong," he says. "You're supposed to be this genius who's misunderstood."

But "I'm an audience member, too. I'm not so dumb when I sit in my seat. Do you think I'm listening with a lobotomy?

"It's not even about IQ. Music is a very emotional thing," he says. Intellectual conceits are welcome, as long as they add to the emotional resonance.

And Austin audiences will have plenty of chances to hear Torke's vivid alloy of brainy rhythms and moving melodies, with performances of his work spread during the three weekends of the festival.

More than 40 events in all, with eight concerts, free shows and lectures, the festival continues to grow, about 30 percent each year.

This is the fifteenth year of the festival, the fifth programmed by Schumann.

"I don't feel like chamber music has to have boundaries," she says. That's why the festival continues to include groups that are equally comfortable in the jazz world.

Last year had the Bad Plus, a raucous jazz trio, and this year there's Kneebody, which plays original compositions, a mash of jazz and avant garde rock. Kneebody will play at the Continental Club, outfitted with chairs to nicely mirror the amalgamation of the rock and classical worlds on stage.

Typically diverse, this year will see an a capella quartet, Anonymous 4, the Miró Quartet, the Bandini-Chiacchiaretta guitar and bandoneon duo, the Chiara String Quartet and the Vienna Piano Trio.

The festival also features the eminently celebrated Tokyo String Quartet, one of the world's finest ensembles, playing four Stradivarius instruments on "The Paganini Quartet."

Austin Chamber Music Festival

When: Friday-July 23

Where: Multiple venues

Tickets: $25