Austin's alt-classical auteurs
Reynolds, Stopschinski present two new symphonies in Saturday concerts.
It's not easy for a genre-blurring musician in a genre-focused music industry. When it's simpler for the music biz to sell its cultural product in neat categories, any music that bridges or blurs those market-described categories often gets left behind.
Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski know that all too well. The pair of genre-defying Austin composers, well-known to arts audiences for their myriad collaborations with theater and dance productions, will debut their respective sixth symphonies on Saturday at Austin Ventures Studio Theater inside Ballet Austin's downtown headquarters.
The venue might be next door to the Austin Music Hall and just blocks from the Sixth Street epicenter of the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," but Reynolds and Stopschinski — who each have long resumes that include writing music for film scores, rock bands, chamber music, jazz ensembles along with dance and theater productions — wonder if the greater live music audience can wrap its mind around the debut of new symphonies by Austin musicians.
If they had to name a genre for themselves, Reynolds suggests "alt-classical." Even that label, though, might be off-putting to some.
And so in an effort to provide some context for what they do — and in an effort to demonstrate how genre-busting music really isn't such a far-out thing — Reynolds and Stopschinski have called in the big guns, so to speak.
Along with their respective symphonies, they'll present the regional premiere of "Popcorn Superhet Receiver," a piece for symphony orchestra by Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead.
Like Reynolds and Stopschinski, Greenwood's output spans genres, with rock songs, film scores, avant-garde orchestral works and more.
"Yeah, Greenwood's just like us," jokes Stopschinski. "But he just happens to be in the biggest rock band in the world, and he also just happens to be the composer-in-residence for the BBC, and the movies he writes for just happened to get Oscar nominations." (Excerpts from "Popcorn" were used in Greenwood's score for "There Will Be Blood.")
Self-effacing humor aside, including Greenwood's award-winning radio static-inspired "Popcorn" on Saturday's program could bring the Radiohead-heads in. Or so Reynolds and Stopschinski hope. (Sorry, Radiohead fans: Greenwood will not be in attendance Saturday night, nor did he respond to requests for an interview.)
At the very least, it's a welcoming gesture that Reynolds and Stopschinski hope communicates an important message: New symphonic music is as accessible — and enjoyable — as any other kind of live music experience.
"There's a formality and snootiness associated with traditional symphonic concerts, all these rules that make it a challenging and intimidating event to attend," says Reynolds. Take, for example, the dictum that a listener can applaud only at certain times during a symphony and that, well, everyone should already know when those applause-appropriate times are. "But if you remove that formality," Reynolds says, "if you eliminate the snootiness, then the actual artistic experience of composed or orchestral music can be very rewarding." (Reynolds and Stopschinski invite their audiences to react however they like.)
Artistically, the music that Reynolds and Stopschinski create is similar to that of Greenwood and many contemporary alt-classical composers who cull from the wide history of popular and classic music. Melody and tonality reign. If there is dissonance, it comes in spurts. Both composers favor large cinematic sweeps of music that suggest a narrative arc. Yet both also employ a generous use of minimalist repetition. And synthesized sampled sounds are as likely to appear as are virtuosic solos.
Reynolds' music shows his particular penchant for rollicking rhythms and percussion-driven riffs. (He's been on a several-year exploration of big band stylings.) Reynolds' new symphony, "The Difference Engine," is inspired by the mind-bending philosophies of 19th-century mathematician Charles Babbage and is essentially a triple concerto for violin, cello and piano with string orchestra.
Stopschinski's compositions reveal his affinity for toying with musical textures. (Among his earlier efforts was the experimental punk rock band Brown Whornet.) His "Rough Night With Happy Ending" symphony moves from charging to violent to cool. And to create an effect similar to digital delay or echo, Stopschinski has split the normal orchestral arrangement of the violin section, dividing the violinists up so half are on one side of stage and half on the other.
Saturday night's concerts (there are two shows of about 75 minutes each) mark an anniversary for Reynolds and Stopschinski. Ten years ago, the two debuted their first symphonies. Since then, their musical explorations and collaborations have been vast.
Reynolds, whose film score credits include the music for Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," will later this month unveil his second collaboration with Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills after the award-winning "Cult of Color: Call to Color" ballet, for which Reynolds wrote the music.
On Stopschinski's plate of late? He just finished writing a musical version of "A Tale of Two Cities" for students at the Waldorf School, and he's also working on some string section parts for a few songs on the forthcoming album by Latin power-funk band Grupo Fantasma.
At last year's South by Southwest Music Festival, both Reynolds and Stopschinski played on the showcase sponsored by Nonclassical Records, the London-based label started by Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of the famed Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. And this summer, both Austin composers collaborated on the new album by avant-garde mix master DJ Spooky.
If the efforts of Reynolds and Stopschinski are not that far removed artistically from many kinds of live music, financially and logistically presenting a symphony concert is leagues more complex than a typical night for a band in a club.
The pair estimates that when all is said and done, Saturday's two concerts will have cost more than $15,000, with monies going to pay the orchestra of 35 musicians, the conductor, Ludek Drizhal, and renting a venue large enough for that many musicians. "And that cost is without paying ourselves," adds Reynolds.
Not included in the cost of the concerts is the $3,000 to $4,000 that Reynolds and Stopschinski personally anted up to self-produce recordings of their new symphonies at their home studios. The CDs will be for sale on Saturday.
Last year, they established a nonprofit organization, Golden Hornet Project, that serves as an administrative umbrella to organize their continuing efforts to present alt-classical music by themselves and others.
Though frustrations remain in working within a music industry and music culture that insists on affixing reductive labels, Reynolds and Stopschinski eschew a jaded attitude in favor of measured optimism. They already have a large audience in Austin, after all. But they'd like to increase it. "We're really not doing anything that we haven't already done," says Reynolds. "We're just presenting it in a way that hopefully more people can find their own entry point."
Symphony VI: 'The Difference Engine' and 'Rough Night With Happy Ending'
When: 8 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, February 6
Where: Austin Ventures Studio Theater, Ballet Austin, 501 W. Third St.