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Follow that honk! How to see (and hear) Austin's 'Foghorn Elegy' art at Laguna Gloria

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin 360
Steve Parker listens to his art installation “Foghorn Elegy” at the Contemporary Austin Laguna Gloria on Oct. 29. Listening is a big part of what interests Parker as an artist, he said, "and sort of the listening we do at the sea, both to the sea at itself, to foghorns and the other bells that accompany it and even the way kids listen to seashells. It's a form of very deliberate listening."

Around the back of Driscoll Villa at the Contemporary Austin's Laguna Gloria campus in West Austin, a stone staircase leads out to a trail where visitors can explore the museum's sculpture park.

From now until the spring, one of the first pieces visitors will see once at the bottom of the staircase is Steve Parker's "Foghorn Elegy," a sad, stirring and delightful piece about a disappearing machine. Foghorns are used to warn boats about hazards or other vessels in the water.

The piece is made up of five rectangular prisms and one radio tower-looking structure. The prisms are mostly white with red, yellow, black, brown and blue stripes on them, which represent nautical flags. Attached to each are salvaged trumpets, trombones, sousaphones, euphoniums and old copper plumbing. 

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“Foghorn Elegy” was made using salvaged marching band instruments, including trombones and trumpets.

It was barely 60 degrees on the morning of Oct. 30, and the sculptures were not producing their sounds. Rain that had fallen on the Austin area earlier in the week triggered a switch to turn the installation off. Instead, you could hear trees rustling, the water chirping and leaf-blowers vrooming leaves away around the museum's campus. 

Although not the point, as the piece comes with its own sounds, the moment played into what "Foghorn Elegy" is all about.

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Parker discussed the work of R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer who coined the term "soundscape," which just means any sound one hears where they are. He talked about one of Schafer's pieces that involved 12 trombones playing over a body of water at different times of the day. The sound can change as a day churns from dawn to dusk, he explained. 

"(It's) this idea of observing our soundscape and taking note of it and listening deliberately to it," Parker said. 

"The soundscape itself, even aside from the foghorn, is rapidly changing. It's been changing for 100 years, with industry of course, but species disappear and the weather changes," he said. 

“Foghorn Elegy” leads to visitors performing their own kind of choreography as they walk around the piece and listen to different sounds.

As for why he chose to focus on foghorns, Parker said: "They're beautiful and sad and sort of a form of ambient music, unintentional ambient music, that I find really compelling. And they're also disappearing. ... As a sort of sonic species, they are obsolete."

"Listening is also a big part of what interests me, and sort of the listening we do at the sea, to the sea at itself, to foghorns and the other bells that accompany it and even the way kids listen to seashells. It's a form of very deliberate listening," he said. 

Parker started playing the trombone in fourth grade and carried on into his Chicago high school's jazz band. He ended up at the University of Texas for grad school after attending Oberlin College in Ohio.

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He took his trombone and other musical skills to "Foghorn Elegy," using a trombone, a euphonium and a trumpet to imitate what a foghorn sounds like. 

"So rather than just using field recordings, that makes it a bit more personal," Parker said.

Viewers are able to walk around the art, but not touch it, and listen to the noises the structures emit, which sound almost like low growls and whispers. 

Steve Parker created his art installation “Foghorn Elegy” after returning from Rome in July.

"Foghorn Elegy" features small details one can only see by getting up close. Since the instruments used are all salvaged, some came with initials engraved into them. One says "Mark Stevens," and another reads "senator." Parker said one of them says "band sucks."

"They're broken instruments. They're found objects. They're also objects that have had a significant life before I get my hands on them. So that's, in a way, giving life, or finding a way to honor the workmanship of the instrument and what they have represented to other people," Parker said. 

Parker made "Foghorn Elegy" over the summer after he arrived home from a residency in Rome in July. 

"Anytime I have the opportunity to make art, I feel very fortunate and lucky, and what I've missed the most during the pandemic is the exchange between when a piece of artwork is made and the opportunity to talk to people and see other people's work," Parker said. 

How to see 'Foghorn Elegy'

The piece is on view at the Contemporary Austin's Laguna Gloria location through spring 2022. Go to thecontemporaryaustin.org/lagunagloria for hours and reservations.

At 6 p.m. on Nov. 4, Parker's piece will be on display during a free musical performance at Laguna Gloria. The University of Texas at San Antonio's Sousaphone and Euphonium Ensemble will perform, along with nearly a dozen others. Slots to attend were full as of Tuesday. Get more info at thecontemporaryaustin.org/event/foghorn-elegy.