On the heels of a very successful presentation of Musicircus, part of The Blanton’s SoundSpace music series, Aimee Chang, Manager of Public Programs, sits down to talk with Steve Parker, organizer of these innovative performances….
I first met Steve Parker, a Donald D. Harrington Fellow and doctoral student in the Butler School of Music, in early 2010 to discuss possible new music programming at The Blanton. He had played at the museum as part of Faculty Ensemble, another one of The Blanton’s collaborations with the Butler School of Music. Over lunch at Foodheads we started talking about what would eventually evolve into SoundSpace, a one-day series of new music performances in the galleries organized by Steve, UT doctoral composition student Ethan Greene, and Austin Symphony Orchestra violinist Molly Emerman. After that successful first concert on February 11, 2011, I invited Steve to become an artist-in-residence at The Blanton for an academic year, offering the museum’s resources to further his research in cross-disciplinary collaboration and new forms and contexts for live performance. He took advantage of the opportunity to program two additional SoundSpace concerts. The second, Music and Dance, a collaboration with Michelle Thompson, a choreographer and dancer at Ballet Austin, was a series of dance and music performances in response to the architecture and artworks at The Blanton, and the third, MUSICIRCUS, was a tribute to John Cage. The following is an interview between the two of us, conducted over email this past weekend.
—Aimee Chang, Manager, Public Programs
Steve Parker: Overall, it’s been a great collaborative experience. I think that each concert has improved both artistically and logistically from the previous one. For example, the other performers and I have really come to appreciate all of the obvious, yet involved logistical concerns of the museum, including security and artwork safety. From an artistic perspective, I think each concert has moved closer toward a united performance of both the visual and aural. Further, it also seems like the concerts have taken on a strong collaborative feel, between museum staff, performers, and myself. Especially for the Cage program, I really enjoyed brainstorming ideas with you, Chris Seebach, and the other performers.
AC: I’m curious about how much control you exerted over MUSICIRCUS—it has been reported that you invited people and, in the spirit of John Cage, they did what they wanted to. Is that what happened?
SP: Ha! I’m not surprised that the MUSICIRCUS concert felt like it was a total free for all! Behind all of the craziness, believe it or not, there was a balance of structure and chance. First, every piece or ensemble was chosen based on its connection to Cage. For example, I invited Mongoose, an ensemble that regularly performs John Zorn’s Cobra, a “game piece” whose system and structure draws clear influence from Cage. Similarly, I invited other chamber music groups and solo performers to perform the work of Cage and his contemporaries, including Michael Pisaro, Merce Cunningham, and Sun Ra. Generally speaking, the order and starting times of each of the performers was largely due to chance (with some exceptions), and several of the works employed chance or improvisation, giving the program a further sense of chaos.
AC: I asked you to address John Cage for SoundSpace 3, in honor of his 100th birthday. What is your own relationship with Cage and his work?
SP: This is a hard question to answer, because I don’t really know where to begin. I would venture to say nearly all artists (not just musicians) are influenced by Cage’s thinking and work, whether they know it or not.
Having said that, the first thought that comes to mind is that I try to embrace Cage’s general approach to sound: I try to be curious, playful, and inventive. Second, there are a number of his works that I just appreciate for their inherent beauty. Contrary to Schoenberg’s (who was Cage’s teacher) opinion , I think that Cage has a beautiful approach to simple harmony and melody.
AC: How did you decide to have the trombone be your instrument? Has that played into your interests in non-traditional performance?
SP: The trombone really chose me, rather than me choosing it. I originally wanted to play the sax, but my dad had an old trombone in the attic (that smelled like baking soda, I might add). The first thing I remember about playing the trombone was making motorcycle noises on it, which was pretty fun. However, I wasn’t very serious about it until high school, when I started playing jazz and had a particularly influential band director, Dr. Ron Holleman. “Doc,” as we called him, turned me on to Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, and Third Stream music.
My interest in non-traditional performance really stems from necessity. Nobody is ever banging down a trombonist’s door for a gig [Insert trombone joke here]. As a result, I’ve really had to create my own opportunities, which inevitably spurs creativity. Similarly, most opportunities for trombonists involve a lot of sitting around doing nothing (like waiting for 30 minutes for a 2 note entrance in the orchestra). This provides us with a lot of time for thinking, and I find this encourages a lot of crazy ideas.
AC: Who are some people, musicians, composers or otherwise that inspire you?
SP: Most of the people I find inspiring are either mentors or friends of mine. Here are just a few:
– Peter Evans: Peter is an incredible performer, improvisor and composer. The first time I heard his solo record, my head nearly exploded from the variety of texture, color, and coherence that he crammed into every tune. It’s really difficult to describe all the sounds that he produces, so everyone should just go visit his website: myspace.com/peterevanstrumpet
– Abbie Conant: Abbie was my teacher in Germany, and she is just an incredible artist and person. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a chapter about her in his book Blink and you can read about all her dealings with sexual discrimination in the Munich Philharmonic. Now she does a variety of theatre, composition and performing, primarily in southwest Germany, and New Mexico. www.osborne-conant.org
– Corey Dargel: Corey and I went to Oberlin together and he just writes incredible sincere, beautiful music. His music reminds me of the Magnetic Fields, but just better. He’s been featured on Studio 360 and the NY Times wrote a feature on him a while back. Read all about his projects at: automaticheartbreak.com
AC: Can you recommend some events, performances, programs, collectives etc. that people should keep an eye out for?
SP: One of the exciting things about contemporary art in Austin is that there are all sorts of new projects popping up. Three exciting things come to mind:
Fast Forward Austin: This is a new marathon music festival happening April 15th organized by my friends Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein, and Steve Snowden. I played on it last year, and it was awesome. This year, they have some incredible folks playing, including Bel Cuore Sax Quartet, Graham Reynolds, and Bang on a Can’s Vicky Chow.
Perspective: Xenakis: My friends in line upon line percussion are organizing a two day festival of Iannis Xenakis’ music and ideas. Xenakis was originally trained as an architect, and much of his music draws upon this background. This festival will be interesting because it will feature leading interpreters of his music, the Jack Quartet, and talks by leading scholars of Xenakis’ music.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Cage!: Michelle Schumann has been organizing an annual Cage program for at least ten years in Austin, and this show promises to be great. Her show will feature herself, New Music Co-op, line upon line percussion, and I’m sure a number of other cool surprises. Not to be missed!
AC: What are your feelings about your work at The Blanton or at other visual arts organizations?SP:It’s funny. So many of my concerts happen at art museums these days. I’m in NYC right now, playing at the Guggenheim Museum with Ensemble Signal, performing the music of Charles Wuorinen. I’ve also done a bunch of stuff fairly recently at MASS MoCA and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
I really enjoy working with other visual arts organizations for a number of reasons. First, they tend to attract audiences who are intellectually curious and want to be challenged artistically. Second, working with museums helps me to look at my work through an entirely different filter, which is always enlightening. Finally, one can’t avoid being inspired by visual art when one is performing next to amazing stuff. It’s among my favorite settings in which to perform.
Steve Parker, SoundSpace: Music and Dance; Aerial Ballet, SoundSpace: Music and Dance; Mongoose playing Cobra by John Zorn, SoundSpace: MUSICIRCUS; Steve Parker on trombone, SoundSpace: MUSICIRCUS; Michelle Schuman playing John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano, SoundSpace: MUSICIRCUSAll photos courtesy of Elisa Ferrari