The avant-garde French composer Pierre Boulez died on January 5 of this year. He was 90 years old, and had retired from public life, so while many of us admired his innovative electronic music, as well as his iconic recordings as a conductor of Mahler, Debussy, and Wagner, we were saddened but not shocked at the news of his passing.
David Bowie’s death five days later was quite different, as we only then learned that one of our most public celebrities and gregarious artists had kept his terminal illness private for the previous 18 months. His latest album, a striking work that recast Bowie’s alternate interests in industrial and ambient rock into a tightly curated 41-minute barrage, seemed to be yet another reinvention by the master of reinvention, and we couldn’t wait to see what would come next. But of course, he’d made the album knowing all along that he’d never be able to record a successor.
And then this April, as we were beginning to plan the upcoming installment of our music series SoundSpace, it was saddening to receive news in rapid succession of the deaths of two other leading figures in the last 50 years of recorded music: Tony Conrad, the composer and sound artist whose work with John Cale and Faust has influenced numerous musicians, from drone rock to techno to commercial film soundtracks, and Prince, whose virtuosic guitar licks were matched only by his catalogue of perfect pop songs.
These figures have an especially strong connection to SoundSpace, a series that explores the connections between visual art and contemporary music, in that all four were known for their works’ interactions with other media. Boulez wrote extensively about contemporary art and was friends with Joan Miró and Francis Bacon; Bowie was deeply embedded in visual culture and was a pioneer of the music video form, as well as an actor in films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth; Conrad was a film director whose works such as The Flicker are central to the American experimental film canon; and Prince’s performative adaptations of gender, race, genre, and color in his live performances are almost as striking as his virtuosic craft as a musician.
We thought that the intersection of these artists’ work with the tradition of the SoundSpace series would provide a fitting recognition and celebration of these and other recently departed musicians. SoundSpace: In Memoriam is less about cover versions of famous songs or the tradition of the tribute concert. What we love about tribute concerts is their ability to function as wake and saturnalia: they’re a place for us to acknowledge our collective grief, while remembering the energy and commitment of the artists’ lives. But we’re more interested in a tribute concert that brings Boulez, Bowie, Conrad, and Prince into a contemporary context by showing how their work continues to inspire new musicians and new music.
Money Chicha is an especially exciting group to have kick off the show because they’ve performed live as Prince’s backing band. There’s a trio of Austin bands—Aux Aux, Mediums, and Linen Closet—presenting work from a recent Austin-centered Bowie tribute album. There will be Boulez works that demand virtuosic solo performance and other works played from pre-recorded tapes. There’s even a world premiere composition that manages to mash up the influences of neurologist Oliver Sacks and Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister.
Finally, we’re proud to present three works by the late composer Ethan Frederick Greene, who tragically passed last year at age 32. Ethan had only recently moved from Austin to central Florida to work on the digital art faculty at Stetson University, after receiving his doctorate in the Butler School of Music here at UT. Ethan had performed in the very first SoundSpace in 2011, and was beloved here at the university and within the Austin music community. I remember very vividly that the news of his death was arriving via text messages while many of his friends and collaborators were performing at SoundSpace on September 13, 2015. This Sunday, we’ll present works for cello (Aerial Ballet), for percussion trio (Sewn), and for rotary phone and electronics (My Parents’ Phone Number)—in recognition of the brilliant careers of Ethan, and of these other artists whose memories and whose music remain with us.
SoundSpace: In Memoriam is June 19 from 2pm – 4pm and is included with museum admission. Learn more about the event on Facebook.