Part Zero: Epigraph
She ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself, “Which way? Which way?” holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing, and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size. To be sure, this is what generally happens when one eats cake, but Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.
-- Lewis Carroll
Part One: Abstract
Q: What happens to composers and performers of new music when they leave music school?
Q: In what sorts of ways do they continue to make music happen?
Q: Where, for whom, with whom?
Q: In what sorts of ways do they make money?
Q: How do they live?
Part Two: Setting
Round Top, Texas (pop. 80) is seventy-five miles from Austin and ninety-five from Houston. Driving east on highway 290 through small towns, past Dairy Queens and Whataburgers, it is phenomenally easy to miss the turn on Round Top Road that bends a few more miles past ranches and brush. You are in Texas. The tall grasses glisten in the blue-orange heat.
And then, quite at once, there to your right is an immense, opulent, 1100-seat concert hall.
You have arrived at Festival Hill.
The Round Top Festival Institute was founded in 1971 by James Dick, a Texan pianist with an international performing career who one day decided to host a festival out in the country. The first summer there were ten student pianists, and the event culminated in two concerts. Recent years have seen upwards of thirty concerts during a two-month summer festival, which hosts a full orchestra of young performers.
Festival Concert Hall is the aspect of Round Top which demands the most immediate explanation. Physically enormous, incredibly precise in its decorations and embellishments, acoustically beautiful and architecturally imposing, the structure is not similar to anything commonly seen in rural American communities with double-digit population figures. But James Dick had a vision, and he raised a great deal of money, and there it is.
Festival Hill is a quirky place. The dining room is adorned with crests and shields from the Lord of the Rings books. One constantly looks about, expecting a crowd of tourists. Often there is no one really around.
Imagine the place bathed in the warm air of an April night. Crickets buzz, and breezes brush the leaves. Beside the concert hall is a small building that houses administrative offices, a meeting room, and a game room with billiards and ping-pong tables. Noises are heard from within. The lights are on in the game room.
Inside in the yellow light are ten men, ranging in age from early twenties to early thirties. Empty and in-progress cans of Lone Star Beer (The National Beer of Texas™) are everywhere in evidence.
These gentlemen comprise two music performing groups:
(1) line upon line percussion was founded in 2009 by three percussion students at the University of Texas at Austin. They immediately began commissioning new percussion trios from their fellow graduate students and other composers. In 2011 they released a debut album consisting of these “home-grown” commissioned pieces. They were nominated for Austin Critics’ Table Awards in 2011 and 2012, and received the award for Best Ensemble in 2013. They have performed around the country, mostly at universities. Like most percussionists these days, they take on performance-practice challenges with joy and aplomb. One of their most successful commissions is a piece by Steven Snowden in which all three musicians play one concert bass drum with buckshot spread across its skin.
(2) The Fivefold Galactic Bells also had its origin at UT-Austin, though not under that name. Brought together under the auspices of the university’s New Music Ensemble, two percussion grad students and two composer-pianists mounted a performance of George Crumb’s epic Music for a Summer Evening at a Master’s recital in 2009. This particular edition of Music for a Summer Evening also featured a posse of attractive dancers climbing about on a three-story set of scaffolding and gradually removing their clothing to reveal nude-colored leotards. The performance received accordingly rapturous reviews from a predominantly male new-music audience scarcely accustomed to such happenings. In 2013 the group reassembled, under their new, Crumb-inspired moniker, to perform at the University of Central Florida. This reunion occurred only through the dogged efforts of the group’s percussionists, who began planning and plotting some two years before. Countless logistical emails were exchanged for months in advance of the concert. (Disclosure: one of this group’s pianists is also the author of the present account.)
Both groups are present to perform at the Round Top Percussion Festival, an annual event at Festival Hill since 2009. Sprung from the energetic mind of UT percussion professor Tom Burritt, this festival has seen significant achievements in only a few years, hosting notable performers from around the country (So Percussion, Meehan/Perkins Duo, Third Coast Percussion) and facilitating premieres by notable composers (Dan Welcher, Paul Lansky, Belinda Reynolds). The 2013 event has been sparsely promoted, and word has spread that the festival is unlikely to continue next year, at least in its current incarnation.
The day is April 12, 2013; the time is approximately 11:40pm CDT.
line upon line was at the festival to perform the North American premiere of a massive sextet called Erewhon by the French composer Hugues Dufourt. This is a sonically overpowering piece requiring a stage full of equipment, played intensely for an hour. As such, line upon line had imported three extra performers and spent most of the day rehearsing. They had to rent a large set of Thai gongs, of which there are only two sets in America, and have them shipped from California in an enormous flight case.
The Fivefold Galactic Bells were mounting our third performance of Music for a Summer Evening.
After line upon line’s rehearsal we drove into town (such as it is) for dinner. Round Top is cute and comely in a way that sort of digs at you. From Festival Hill you drive through the trees a minute or two and take a right, and there you are at the town square, which is essentially the town. There is the little park, there, and the famous Pie Tavern, and across the way a nice-looking pizza place with an idyllic back patio and a wine cellar with a large dining table, which is where they stuck the ten of us to drink beer and wait for our pizzas.
Standing outside on the patio of the pizza place with stones on the ground, brush, houses, people in short sleeves laughing, their glasses of sweet white wine dappled with condensation. Texas, gray-green and fluttering lightly in the subtle dusky blue-gray springsummer breezes.
It took all night to get pizzas out to the ten of us, but it gave us a chance to catch up.
We returned to Festival Hill and rehearsed the Crumb in that beautiful cavernous creepy ornate empty atmospheric red-brown lamplit hall. We took tremendous care with the pianos, the costliness of which had been sufficiently impressed upon us. Performing Music for a Summer Evening involves directly manipulating the strings inside the piano, which tends to worry those tasked with protecting the instruments, and also necessitates removing the pianos’ lids, which usually worries them even more. The percussion setups are huge, and the many instruments must be organized such that the performers can travel between them quickly. All told, setting up the stage to rehearse or perform the piece takes about an hour. We rehearsed until after 11:00.
Then we headed to the game room, where line upon line was already playing ping-pong, drinking beers, the ten of us an awfully merry band cavorting around from the evening into the late night.
Below are some of the stories we shared.
Part Three: Dramatis Personae
THE FIVEFOLD GALACTIC BELLS:
• The tall, skinny drink of water at the ping-pong table with a can of Lone Star in one hand and a ping-pong paddle in the other is OWEN WEAVER. Owen grew up on the shores of the upper Mississippi River in Bemidji, Minnesota, an author’s son, a metal fan, a dedicated vegetarian. His facial hair strategy is always fluctuant, and in fact he was once tasked by two friends to grow a “wizardly beard” over the course of several months for the purpose of officiating their wedding. Owen did his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota and then moved to Austin to pursue a Master’s degree in percussion. One of the first conversations I recall having with him was in 2008 at the UT Fine Arts Library. He was checking out a large amount of timpani music, explaining that his goal was to become an orchestral timpanist. Instead he moved to the east coast to get a DMA at the Hartt School of Music, attended the Bang on a Can Summer Festival, and landed in New York City as an in-demand new music percussionist. At first his thing was solo sets; he commissioned his friends for portable solo percussion music. Like most percussionists he is an excellent collaborator, and people like playing with Owen and involving him with their projects. Recently he has been playing with Mantra Percussion. He’s still plugging away on the final steps of his degree (with no particular rush), and has moved from Connecticut to Brooklyn. So far, he tells us, he’s putting it together between various performing gigs and some promotional and administrative work for other musicians. Owen still loves metal and playing loud music in bands. I asked him if he feels bifurcated. He doesn’t see it that way; he just loves performing, and traveling to do so. Metal or George Crumb, if it gets him around the country with friends to play music and if the check covers his plane ticket, he’s a pretty happy guy.
• The clean-cut gent standing by the window is THAD ANDERSON. Perpetually calm and put together, Thad earned his DMA in percussion at UT and subsequently earned a visiting professor position at his alma mater, the University of Central Florida. Once in Orlando he applied himself with directness and perspective, working hard for his students and consciously stretching his teaching in the directions that were useful. When a tenure-track position opened at UCF, Thad was ready to demonstrate that he had the experience to teach not just percussion but also composition and music technology classes. His busy teaching life has not undermined his ambitions as a performer. With his own groups and student ensembles he has mounted significant performances of Cage, Xenakis, and others. His students are clearly dedicated to him. When our group arrived in Orlando for a performance, Thad had a full week’s teaching on his plate as well as a performance with his student percussion ensemble at another area school. We rehearsed until midnight every night and Thad maintained perfect composure. I have thus far failed to mention that he also has a wife and two young children at home. Around the time we met in Round Top we learned that Thad, to no one’s great surprise, had landed the tenure-track position at UCF.
• Sitting on the couch, curly-haired, bespectacled, and affable, is FRANKLIN GROSS. Growing up in Florida made Franklin permanently relaxed about life in such a way that, even when inwardly stressed, he remains ostensibly relaxed. Franklin laughs easily and delights in the presence of this group of bright musicians from his grad-school years. At UT-Austin he earned two degrees in composition, but we knew him mostly as a pianist. He was an enthusiastic performer of his friends’ work and a dedicated pianist for the New Music Ensemble. When assigned a difficult score, for example John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music or most infamously Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Franklin would disappear from the social scene for weeks as he dedicated his focus to mastering the notes. He exhibits physical comfort at the keyboard and a striking confidence of tone. His compositions, though relatively few, shine with good-natured earnestness and vulnerability. He has chops as a composer, a strong ear and a gift for melody, but he has never shown much interest in pursuing compositional opportunities outside his academic sphere. Franklin finished his DMA very quickly and promptly got a job teaching piano at a historically black college in small-town Georgia. He seemed happy to have a real full-time gig. He’s adjusted to the slow pace of life “in the country,” though reuniting with grad-school comrades seems to awake in him a restless sense that there’s more out there. He has found few friends of his own age around the institutions where he teaches or indeed anywhere in his town of Macon. A man of deep and shifting enthusiasms, he’s presently on a health kick and obsessively studying early jazz piano styles. He describes his fresh scholarly interests in cultural studies, in Jewish and Native American history, and becomes visibly agitated when discussing the legacy of Andrew Jackson. He’s looking around for other teaching jobs; an opening in North Carolina has him particularly excited, as it would bring him closer to family.
• On the other side of the couch, pensive and serious, sits THE AUTHOR. I finished my Master’s at UT in 2009 and after six consecutive years of higher education was more than thrilled to promptly light out for the territories. I held an artist residency at Joshua Tree National Park, where I lived alone in an isolated cabin and became, somewhat to my surprise, a singer-songwriter. I spent a few beautiful summers playing piano for a theater company in Colorado, and in between made several halting attempts to feel comfortable and at home in Chicago, a city where many of my friends and collaborators had successfully implanted after college. I loved Austin but was hesitant to move back, because I felt that I had to keep moving forward. I wanted to reinvent myself as a musician, to focus my activity on performance and improvisation, to leave behind a composition scene that had always felt musty and vaguely hostile. I went to the Banff Centre in Canada on a jazz fellowship and practiced hard but found that composition was still at the root of my impulses. I moved to Chicago, more decisively this time, but still felt drawn west, a pull I satisfied through a summer gig leading wilderness expeditions in New Mexico. While in Chicago I worked as a beer-tour guide and taught LSAT classes. I started a group called Grant Wallace Band, a composer-performer trio that tows the line between new music and chamber-folk. After a while we found some traction, and have been performing frequently in Chicago. I’m still composing, and have kept alive the idea of pursuing a doctorate; in 2012 I got in at UMKC but couldn’t convince myself to leave the city and the band. In 2013 I was admitted at the University of Oregon, whose west-coast locale was somewhat more enticing. There on the couch in Round Top, though, speaking with my entrepreneurial performer friends, I am having my first significant doubts about UO. I’m getting a kick out of booking and playing shows, and I like my circle of cohorts and collaborators in Chicago. It feels like my plan to return to school might be founded more in fear and cultural expectation than in genuine enthusiasm.
• By contrast, the members of LINE UPON LINE stayed in Austin after finishing their respective degrees. Though occasionally interrupted by errant ping-pong balls, the author is presently deep in conversation with founding line-upon-liner MATT TEODORI -- thin, with glasses and stubble and a clipped, decisive manner of speaking. Matt finished his MM in 2010 and continued with the doctorate at UT, though evidently he’d always felt quite confident that he didn’t want to pursue full-time university teaching. He started line upon line in 2009, still a master’s student, and developed the group through his final student years. He teaches part-time at a small college in Austin and spends most of his time functioning as a business manager for line upon line (garnering, to date, little to no salary for these efforts). He is extremely dedicated to his ensemble’s career development and speaks with poise and confidence about their future. ADAM BEDELL is a Michigander with a calming presence. He has an MM and a somewhat busier teaching schedule. When we were in school he played percussion on a chamber orchestra piece of mine that required him to strike matches and manipulate large bowls of water. The third member of the trio is CULLEN FAULK, another active performer around Austin. He teaches private lessons at a number of local middle and high schools. Cullen has a bachelor’s in percussion from UT and plays in a rock band called The Gorgeous Hands.
Part Four: Denouement
We played the next day for a few dozen people -- typical for a new-music concert, though it felt fairly paltry in an 1100-seat hall. It went pretty well. Not our best performance of Music for a Summer Evening, but the atmosphere in the hall was memorable and the sound fantastic. This year’s Percussion Festival was split into two programs (in the past it’s been three): the first featured our group, Tom Burritt, and the UT Percussion Ensemble, while the second focused on line upon line’s performance of Erewhon. It is a pretty crazy piece -- over an hour long, with large musical blocks that recur -- immersive, powerful, not about progression so much as it is about presence.
A few people really enjoyed the Crumb. One gentleman was kind enough to offer to take some “band photos” of the four of us there in the hall. James Dick, impresario of the whole shebang there on Festival Hill, commented graciously that the room would remember our sounds for a long time. He’s the sort who looks you in the eye confidently and shakes your hand with intention.
The bathroom at Festival Concert Hall deserves special mention. It has a substantial throne against one of the walls where one can, should one choose, quite awkwardly sit and observe others using the urinals. There is a fine picture of me seated in this throne wearing a $7 pair of aviator sunglasses I had purchased the previous month at a Walgreens in Sheridan, Wyoming, during an amazing residency at the nearby Ucross Foundation.
We hung around that night, had a celebratory (delicious) (surprisingly expensive) meal at the aforementioned Pie Tavern in town, and spent another evening socializing on the grounds. We got up early the next morning. Thad and I both had early flights out of Austin -- his 6am flight inhumanly so, my 8:40 comparatively urbane. All told I’d spent about two and a half days in Texas--enough to incite a fresh raft of threats to move back to Austin. Owen planned to hang around for an extra day or two, seeing friends. Franklin dropped me at the airport, from which he then departed to drive back to middle Georgia. We discussed prospects for further performances with the quartet, including a possible collaboration with line upon line.
A couple weeks later I received a check from the Round Top Festival Institute for $400. This covered the plane ticket and a touch more. line upon line were able to pay themselves a bit better, as they had received funding for the performance through a grant from the French government. This was a canny strategy; Erewhon was written 1976, but due to its general immensity it had never been mounted in the United States, and the French government was happy to help change that. line upon line stuck around an extra day in Round Top to record a video of the piece. They had a few additional Erewhon performances planned around Texas.
A few weeks later I landed in New Mexico to begin my third summer guiding for the Cottonwood Gulch Foundation. A string of successful Grant Wallace Band performances, an increasingly stable presence in the Chicago musical community, and a heavy dose of fresh high-desert air got me increasingly anxious about my plans to move to Oregon. I would likely quite enjoy living out there, but for the present state of my career goals, a composition doctorate didn’t seem like the right choice. One night in mid-June I walked across the road, swimming in darkness with bright white stars above my head, and I sat in the back of a pickup truck in the gathering chill and admitted to myself: I don’t want to do this.
The decision wasn’t really made until a few weeks later, when I hiked out of the Grand Canyon whilst in the grisly throes of a stomach bug that turned out to be the famous intestinal parasite giardia. I spent the subsequent day convalescing in the passenger seat of a 15-passenger van, reading and looking at maps. The next morning we drove north across the Kaibab Plateau listening to Sam Amidon, en route to southern Utah. At that point I actually said it to myself: I’m not going. I held it in for another week before I told anyone else.
I landed back in Chicago in mid-August. The first concert I attended was one of Owen Weaver’s other projects, the Color Field Ensemble. Owen had flown in from New York for a few midwestern shows; the other members of the group live in Omaha, Nebraska and Minot, North Dakota.
The Omaha member is a fantastic soprano named Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. She was a collaborator for one of Grant Wallace Band’s subsequent projects, a maritime mini-musical called Fo’c’sle.
GWB’s 2013-14 season included a number of Chicago performances as well as our debuts in Austin and New York City.
The Fivefold Galactic Bells’ next gig has yet to be determined.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts