I recently sat down to talk with my friends Steve Parker and Tom Echols about SoundSpace, an award-winning concert series currently being held at the Blanton Museum of Art. A strong advocate of new music, Steve directs the series and is a trombonist and member of a contemporary music group called Ensemble Signal in NYC. He holds a DMA from The University of Texas at Austin and is on the faculty of The University of Texas at San Antonio, where he teaches trombone and directs a large ensemble. One of ACGS’s own and a collaborator with Steve in SoundsSpace, Tom earned his DMA in 2010 from USC. He’s a fantastic recitalist and lecturer on contemporary repertoire for the classical guitar, and his debut CD, Plainte Calme, includes Elliott Carter’s Changes and his own arrangements of works by Olivier Messiaen and Claude Debussy. Here’s what they had to say about next Sunday’s concert at the Blanton:

Matt Hinsley: Steve, what is Soundspace, and how do people get tickets?

Steve Parker: I direct the SoundSpace series, which takes place at the incredible Blanton Museum of Art. SoundSpace features cross-disciplinary, simultaneous performances, all occurring in the different galleries of the museum. The audience is free to wander and experience the concert in any order they choose.

Our next concert, Space and Symmetry, will be Sunday October 21st, at 2PM.  The concert will feature works by Henry Brant, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Toru Takemitsu, and it includes performers from the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Austin Classical Guitar Society, line-upon-line percussion, and faculty from the UT Butler School of Music. Tickets are free with museum admission: $10 for adults, $5 for students, free for UT students and faculty.

MH: 80 trombones? Wow. Can you give me some context for that?

SP: Recently I’ve been really interested in spatial music. It’s kind of quasi-futuristic sounding, but the concept has been around for centuries, most famously with the “Venetian polychoral style,” or split choruses of the 16th century. Essentially, they were some of the first stereo performances, and this concept was considerably expanded by the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Henry Brant in the 20th century. Stockhausen’s music is especially interesting to me because it explores space in several dimensions, both in tangible, physical space and in abstract, musical space.

I was very interested in doing a SoundSpace program that explored spatial music. I also love the Blanton’s Atrium, which features a beautiful installation called Stacked Waters. The installation is intended to surround the audience with color and illusion, and Henry Brant’s Orbits seemed to be a great compliment to this concept. Orbits calls for 80 trombones to surround the audience in a semi-circle, and sounds travel in dialogue in many different patterns and directions around the audience.

Orbits was also a natural choice for me, given that I’m a trombonist and there are very few places in the world where one can find so many capable and interested slush-pumpers! Austin is one of those unique places, for sure.

MH: Tom, what are you doing for this show?

Tom Echols: I’m giving an interactive performance that is centered around Toru Takemitsu’s masterpiece for solo classical guitar, “All in Twilight.”  I’ve composed a prelude/postlude that uses electric guitar and a lot of analogue electronic effects that filter and modulate the sound of the guitar in some really interesting ways. This Prelude/Postlude, called for the time being “Mutatis Mutandis” (a Latin phrase meaning “only the necessary changes have been made”), is a result of some of my musical obsessions (e.g. Takemitsu’s harmonic language, music theory, jazz, analogue synthesis), and it is an improvisatory and ambient play on certain elements taken from Takemitsu’s musical language.

Here’s where the interactive part comes in: audience members will be invited to play a theremin that will be a few feet in front of me. This theremin will not play any sounds; rather, it will serve as a controller to change the amounts and the kinds of modulation that are heard. Essentially, the audience will get to “orchestrate” electronically key parts of the composition. While the audience will be able to change the sound of things in a dramatic way, I’ll attenuate everything to fall within the realm of what I think works with the music, so that folks who just want to listen can have a good time, too!

MH: What’s a theremin and how will people interact with it?

TE: The theremin is an electronic instrument, named after its inventor Leon Theremin, and it’s composed of two metal rods that create a magnetic field, enabling a person to play the instrument simply by waving their hands around in the air. The sound of a theremin makes me think of a violinist’s ghost, funnily enough, and you can hear one at the beginning of the Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations” (and in countless old Sci-Fi movies). For this performance, the theremin will not be making any sounds at all, though! A theremin can also be used as a controller, and in this case, people will be able to change the sound of the music I’m playing by moving their hands relative to the two poles.

When Steve asked me to play in this concert, he mentioned that one of the goals of his wonderful SoundSpace series is to find new ways for the audience to interact with or become immersed in the performance experience, so this was my way of addressing that. Also, Takemitsu is famous for his brilliant and unique use of orchestral color – “All in Twilight” exploits the timbral array of classical guitar to great effect! “Mutatis Mutandis,” based on abstract musical ideas taken from Takemitsu’s distinctive language, allows the audience to have a bit of fun with tone color themselves.

MH: What interests you about electronic music? And what’s your relationship to non-classical guitar?

TE: Oh man. Electronic music has been a huge obsession of mine in recent years. I’ve always loved the weirdness of Varese’s “Poeme Electronique,” Stockhausen’s “Studie 1,” or John Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape.” I watched a LOT of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reruns as a kid, so maybe this has something to do with it…. I’m mainly only interested in analogue electronic instruments, modular synthesizers, effects, noise makers, etc. For folks who don’t know, analogue instruments are those that generate the entirety of their sound by electrical currents going through different kinds of circuitry. The other kind of electronic instrument is digital (computers and such). Digital is fine, of course, but it’s not really where my interest lies. There is a strange poetry to the sounds that come out of an analogue synthesizer as you turn knobs to attenuate electrical currents and alter wave forms. And there’s also an educational aspect to it: in analogue synthesis, you learn to combine simple sound waves and sculpt them until you have “created” a clarinet sound, a snare drum, or a guitar string. To me, this is a very practical way to learn about orchestration: what better way to become familiar with how a bassoon sounds and interacts with other instruments than to imitate it? This also helps when it comes to interpreting the classical guitar repertoire, seeing how we classical guitarists can use timbre in such an interesting way to “orchestrate” the pieces that we play. Then, there is the whole aspect of having a sound in your mind that is, say, three parts bassoon and one part oscillating fan – you might be surprised at how good something like that can sound! As a guitarist, it is really fun to play with weird electrical gadgets, of which there are many, and just explore what is possible.

As for my non-classical guitar background, my dad was my first teacher, and he is a self taught rock/folk/blues guitarist, so I started out learning the Rolling Stones and stuff like that.  While the classical guitar is definitely my forte and my main deal (nothing beats it), I’ve played in bands on and off throughout my life as a fun way to make music. For a number of years, I was in a grammy-nominated band called DeVotchka. I’ve always enjoyed writing songs/music and I’m about to start playing in a new band project that has been in the works for a while. I also spend a lot of time studying jazz, improvising on standards.

MH: So ultimately, Steve, what is your vision for this series?

SP: My goal is to create a concert situation where music can be experienced like visual art. Like a normal visit to the museum, audiences can examine the performance at close proximity or a variety of distances, and from multiple angles and perspectives. They also have the freedom to move while listening, and even leave or enter at any point. While not truly an interactive performance, they have the opportunity to take control of their concert experience.

MH: Anything else you’d like to add?

SP: I’m always looking for new collaborators from all disciplines for this series! Feel free to contact me by visiting my website at www.steve-parker.net.


(special thanks to ACGS’ Jason Leubner for putting this story together)