Austin composers take a joy ride for “Traffic Jam”

Steve Parker remounts his exuberant and irreverent performance piece in a state parking garage, and with new music by nine Austin composers



Somehow, nine Austin composers have become automotively gridlocked in a parking garage downtown.

It’s the return of Steve Parker and Collide Arts’ “Traffic Jam,” a show that artistically recontextualizes the transportation nightmares of Austinites into experimental and raucous sounds and performances.

Parker debuted “Traffic Jam” in 2015 as part of the Fusebox Festival, staging it on vast paved lot at Austin Studios, once a former airport runway. Later that year, Parker re-staged the performance with a different vehicle line-up at Art Basel Miami Beach, and he’s staged various iterations of “Traffic Jam” in other cities, each with its unique vehicle set-up.

On June 9, a new iteration of “Traffic Jam” for Austin will take place in the multi-tiered, colosseum-like setting of State Parking Garage B, just blocks from the Texas State Capital. The performance starts at 7:30 p.m. and is free.

And it features complete new compositions written by a variable who’s who of Austin’s percolating new music scene: Graham Reynolds, Mattew Steinke, Laura Brackney, Line Upon Line Percussion, Mark McCoin, Max Bernstein, and a group composition by Austin Soundwaves including the work of Henna Chou, James Parker, and Seetha Shivaswam.

Each piece touches on the forms of transportation, big and small, that characterize, and some may even say plague, the city.

Says Brackney: “I stopped taking the bus when I realized it was just as fast for me to walk three miles.”

Parker agrees that the state of traffic in Austin is fairly universal in its ability to frustrate. But he also views “Traffic Jam” as a reconciliation of the annoyances that we all share out on the tormenting Austin roads. And in the context of a free, community-driven performance, “Traffic Jam” aims to relate a feeling of catharsis using the same mechanisms that “usually inspire the opposite,” as Parker says.

“It’s an opportunity to examine our relationship with transportation, reclaim some of the spaces that are associated with it, and create opportunities for collaborative performance.”

Read: “What is Steve Parker actually doing?”

To this end, many pieces in “Traffic Jam” require participation by students, volunteers, and even the audience.

In Brackney’s “Soundcycle” volunteer bike-riders will pedal throughout the levels of the parking garage, each one carrying a mobile sound system. By independently selecting one of four audio tracks, the bicyclists will create a moving, ephemeral soundscape that will echo throughout the space.

The piece was partly inspired the boombox parades of the 1990s, as well as Brackney’s experiences with the local biking group, Social Cycling Austin. In creating a piece in motion and with a multitude of independently active agents, Brackney says that “there is no way to hear the end result” before the performance takes place, making for a truly dynamic listening experience.

Matthew Teodori of Line Upon Line Percussion performs in the 2015 debut of “Traffic Jam.”

Mattew Steinke’s piece, which uses an amplified playset landscape for wooden car and trucks, also features community players — albeit tinier. His composition calls for a 3-foot by four-foot children’s playset and handheld toy cars are rigged with amplification devices that sends the sounds of springs and rattles to a mixer, turning unchoreographed children’s playtime into a sound composition.

Read: “Matthew Steinke resurrects the genius of an unknown inventor”

“‘Play’ is often underappreciated in adulthood. It is secondary to everything else. I believe,  that new inventions and creativity are dependent on the freedom to mess around, both intellectually and physically,” Steinke says of the piece’s inspiration and use of up-and-coming performers. “Children are much better performers than adults for this reason because they still really know how to play.”

“It’s a tiny performance with a gigantic soundtrack.”

Perhaps the most ambitious group performance will be “symphony for carhorns,” composed by students of Austin Soundwaves. The performers will assemble their own cars in the garage and, with stopwatches in hand, honk along to their own unique scores.

In speaking to the show’s logistics, Parker jokes that, “luckily, when you’re working with transportation, most of those things have wheels, so you can just drive the equipment there!”

“Traffic Jam” will feature even more sights and sounds between the rest of its composers, including the use of motorcycles and percussion, interpretations of road rage, and using the parking garage itself as a musical instrument.

Like the seemingly random people we share the streets with every day in the packed-lanes of Austin, the 2019 iteration of “Traffic Jam” is a beautiful miscellany of the city’s creative voices, and a reflection of the experiences that we share on the road. And with it’s all-star crew of composers, it’s also just an unexpected (and automotive) testament to the musical relationships that have, and will continue to grow in the greater Austin community.

“I think those sorts of situations yield the most interesting works — when you trust the artist, what they want to do, and the risks that they want to take,” Parker says about the project’s slew of community artists.

“It’s easy when you’re working with such a great group of people.”


Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa
Joshua Figueroa is a musicologist and arts writer from Santa Barbara, California. Now based in Austin, he splits his time between going out to eat too much and arguing about video games.

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