KMFA Commissions a ‘Sound Garden’ from Artist Steve Parker

A rendering of "Sound Garden," a commissioned project by Steve Parker by KMFA for its educational gallery. Rendering by STG Design, courtesy KMFA.

A grouping of cacti hooked up to contact mics and a “biosonification device.” A large assemblage of salvaged brass instruments that are activated by static electricity. Organ pipes powered by an air compressor or by manual bellows.

Those are just some of the interactive sound sculptures that will fill an education gallery planned for the new home of Austin classical music radio station KMFA 89.5.

KMFA announced that it has commissioned noted Austin-based artist and musician Steve Parker to create “Sound Garden,” a long-term installation of his signature sound sculptures  — artistically invented instruments which are designed for experimental play by people of all ages.

“Sound Garden” will debut with the new KMFA building, slated to open in fall 2020.

Related read: KMFA 89.5 to build new permanent home

Parker imagines “Sound Garden” as a musical ecosystem with eight or nine instruments groups each comprising dozens of varied objects and devices. The sound sculptures will function like traditional classical instruments combined with radio technology, emerging technology and electronic processing.

For example, Parker will take a theremin, which utilizes radio signals, and augment it with guitar pedals, audio looper and Ableton Live, a professional-grade audio editing software, so that people can record live tracks.

And the cacti with mics? That’s a nod to the great composer, theorist and experimenter John Cage who wrote music for amplified plant material.

“The idea is that (“Sound Garden”) can offer people different access points into music and sound — how it can be made,” said Parker.

“Sure, there’s a bit a magic and trickery to how the playable sculptures make sound,” said Parker. “But (the sculptures) also acknowledge the trajectory of how instruments work and how they can be merged with new technologies.”

“I envision that this space would help the public gain a deeper appreciation for classical music, radio broadcasting, and the creative process. “

Related read: Steve Parker’s “Surround Sounds”

By training a trombonist who earned a doctorate from UT’s Butler School of Music, Parker is the creator of some of Austin’s most beloved and surprising public performance events. He’s presented elaborate civic rituals for humans, animals (such as Austin’s bats and grackles) and machines including drones. He’s made listening sculptures modeled after obsolete surveillance tools. And in parking garages, he’s staged cathartic transportation symphonies for operators of cars, pedicabs and bicycles.

For the Blanton Museum of Art, Parker created the popular “Soundspace” series of simultaneous performances staged throughout the museum.

Parker is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, a Harrington Fellowship and the Tito’s Prize. Parker has exhibited and performed globally that include Art Basel Miami, MASS MoCA, the Lincoln Center Festival, the Guggenheim Museum, SXSW, Crystal Bridges Museum and the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Steve Parker’s “Ghost Box,” part of his 2018 Tito’s Prize exhibition at Big Medium. “Ghost Box” is a playable sound sculpture modeled after a WWII era short wave radio. When touched, the sculpture plays different looped audio clips of coded transmissions, including Morse Code, spirituals of the Underground Railroad, the shofar, the Hebrew Shofar, and the Iron Age Celtic carnyx. Photo courtesy Steve Parker.

“Steve’s whimsical work lives at the creative intersection of music, technology and art, and will be an engaging introduction to music for visitors of all ages,” said Ann Hume Wilson, KMFA’s president and general manager.

Wilson said the idea behind the gallery and Parker’s commission, was to open a space not only for educational workshops, but that “Sound Garden” might even be a performance hub where composers and performers could create new music that responds to new instruments. Or it could be a broadcast/recording space where instrument activations can be broadcast, livestreamed or distributed via limited issue vinyl pressings.

“When KMFA launched in 1967, radio was a one-way medium. We broadcast music rather invisibly over the airwaves, and people listened from elsewhere on their radios,” said Wilson. “But today, audiences want a different kind of experience. They want to be active, they want to be visible to each other. And technology has completely upended how people listen to music programs.”

Rendering of the new 18,000-square-foot two-story building that will be the new home of classical radio station KMFA 89.5
Rendering of the new 18,000-square-foot two-story building that will be the new home of classical radio station KMFA 89.5. Courtesy KMFA 89.5/Sixthriver Architecture

KMFA’s new 18,000-square-foot building will be  part of a 17.8 acre mixed-use development just east of IH-35 on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake, at 21 Waller Street. The new building will triple the available space for KMFA and bring with it new facilities not typically found in a non-profit classical music radio station, including a 3,000-square-foot, acoustically dynamic live music studio for broadcasts, recordings, intimate concerts and lectures for up to 140 audience members.

“As a classical music radio station, we need to evolve through the disruptions in sound technology and the disruptions in the classical music world,” said Wilson.