Steve Parker says that at a certain level, it’s been a typical summer for him.
Per usual, the Austin artistic polymath is not teaching at University of Texas-San Antonio where he leads the trombone studio and the new music ensemble. He’s been working in his home studio, focused on several upcoming projects: a long-term installation for the new headquarters of classical music radio station KMFA 89.5, and a November exhibition at the Galveston Arts Center.
Parker crafts acoustic sculptures using brass instruments and audio elements, sometimes fashioning headphones of different sorts for wearable elements. He’s fascinated by obsolete aural surveillance tools, how sound functions in protests, and how sound is deployed in conflict, especially war.
“In certain ways this summer doesn’t feel that different,” Parker says by phone, taking a call as he walks around the block in his North Austin neighborhood. “But of course that’s not true.”
He may be talking about the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for social justice. But there’s this: Parker was just awarded a Rome Prize Fellowship.
Parker is one of 22 Americans selected for the highly competitive prize, which supports independent work and research in the arts and humanities. The fellowship comes with a stipend, room and board, and workspace at the American Academy in Rome.
Parker had requested a one-term fellowship even before the American Academy had shortened the length of its 2020-2021 fellowship by remaining closed through December. So, with all the typical COVID-19 caveats, Parker, his wife violinist Molly Emerman, who is assistant concertmaster with the Austin Symphony, and their young son, Eliot, will head to Italy in January.
“We don’t know exactly how it will all play out,” says Parker. “The fellowship is really meant to be a communal experience, with lots of shared meals and conversations. I guess we’ll just have to see.”
Parker plans to use his time in the Eternal City to continue his exploration the work of the Italian Futurists, particularly the movement’s founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto “The Art of Noises” often nets him the moniker of first noise artist. The early radar experiments of radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi is Parker’s research list along with World War II surveillance tools and Italian commedia dell’arte.
In January, at Cue Art Foundation in New York, Parker staged a solo exhibition “Futurist Listening,” a prelude, as it were, to the line of creative investigation he’ll continue in Rome. He reimagined Russolo’s intonarumori, instruments that produced jarring noises and sometimes incited rioting. Russolo used them to perform his “Art of Noises.”
Parker’s “Noise Intoners” use samples of protests, chants, and sonic weapons, sound that are heard through brass instrument horns mounted on plywood boxes, with audio electronics inside. A participatory opportunity is often a component of his work, but Parker prefers to leave the experience and its interpretation up to the participant. A democratic sensibility informs everything he does.
“I think the essence of interactivity in an exhibition really is to create situation — something that integrates human behavior and expression,” he says.
Before he heads to Rome, Parker will present “Day is Done” in Galveston, a site-responsive sculpture and sound installation in the form of a public address system.
The project is inspired the story of the late Guy Taylor, a Korean War veteran who for five years, stepped out to his porch each evening in downtown Galveston and played “Taps” on his bugle. Though played at military funerals, “Taps” is also known as “Day is Done,” a song often sung by scout troops at the end of the day.
To complete “Day is Done” Parker is inviting everyone to contribute a recording of themselves singing the song, no musical proficiency required. People can call 409-292-6612, or uploaded a sound file at galvestonartscenter.org/steve-parker.
“It’s very moving to hear people sing, especially in context of this pandemic,” he says.