Photo by Anlo Sepulveda

When the closest you can get to nature in the scorching Texas summer is a withering front-lawn, it’s easy to forget just how amazing the real deal can be.

The Austin-based, ambient-classical group Montopolis presents its newest multimedia show, “The Legend of Big Bend,” at the Stateside Theatre on July 20. It’s Montopolis’ latest project in a growing anthology of works that focus on Texan ecological wonders.

Led by composer and pianist Justin Sherburn Montopolis combines classical traditions with an indie-rock aesthetic. And their music is just as complex as it is catchy. (Sherburn’s career as a touring musician included indie rock band Okkervil River and the swing combo 8 1/2 Souvenirs.)

After working on the soundtrack to “Yakona,” a 2014 film by Paul Collins and Anlo Sepulveda that tells the history of the San Marcos River, Sherburn found himself set on a new artistic course: He wanted to create works that raise awareness on environmental issues.

“The Legend of Big Bend, 8 p.m. July 20, Stateside Theater, tickets.austintheatre.org

“These shows focus on people’s relationship with the natural world, and I think it’s good to remind ourselves how much we depend on our ecosystems,” says Sherburn.

However Montopolis’ new production isn’t just a single musical interpretation of the geologically dramatic national park along the Rio Grande River. “The Legend of Big Bend,” is a collection of pieces that detail the stories and perspectives the park has inspired in its visitors. Working alongside local visual artist Emily Lofaro, Sherburn recorded interviews with historians, scientists, artists, and just about anyone who had a tale to tell about Big Bend. Excerpts of these interviews will be presented onstage during the show, providing a personal context for each piece.

Justin Sherburn. Photo: Leon Alesi

Fittingly, the stories sound straight out of a campfire huddle, covering topics as varied as geology, being held captive by mountain lions, and UFO sightings. The show also features audio snippets such as a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye and a spoken-word recording of Bob Wills’ “Time Changes Everything.”

The diversity of these stories is also reflected in Montopolis’ sound. “The Legend of Big Bend” marks a sonic return to form for the ensemble. Its last project, the critically-acclaimed ”Monolith: Music for Enchanted Rock,” based on the the Hill Country landmark, called for a slightly less rambunctious approach.

“I wanted the last project to be more intimate and counterpoint driven, so the rhythm section was unnecessary,” explains Sherburn. “Big Bend’s grandeur required a broader dynamic range, and I really wanted to be able to reference a wide array of American and Texan music, from Aaron Copland and Roy Orbison to Bob Wills.”

Listen to an excerpt of Alice Spencer read Naomi Shahib Nye’s “Stars Over Big Bend” from “Voices in the Air, Poems for Listeners” (Greenwillow Books, 2018). 

Instrumentation for “The Legend of Big Bend” includes bass, drums, guitar, piano, trombone, trumpet, cello, viola, and violin. The result is a combination of the relaxing, introspective sounds audiences, mixed with moments of dizzying excitement and even danger.

Refreshingly, Sherburn’s music isn’t afraid to be cinematic — a quality that’s typically absent in more traditional chamber music. While the “Big Bend” pieces feature some improvised solos, Sherburn’s compositions are perfectly constructed to fit the stories being told, bringing life to the sounds of weaving traffic on the highway, a slow moving moon during an eclipse, and the chugging adventure of a train robbery.

For “Big Bend” Montopolis will also be performing alongside a work by local filmmaker and multimedia producer, David Barrow. An experienced visitor to Big Bend, Barrow was enthusiastic about the project from day one. He spent over a week filming in the park this past spring, aiming to capture the rhythm of the land itself.

Montopolis performing “Music for Enchanted Rock” with visuals by Leon Alesi. Photo Thomas Fang

Sherburn says that Barrow’s film covers “the far east and west canyons, the lunar sandy areas in the south side of the park, and from the summit to the base of the Chisos (mountains). The imagery is truly stunning — from epic time lapses of the night sky and brilliant sunsets to intimate details of flora and fauna.”

During the editing process, Barrow listened to early recordings of Sherburn’s Big Bend music, with Sherburn in turn using Barrow’s film to inspire the further development of his compositions.

While Barrow’s film was developing, and Sherburn and Lofaro conducted additional interviews, Montopolis hosted three workshop shows to strengthen and develop the material in preparation for the premiere.

“You learn a lot by performing a new piece in front of an audience while it’s still under construction,” says Sherburn. “It’s also an opportunity to get people interested in the project early on and see it develop over time.”

Having been to their third workshop performance, I can report that hearing Montopolis perform was the most transported I’ve felt listening to live music in a very long time. Between Barrow’s sublime film, Sherburn’s ethereal compositions, and all the sweet individual recollections included in the performance, “The Legend of Big Bend” is the perfect vertical slice of the park’s spirit.

Montopolis doesn’t just tell you about the magnificence of the natural world, they musically imagine it. And that’s a considerably richer experience than staring at a dead lawn.

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