Anthony McSpadden wants to expand the music we hear every day on classical radio.
“There’s a reason that [classical music] has survived this long: it’s because it’s great music,” said McSpadden, who is the director of broadcast and content at KMFA, Austin’s classical station. “But we have to keep it going with new music and to add to the repertoire,” he said.
So, he set about establishing a composer-in-residence program, particularly hoping to amplify voices that have been historically underrepresented. This residency also goes hand-in-hand with KMFA’s performance space, the Draylen Mason Music Studio, which is named after a promising young bassist who was killed in 2018 during the Austin package bombing.
That seedling of an idea would eventually become the Draylen Mason Composer-in-Residence program.
The inaugural composer is Quinn Mason (no relation to Draylen), a Dallas-based rising talent whose work has been performed everywhere from his Texas hometown to Detroit to San Francisco. Throughout his residency, he’ll compose three pieces, including one solo and two large-scale works. Each will be recorded and shared with classical radio stations across the country for inclusion in their playlists.
The first, Sonata 22 for solo piano, will be performed by Lara Downes at the KMFA’S Draylen Mason Music Studio on May 27.
There’s a rich history of radio stations who have commissioned composers for broadcast. In the 20th century, many composers wrote pieces for radio, including noted artists like Aaron Copland. And beginning in the 1920s, some composers even wrote short operas specifically to be aired on the radio.
For McSpadden, starting a composer-in-residence program was a chance to bring back the idea of a radio composer and to allow listeners to find new music on KMFA and other classical stations throughout the country. He chose Mason as the first fellow after coming across his music while reading an in-depth profile on him in Texas Monthly last year. McSpadden dug into Mason’s music, watching video after video of his work, impressed by its spry and accessible melodies.
“He’s a terribly interesting person and he’s extremely talented,” McSpadden said.
The residency kicked off in February when Mason spent a week in Austin. He participated in many public- and private-facing activities, and learning more about the Austin music community. He visited Draylen Mason’s high school in East Austin as well as Martin Middle School, KMFA’s neighbor, to give talks and masterclasses. He also spent time with Draylen’s family, having dinner with them and learning more about their son.
“It was bittersweet, but it was very nice to get to know them personally,” Quinn said.
Quinn’s Sonata 22, is named in honor of Draylen and its May 27 premiere would have been his 22nd birthday. It comes on the heels of Quinn’s recent work, Sonata ‘21, which meditated on the happenings of the year 2021. Sonata 22 is a one movement work that weaves together ruminative melodies to form a sense of deep introspection and reflection.
“It’s going to be both a solemn and celebratory [occasion],” Mason said. “I definitely wanted to create something that had a little bit of both in it. Even though the piece is pensive, it does have a joyous heart.”
May’s concert has been a serendipitous pairing: pianist Downes, who McSpadden immediately thought would be a good fit to play Mason’s music, had already recorded some of his work and loves it. Downs advocates for the popularization of classical music by women and Black Americans. She’ll premiere Sonata 22, which will be recorded and sent to radio stations across the country who will be able to air the piece, and keep it in rotation.
The two additional commissioned works, one for symphonic winds and one for choir, will premiere and be recorded in the fall also for radio distribution.
Looking ahead, McSpadden hopes the residency will continue each year, bringing in many new composers to write pieces for the radio as well as interface with the Austin community.
“I think it’s important,” McSpadden said. “[This] is what public radio is good for.”
KMFA Draylen Mason Composer-In-Residence concert with Lara Downes is at 7 p.m. May 27.