What is Steve Parker actually doing?

The Austin-based musician has composed music for an ensemble of vehicles and created sound art sculpture that riff on WWII war tubas. Now he's composing for grackles.


Steve Parker is waiting for grackles. Wearing an un-self conscious outfit of sandals, floppy hat — and 2008 vintage alt classical group “Bang On A Can!” T-shirt — he scans the sky above the crowded HEB grocery store parking lot on Austin’s East Seventh Street as birds fly and land on some power lines in scattered groups.

The grackle is one of the first novelties you notice after moving to Texas from colder climates, Parker says. He lists their better qualities: “They’re everywhere, they’re fearless, and they look like dinosaurs.”

Parker is here to scout out locations for a piece he’s planning for next spring’s Fusebox Festival. And over the course of an hour or so we will chat with a security guard who trains pigeons, be kindly ignored by countless shoppers and Parker will do a questionable impression of a grackle’s whirs and calls, comparing them to a synthesizer.

Over the past four years, Steve Parker has transformed. Switching from an performer of experimental trombone music into an idiosyncratic one-man music presenting organization, called Collide Arts. His company specializes in events that are tricky to define, but in short, put musicians in places they do not normally belong playing music most audiences rarely ever hear.

He may be best known in Austin for his Soundspace program, which started in 2011. He turned the nooks of the Blanton Museum of Art into bombastic music rooms filled with a Sun-Ra cover band or a double bass quartet or he made intimate concert experience placing a solo clarinetist in the museum elevator. By putting music in a large museum the audience is free to stay and listen or to pass it by.

Steve Parker's "Bat/Man,
Steve Parker’s “Bat/Man,” a 2016 piece on Austin’s Congress Avenue bridge for 1.5 million bats, conch shell ensemble, megaphone choir, and handmade echolocation devices. It was performed as part of the Fusebox Festival. Photo by Philip Rogers.

But Parker’s output since, has pushed his experimental side strikingly further. He’s made a piece for experimental choir and amplified bats under Austin’s Congress Avenue bridge. He’s written music to be heard, through your smart phone, while you drive on Austin’s frenetic MoPac freeway, music which changes depending on your speed. A piece in Philadelphia involved amplified bees. There was concert devised for all manner of moving vehicles, held in a parking lot. 

Aside from the fact that Parker was making events that were free form and fun to watch, it wasn’t so clear what he was actually doing.

“This is really interesting,” Parker says, making a line, iPad held aloft, through the busy parking lot over to a small group of oak trees.

The grackles had just abandoned their wires en masse and landed on these trees, maybe on cue from the setting sun. We stood and listened. The birds began squawking differently, and every so often would go almost silent, then start “cluck, cluck cluck”-ing in stereo instead of the typical whirring and shrieking. Paying grackles such close attention felt a little odd.

“I was attracted to the grackle because of its call,” Parker says.

He makes an attempt at doubling their electronic screech. “Wwworrrwooorrow ssshhhhh!”

It will become obvious when he professes a deep admiration for the sounds of cicadas and crickets just how much more closely Parker considers the world of sound. Crickets and cicadas, he says, give us a soundscape that’s not just in stereo, it’s in 3D. He says it’s like a 30-channel stereo system output.

“The more I read about (grackles) there’s a lot of depth to the topic and I’m also interested in learning more about birding and the ritual of doing that,” he says. “(The grackle) is just as ubiquitous as the bat, but people have a much different relationship with it. There’s a lot of ambivalence towards it.”

Why should one species be valued, and the other vilified? “I mean, the city has people with lasers, like trying to get (grackles) out of the trees.  At (the University of Texas campus) they had some sort of air cannon they used for a while, and used some shotguns.” Not to mention all the fake hawk sounds projected by businesses like this HEB grocery store, all over town, anxious to eliminate the noisey, messy birds. “I think it’s also interesting what what the grackles behavior reflects about human behavior.”

An investigation is how Parker’s projects begin. At this stage, the plan for his grackle project seems pretty loose. He’s begun enlisting collaborators, though, and that’s firmed up his vision. Heloise Gold conveniently has a dance about grackles, so that was a no brainer. Parker’s also working with birders from the Audubon Society, as well as frequent grackle reporter, Mose Buchele from KUT 90.5 radio.

“It’ll be like a birding excursion,” Parker says.

You might watch choreographer Heloise Gold’s dance through binoculars. There’ll be something of a scavenger hunt, complete with a map, so viewers can catch certain pieces of the investigation at their own pace. The performance’s ending, he says, may take place in a spot most likely to be riddled with grackles, an HEB parking lot like this one.

Seeing a couple of loiterers standing and pointing at things in a private parking lot inevitably invited a visit from the security guard. After making sure we weren’t casing the joint for a future robbery, Parker asks him a few questions about the birds. The man keeps pigeons, it turns out. Breeds them on his roof in South Austin. Trains them to fly for thirty minutes and return.

“This is how we do it in Jordan,” the guard says, the country he’s from.

Parker says his mother is Lebanese. The guard tells us how to say pigeon and grackle in Arabic. But grackles have an international reputation.

“The black ones,” the guard says. “We shoot ‘em because they’re making too much noise.”

Parker’s affinity for the experimental is a hit in Austin, but it’s not always well understood. In a funding application for his “Bat/Man” project — involving the Mexican free-tail bats that live under the Congress Avenue bridge during the summer— got positive reviews. Except for one.

“One judge said that it was like completely infeasible that people would be willing to stand near a bridge where they’d get showered with bat feces,” Parker says.

Tell that to the hordes who gather there every night all summer long. And to the audience that gathered to watch Parker’s choir blow conch shells and swing music-making hoses above their heads while the bats chirped away at frequencies shifted two octaves down so they could be heard by human ears. Collaborating with a choir (in this case the up-for-experimentation Panoramic Voices) is a chance operation, Parker says.

His eyes spark up. “They’re unpredictable.”

•  •  •

In music, extended techniques are methods of using instruments in a ways that weren’t intended. Adding objects that vibrate on a piano’s strings, or using just the trombone’s mouthpiece to make motorcycle sounds. At this point, Parker is all in on this path in more than a musical sense. He’s extending the possible ways one can explore a subject.

Not that Parker seems especially radical in appearance. Even in conversation he can be quite subdued. He says he originally thought he would be a college professor. Yet Parker, who teaches trombone at University of Texas-San Antonio, admits he chafes under certain expectations of academia.

“One of the luckiest things that happened to me was not getting a tenure-track job,” he says. (One third of the musicians reading this sentence just burned eyeholes through their computer screen.)

He and his wife, Molly Emerman, the Austin Symphony’s Assistant Concertmaster, didn’t want to leave Austin. The idea of life in some small college town did not inspire.

And the job offers did come. “I’ve been offered a couple of tenure-track jobs in in places that didn’t seem like the best fit personally for me and for Molly. So, it wasn’t something that we could take. And I spoke to a mentor. He was like, ‘Steve do me a favor. The next time you’re offered a tenure-track position, I don’t care if it’s on Mars. You need to take that position because these these jobs are so hard to find and if you don’t you’ll never be able to leverage that to another tenure track position.'”

Says Parker: “And, just to have that like sort of black and white view of the world I found very frustrating. I like to be open-minded and feel like there’s nuance to everything, and I felt like that was like such… it was really bad advice!”

After turning down a couple of job offers, “It made me realize,” he continues slowly, “that I had to make a living making stuff, versus just playing the academic game.”

Steve Parker. Photo by Luke Quinton.

We met again the next week at a North Austin brewery to learn more about Parker’s upbringing.

Turns out there is some family history that lends itself to Parker’s sense of independence. He was born in Downers Grove, Illinois. His father, a Baptist minister moved the family quite a bit, with stays in Pittsburgh, and then a move to Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. There were a number of Chicago Symphony musicians in the neighborhood and Parker trained under some formative teachers early on.

Parker studied with a trombonist from the Chicago Symphony. Meanwhile, his band director: “He was really into weird shit, looking back at it,” Parker says. “We played a lot of Zappa in jazz band, along with some weird 1970s live electronic manipulation. This guy was really forward thinking.”

And the trombone presented a sort of ambivalence early on.

“There’s not a lot of dexterity in the instrument, and it’s not really beautiful in a conventional sense. So, you kind of have to figure out what is interesting about it. What are the traits of it that you can embellish to make it stand out?”

This part, Parker certainly has figured out. But one rarely sees him playing anymore. He’s shifted into experimenting with the system of sounds one can produce by making DIY instruments or using breath in just about any makeshift object.

And he traces his parents influence. “They’re naturally musical,” Parker says. “My dad was a trombone player and he played in high school. My mom is an accountant and retired cake decorator. They’re both very artistic people. They never consider themselves to be artists,” he says.

“But my mom, she’s someone who is very precise, and when she had her cake business, it was really like art in the form of cake and frosting. She did like incredibly intricate things involving kind of extended techniques of cake decorating, like gum paste flowers, all kinds of crazy stuff. She once made a cake version of a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

“My dad, I mean he’s very academic, but an aspect of his work is he’s really kind of like, in the way of social practice artists as a pastor, creating situations where people transcend what their lives. He’s also a performer, in a way.”

This seems to drift close to Parker’s intentions in Austin. “I’m really interested in people who live their lives artistically, but maybe even don’t even realize that they’re doing it.”

Of course, classical music tends to elevate highly trained artists over sensory or audience experience. “I really get frustrated with hierarchy, and things that are presented in a way where you feel like you should like it, rather than just allowing your intuition,” Parker says.

“I went to Oberlin which was super open-minded, and then I went to Rice which was an incredible music school. I probably can’t imagine a better place to study orchestral music, but I felt very stifled there. I mean, it’s a factory for creating symphonic musicians and it’s probably the best factory for creating those musicians.”

If your goal is a chair at a top ensemble, there are just a handful of viable jobs in your field each year. Says Parker: “I mean, I think what I noticed generally speaking is that everything was binary, like there’s like a very specific arc that is considered legitimate and everything outside of that part is not legitimate.”

Parker says often the presentation of classical music can be esoteric. Of course, he’s aware of why it’s gone in that direction. “There’s a tradition, but the presentation of what you’re doing is just as important as the realization of your technical precision.”

Austin’s experimental music scene has it relatively easy, Parker says at one point. There’s a substantial, dedicated audience but the field isn’t yet overcrowded with competing performances. The scene’s larger struggles, he says, are a lack of local foundations and corporations funding the bolder side of the arts and Austin’s rapidly dwindling number of venues. 

•  •  •

Collide Arts is solidifying its presence around town and Parker says he enjoys working as a presenting organization instead of just making a vehicle for his own playing. He likes being somewhat in the background, behind the curtain. The process he describes sounds like a tableau that seems dauntingly blank, but this is his comfort spot. “Essentially it’s making work at the intersection of happenings and installations, performance and social practice. Sort of the gray area of all those things.”

Parker’s listening devices inspired by World War II war tubas are installed in Austin’s Zilker Park. Photo by Philip Rogers.

And he’s trying to expand his list of collaborators. After the Fusebox Festival, Parker’s looking forward to some sort of to-be-determined project with Toronto’s brilliant performance art troupe, Mammalian Diving Reflex, among more projects that are literally in motion.

“There’s been some discussion of creating a series of musical rumble strips throughout the state of Texas,” he says, “where we commission different artists to write music for these rumble strips and combine them with pirate radio stations.

“I don’t know how legal all this is,” he laughs.

“I’ve had discussions with (the Texas Department of Transportation) about it, with varying degrees of interest,” Parker grins. “Mostly they want it like the rumble strips like play like something, like ‘The Eyes of Texas.’”

Parker is not an exceedingly easy person to read. I emailed a couple of his collaborators to ask what it was like working with him. Electronic musician Matthew Steinke says Parker “is the most ‘normal’ friend that I have.”

Choreographer Heloise Gold wrote about their collaboration during which Parker, in a low key matter of fact tone, told her, “Oh no problem, that will be super easy, we can definitely have you dancing a duet with a drone bird.”

Blanton Museum programs curator Adam Bennett says that the concepts behind Parker’s performances are just as worthy of attention as the technologies and techniques he uses. “He’s interested in humor and whimsy and formal properties of sound and music and other issues that aren’t overtly political,” Bennett says. “I’ve seen him perform pieces for trombone, laptops, newspapers and pop rocks.”

But Parker, he adds, is also “a socially engaged artist who’s working through issues of why art matters and how art can affect social change.” Bennett cites the latest version of SoundSpace last June which focused on the contributions of immigrants and refugees.

At the brewery, where for some reason, they’re playing Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s duet “The Girl Is Mine,” (a song which includes a regretful talk-singing section that Parker hilariously compares to the expressionist singing technique Sprechstimme), I point out to Parker that he always seems to be on an even keel. Upbeat for sure, but also fairly quiet and soft spoken. Rarely effusive or over the top, emotionally.

Parker thinks about this for a second. “I don’t like to feel… extreme, like extreme emotions. I like to feel happy. I don’t think I like to feel like extreme. No anger. I like to temper the negative,” he says. Sometimes, he says, he can detach from certain emotions, better to step back and analyze.

For all his elaborate, byzantine plans, Parker comes off as remarkably focused. He’s something of a tech minimalist. To get work done he casts his laptop aside and steps into another room. His friends know he’d rather call than text because he uses a flip phone. Though he’s well versed in electronics of every sort, much of his work has focused on nature, whether it’s bats, bees or a piece written for trombones on a lake whose composer only communicates via letters in the mail.

And he’ll occasionally stop everything, perk up his ear and attend to a sound. At the HEB, one truck towing another, passed by, and our conversation stopped. The truck was dangling a link of chain, and as it moved it jingled, every so slightly, like a bell.

“Very… delicate” Parker says.

Steve Parker’s “Traffic Jam” is a piece for and ensemble of 80 carhorns, bicycles, pedicabs and automobiles. Its 2014 premiere was performed in an Austin parking lot.

Luke Quinton
Luke Quintonhttp://brighttypewriter.tumblr.com/
I'm a print+radio journalist in Austin, Texas, and St. John's, Newfoundland. I like to find stories about compelling characters in music, art, history and architecture, who are daring (or dared) to do something new. I write for the Austin American-Statesman, Gramophone, Maclean's, and I produce stories for fine radio programs Marketplace, NPR, & PRX.

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