Austin’s slogan, “The Live Music Capital of the World,” is mostly associated with large festivals like South by Southwest and Austin City Limits, which dominate the city’s circuit. Those massive events service thousands of artists and audience members. But smaller series pop up all across the city, too, steadily providing artists opportunities to come together and make music with colleagues from all over.
One such fest is the It’s Winter Somewhere Composer Festival, hosted by Austin percussion ensemble Line Upon Line. And it’s entirely free for the composers who attend. Chamber music festivals like this one provide staple educational experiences for emerging composers and performers, offering necessary support, recordings and opportunities for camaraderie.
But it’s been a bit of a tumultuous ride over the past year for the It’s Winter Somewhere Composer Festival. Usually planned for January — and called the Winter Composer Festival — the 2020 iteration went off without a hitch. But this year’s fest crashed right into the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, after three re-schedulings, the festival finally comes to the eastside alt venue Crashbox from August 17-22.
Line Upon Line has always found creative excitement working with composers, often commissioning new pieces and working closely with composers to develop them. That led the ensemble to found the composer festival in 2019. Each attending composer gets to workshop their new piece, record it in a professional studio, and have the work performed for a live audience. It’s also a way for artists to meet and to explore Austin, a city the group is proud to call home.
“Most of the composers have never been here before, so they’re really excited to explore the city and be here for a week and hang out with each other,” says Matthew Teodori, the founder of Line Upon Line. “There’s a good head of steam that builds up behind it, or critical mass, I think, as a result of everyone being here at the same time. This festival format allows it to be a little more impactful than just coming here by yourself and working with us.”
Many of this year’s composers , who hail from cities all across the United States, are drawn to the festival for similar reasons: the ability to work with Line Upon Line and star faculty members Timothy McCormack and Michelle Lou as well as a professional studio recording, something not provided at most festivals. Austin brings its own draws, with most composers excited to try tacos and barbecue, or to dig through the crates at local record stores. They’re excited to hear their work in a live concert setting, too — something most musicians have missed over the past year and a half.
Some of this year’s cohort find that this is another stop in a whirlwind summer of festivals and composition. For J.E. Hernández, the Austin event comes on the heels of a trip to Alaska for the Composing In The Wilderness Festival, where he travelled to sites like Denali National Park to write music about nature.
Hernández was born in Mexico but has lived in Houston for nearly two decades, so he’s known about Line Upon Line for a while. His work often addresses socially conscious philosophies from his own life experiences. Working with the Austin ensemble this summer is by far a highlight of his year.
“This is my first professional engagement with a real percussion ensemble, and Line Upon Line, they’re just extremely talented,” says Hernández. “That’s really what I’m most excited about is just working with them and seeing what that’s like and fostering that relationship.”
The piece Hernández is composing for the festival originally started years ago with a band he was in, but was never finished. Now, he’s created a fully formed version of the work that incorporates the Mayan Jaguar drum and sampling. Hernández has written a few pieces that have used instruments from Mayan culture, finding inspiration in work by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, who he considers to be part of his musical lineage. The Jaguar drum that’ll be used in the Austin performance is a recreation that features a string and a rasper that make a growling noise similar to a jaguar; Hernández is careful to approach Mayan culture with understanding and respect when using these instruments.
Like Hernández, Ryan Carraher comes to Austin after a summer of music making at festivals all over the world. When he took my call from his home in Seattle, he had just finished working with a group in Darmstadt, Germany, though he virtually collaborated with them. In his music, the University of Washington doctoral candidate infuses his knowledge from guitar improvisation into works that challenge artists to confront failure.
“My pieces embrace failure by often asking performers to do untraditional or paradoxical or physically impossible things,” he says. “We all fail at different things, we all have our own limitations, but it’s not a negative thing. It’s an expression of one’s identity.”
The piece he’s been writing for Line Upon Line is a game piece that asks the ensemble to cycle through a series of processes that are often interrupted. Line Upon Line won’t even see the score before performance night, though they’ve been working from rehearsal scores that have similar ideas to what they’ll see at the concert.
Christine Burke, who lives in Iowa, also explores unconventional music making methods in the piece she’s writing for Line Upon Line. Answering the phone from the University of Iowa music library, she explains that she’s started to write for everyday objects she could find at home since the beginning of the pandemic, a method she initially tried out for an Experimental Sound Studio concert. For Line Upon Line, she’s written a quiet piece that features a box full of objects that the composers will work through, a glockenspiel and a timpani.
Burke also noticed another surprise of the pandemic influence in her composition. “I realized after the fact, this sneaky, trying not to make a lot of noise thing,” she said. “I think is very related to the fact that we adopted a cat around the same time I was writing this piece.”
As these composers, alongside three others and a duo of performer-composers, come together in Austin this week, they’ll finally have the opportunity to attend a festival that they’ve waited on for more than a year — and writing for a percussion ensemble who have long championed new composers and new ways of performance.
“I think that right now, percussion chamber music has become the language of our times as composers and as music makers,” says Hernández. “Percussion has taken a lot of the lead in opening up the gates of new languages, new collaborations, and new mediums.”
Festival concerts take place August 17-22. They will be open only at 50% capacity but will also be livestreamed. See eventbrite.com/e/2021-its-winter-somewhere-composer-festival