In this series, KMFA Story Seeker Natalie Zeldin explores Austin musicians and groups that are "on the edge" between classical and...something else. This is her eighth article in the series, for more, see her last article where punk rocker Nathan Felix finds classical.
Graham Reynolds is one of the most prominent voices in the Austin music scene. He works as a composer and bandleader, for which he has received national acclaim and recognition. He recently won the 2016 Austin Critics’ Table Award for Best Original Score/Composition. Equally importantly, though, is his work pushing the scope of what classical music can be--by pursuing collaborations in a surprisingly wide variety of genres and settings and promoting the new music of other composers. Here, we ask him about what’s it’s like to be continually living at the edge of what “classical music” can be.
KMFA: How did you get started in music?
When I was five years old and my mom was taking piano lessons. I thought my mom was cool, so I asked if I could do it, too.
KMFA: When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I basically wanted to be whatever it was that my best teachers were at that time. My dad was a history teacher, and I thought he was cool, so I thought about that. Then in seventh grade I had an amazing science teacher, so I wanted to be a scientist. My music teachers were great, and any time I had a great music teacher, I wanted to be a musician. I had an amazing music teacher in my public elementary school. He would build keyboards and guitars for the whole class! Then in high school, my teacher allowed me to develop my composing skills even though the school didn’t have a composing program. My classical teacher realized I was improvising, so she suggested jazz teachers to work on those skills.
KMFA: You’ve been involved in experimental jazz with the Golden Arm Trio for a long time. How does your jazz background inform your classical composition?
It informs it quite a bit. In a jazz chart, there’s minimal information given to the musician. The chart may say “fast” or “medium” but beyond that, it doesn’t give you much in terms of phrasing or style; there is just melody and chords. On the other hand, in a classical score by Richard Strauss, for instance, maximal super-micro information is provided to the musician. I give more detail like that if I’m writing for traditional players, but my scores look a little naked compared to lots of classical scores because I like to give the player freedom to make a lot of choices.
KMFA: But as a composer, how do you relinquish the control of what your music sounds like to the musician?
From being an improviser and a player myself, I know that there are things that are difficult to notate. Let me explain it like this: If you hear a person read or speak text, there’s a difference in the way it sounds. It’s difficult to read out loud and have it sound quite as natural as just speaking. I’m looking for the instruments to be closer to freely- and casually-spoken text rather than sounding like read text. As a composer, I’m providing the frames and platforms for the particular people and their particular skills.
KMFA: You have an impressively varied history of collaborations in dance, theater and film--ranging from more stately ones like with the Austin Ballet and Symphony, to working with the theater company Rude Mechanicals, and even a piece for Forklift Danceworks for 18 garbage trucks. Why is collaboration important to you?
The simplest answer is that I like to do it. As an artist, I’m always looking to be inspired and to be brought somewhere new and expand my ideas. Collaboration pulls me out of boxes--sometimes to explore a new genre, fit into specific time structures for film, or any number of challenges. These challenges force the creativity out of you.
KMFA: You’ve worked with Richard Linklater on several of his films including Bernie, A Scanner Darkly, and Before Midnight. What’s that process like?
Working with Richard’s great. Usually, we’ll have a vague conversation at the beginning of the process after I’ve read the script. We talk about what he thinks the film is going to need musically. He’s delicate with his use of music and careful not to step on the dialogue. Usually he and Sandra Adair (the editor) put a temp track to spot the film and figure out where the music is going to be and I fill in the holes. He really likes his collaborators--including actors and post-production people--to bring their own ideas and voices, so he doesn’t overfeed people with direction and provides minimal notes.
KMFA: You co-founded the Golden Hornet Project with Peter Stopschinski and have premiered alt-classical works by more than 60 composers. The mission of the non-profit organization says that the goal is “to synchronize the rock club and the concert hall.” Is that how you would define alt-classical?
It started in the late 20th century as a movement resisting the trappings of traditional classical performance. It’s about presentation--not wearing tuxedos, playing in the club, and generally making classical music less intimidating for audiences. When you play in these different spaces, you need to be open to the audience. You are forced to consider the audience, and this does not assume making a compromise. It’s like a conversation: When you’re having a conversation with someone who works at KMFA, you might talk about classical music stuff or radio stuff. If you’re talking to your mom, you might talk about something totally different. If you’re talking to a seven-year old who likes Star Wars, you’ll talk about that. The point is that the conversation changes because of who you’re talking to. As a musician, you work to find the common ground for dialogue with the audience.
KMFA: What has changed about the alt-classical scene since Golden Hornet Project was founded in 1999.
The climate is now a scene. You see classical rebels in cities around the world, from Nonclassical in London to FFA here in Austin. Back when Peter and I did our first concerts, we didn’t know anybody doing this kind of thing. Now you’re writing this whole series on local innovators on KMFA, so it really feels like a family that wasn’t there before.
KMFA: Do you think music is too siloed by genre?
It’s a complicated question. Talking about music is so famously difficult. Genre gives you a way to talk about music--especially music that uses certain vocabulary. But you have to know why you’re talking about it that way and you can only use these labels if you’re self-aware. Is jazz still jazz if you write out your solos? Most music marketing is done through genre. If you go to Spotify, you search by genre. That makes it difficult to market the people like us that are wandering on the edges of genres. If you’re not fitting into these categories it becomes difficult.
KMFA: What is it about Austin that has kept you here all of these years?
I grew up pretty close to New York, and I felt like I knew it already. I played piano and drums and I didn’t want to live in a place that I couldn’t live with my instruments. That’s how I ended up picking Austin. Those advantages still exist. I’ve always had a house and worked in the house. My career is threaded to my connection to the Austin community. Because of my various collaborators in the city, I don’t see how I’d be able to make better work in another place.
KMFA: What do you like to do for fun?
I like to make it a part of my work. I love to travel to Mexico. So, right now I’m working on a project of composing a chamber opera for a performance in Marfa called Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance. So now I have Mexican collaborators, so it’s a good excuse to travel. I also like to research and read books, so I love projects where there is an excuse to read a book about West Texas or science and call it “work.” We did a show in Kyoto and I’ve always wanted to work with a garden designer, but I haven’t done it yet. I like basketball, and I haven’t figured out how to weave that in yet. There’s a philosophy of separating work from play, but I chose music so that there’s no reason to separate these two things!
Austin composer Graham Reynolds in his studio on January 20, 2011. Photo by Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman.