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 fourth article in the series, for more, see her last article on Justin Sherburn's unconventional classical training.
Steve Parker wears a lot of hats in the Austin arts community. He’s a trombone rockstar: he plays in Ensemble Signal and is a professor at UTSA. But in addition to his playing, he organizes art events around Austin, where he uses parts of the city as source material for his work. He’s the curator of the SoundSpace series at the Blanton Museum of Art and director of the arts organization COLLIDE. It seems that Steve always has a new and adventurous project up his sleeve. This interview provides a glimpse into the rationale for his creative work.
How did you get started playing the trombone?
My dad had a trombone in the attic because he had played trombone in high school. For some reason, he put lots of baking soda in the case so it would be fresh. So, my first association with the trombone is the smell of baking soda. I really wanted to play saxophone, but I played trombone by default because it was free. My dad used to make motorcycle noises on the trombone, by flutter-tonguing and sliding. I really wasn’t serious about playing until I was in high school. I grew up in Chicago, so I was lucky enough to take lessons with some of the musicians in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I benefited from a number of positive musical influences.
Of course it’s only a stereotype, but usually the role of the trombonist is at the back the orchestra. How did you adopt a position in the artistic limelight?
Well, it started mainly out of boredom. Playing trombone in the orchestra is rewarding in a way, by playing a small part in a large machine. But if that were the only thing I was doing my career would be pretty boring. Playing trombone in orchestra is like being a long snapper in football; you’re only noticed if you make mistakes. I wanted to do creative work and diversify my skill set, so I started doing other things.
What do you think is the role of the classical musician in the 21st century?
Classical music plays a role in composed music, academic music, or music that is not pop music. This music that challenges people to think and listen to sound on a pace that is much different than what they hear on the radio. It requires the listener to evaluate a broader variables when listening to music and organizing sound. I think that’s really important just as any other intellectual pursuit is important. It is important to challenge people to listen to things that they’re not used to listening to.
As a presenter and organizer of music events, how do you balance the need to challenge people without alienating them?
I’ve found that it’s really about context and finding that point of entry. Most of the stuff that we present at the Blanton is pretty esoteric and difficult-to-grasp music--even when you’re familiar with it. One way is presenting the music in a novel place, where the surroundings affect your perception of what you’re hearing. Another way is actually involving the audience in the collaborative process of the performance. I usually have don’t compromise with the content. Usually, most good music, if set in the right place or presented in the right way, will speak for itself.
Speaking of novel contexts, some of your work is site-specific to Austin. To list a few projects, you’ve worked with local traffic, maps, and created installations of instruments downtown. How does the city inspire you?
I try to keep an open mind about what materials I’m working with. Since I live in Austin, it’s sort of impossible not to work with the city. It’s inevitable that parts of the city that I live in are materials. I ask, “What are the materials and how can we use the material in new ways?” I try to think of elements that are compelling, interesting, or even annoying and distasteful.
You have organized several large-scale performances for untrained musicians. What have you learned from these projects?
I like to use territories that offer potential that hasn’t been explored. Lately I’ve been interested in creating performances with large ensembles of “primitive” instruments that can be played by people without training. I also like working with kids a lot because they don’t have a lot of habits, so that offers more opportunity for things to happen that are unpredictable. I learn a lot when I’m working with people like that, and often the end result is stranger and more interesting than if I were working with a group of highly trained group of people. I think there is more opportunity for exploration with people that haven’t benefited from training.
What project are you working on now?
I’m working on a piece for bat echolocation which uses bat calls combined with other echo-producing devices. I’m using a variety of directional horns: conch shells, percussion, vocalists with megaphones, and echolocaters that I’m building in a series of workshops with students. These echolocaters emit a short sine wave that give an aural map of where you are. It’s modeled after something used in Alvin Lucier’s Vespers. It’s going to take place in April as part of the Fusebox Festival under the Congress Bridge.
The next SoundSpace concert at the Blanton this Sunday. What do you have on the docket?
This program coincides with the exhibit Come as You Are, which is an exhibit about art in the 1990s. The exhibit touches upon three threads of that decade in the visual arts: identify politics, the emergence of the internet and digital art, and globalization. We are presenting artists and pieces that examine some of these threads. We are having a telematic performance, which will be played over live internet connection from multiple locations by No Idea Festival musicians. Another thing we’re doing is a big, participatory boombox choir by Phil Klein and by local composer Laura Brackney.
For more information about SoundSpace click here.