Montopolis main

Photo of Montopolis.

What happens when a composer with a rock background tries a new approach? Pure enchantment! Award-winning Austin-based composer Justin Sherburn and Montopolis will present their multi-media show Music for Enchanted Rock at The North Door this weekend, in celebration of the release of their new CD. KMFA's Sara Schneider recently spoke with the composer about this project.

The music on your new CD is called ambient classical. How do you define that?

What I do combines two schools: American minimalism, like Philip Glass and Terry Riley, and so-called ambient music, which was given birth to by people like Brian Eno in the 1970's. The minimalism is more academic, and the ambient classical is slightly more commercially oriented, and comes from a more pop/rock background, using synthesizers, for example.

How does a rock and roll guy end up writing classical music?

First I tried musical fusion, a rock rhythm section in an indie-classical thing. I started doing that with my live scores, a rock band with a string trio, mostly. Eventually I wanted to do more pure chamber music, with more counterpoint. You can be more flexible with time. You just get so locked into that tempo with snare drum always on the 2nd and 4th beats. It was a break from that. I'm much happier this way, because when you have the strings with the drums, it kind of saps the energies of both.

Can you tell us more about the non-musical aspects of Music for Enchanted Rock?

It's a three-part experience: first, we have the photography of Rip Shaub. At the show on Sunday we'll have a slideshow of images scrolling past.

Another element is the stories of people's experiences at Enchanted Rock. When I was researching the piece, just putting it together, I'd speak to people about what I was working on, and they would say, “Oh, I remember that time I went out to Enchanted Rock...,” and I would say, “Tell me about that.” I began recording these conversations, to listen to later on, to be inspired by that, and that turned into my process. I have a degree in English from UT, so I'm always searching for narrative. Some people can just enjoy the ambient music on its own, but I think it's helpful for a lot of people to have context.

What's your process for turning a personal story into music?

One of the stories comes from a friend of mine named Lee, who has a deep Texas drawl. He was talking about Jack Hays, and the Texas Rangers, and a battle that happened up on Enchanted Rock. That was my starting point, and I knew I wanted something that had a spiritual element to it, that had a "legend" sound to it, but I also wanted something more western-oriented. I was already working on this sort of Philip Glass-type ostinato pattern, and added a melody by Ennio Morricone, which was just perfect. It became "Variation on Misterioso e ostinato."

What kinds of reactions have you had to Music for Enchanted Rock?

We're on the Texas Commission on the Arts touring roster, so we get gigs in small towns. And we played the show in Winnsboro, Texas, which is a small town about an hour and a half east of Dallas. The general audience I was picturing for this was more indie, more of a folk rock audience, but this audience was 60 and 70 year old small-town ladies, and they went bonkers for it- they loved it. I only brought like twenty CDs, thinking there's no way I'm going to sell any of these. They bought every single one of my CDs. They were just superfans! Enchanted Rock is a landmark that a lot of people in Texas go to, it's a place of interest. And they have experiences there, and they really connect with it. And that's what I want- I want people to connect with the idea of a place that is sacred in some way.

You can hear samples of Music for Enchanted Rock on Spotify. Join Justin Sherburn and Montopolis at their CD release party at North Door, Sunday, November 12 at 7 p.m. More information at