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Fast Forward Austin

This is not your standard music festival – you'll hear sounds you've never heard before

By Natalie Zeldin, Fri., April 11, 2014

Mantra Percussion
Mantra Percussion
Courtesy of Ian Douglas

So it's Saturday, and you're at a music festival. You're in a bar Downtown, where you've shown your wristband, grabbed a drink, and settled in to listen to some sounds. Such a typical Austin occurrence as to be hardly newsworthy. But what kind of music are you imagining?

Probably not contemporary classical music – if that's the right term. Where Fast Forward Austin is concerned, even the festival founders admit that they haven't yet found the ideal term for the music they present. "We just want to say 'really interesting' music!" one of them exclaims. It's "new music," "experimental music," "contemporary music," and not necessarily tied to the "classical" label, either. The Grant Wallace Band, performing this year, enigmatically calls itself "a trio of composer-performers weaving a diaphanous sound from threads of new music, modern jazz, and old-time folk styles." Some of the foreign soundscapes produced during the festival are equally difficult to capture in words – you just have to hear it to know what it is.

So this music festival celebrates, let's just say, indescribable sound. It all started when three University of Texas composition students – Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein, and Steven Snowden – were looking for new places to present music beyond the traditional school setting. They wanted an environment more directly engaged with the local community, so they created one themselves: Fast Forward Austin, an annual 8-hour new music marathon.

Fast forward four years, and Dicke, Honstein, and Snowden are scattered across the globe, teaching at universities in California, Brooklyn, and Hong Kong, respectively. They continue to plan the festival remotely, though with invaluable boots-on-the-ground support from Charlie Magnone and Kenzie Slottow, among others. Since 10am Central is an hour that's neither too early nor too late for the far-flung members of the team, that's when they try to meet. I crashed a recent Google Hangout with them to chat about this year's lineup.

One of the most "out there" pieces scheduled is Brooklyn-based Mantra Percussion performing Michael Gordon's Timber, an hourlong work played on lumber two-by-fours. (NPR produced a video of Mantra playing an excerpt in a Lowe's Hardware Store: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lytgDpIs4Sk.) Honstein recalls being shocked when he first heard the piece live: "It sounds like a choir because the pitches become harmonies with the resonating wood!"

Then there's Tatsuya Naketani, a self-described "acoustic sound artist" who creates his own instruments in order to summon specific timbres. "It's nothing like anything you've ever heard before," says Snowden, recalling a performance he and Dicke attended. "It's a transformative, transportive experience." Dicke admits to feeling like a "dorky fanboy" at the prospect of seeing Naketani perform again.

Also flying in from New York are West Fourth New Music Collective (W4), a group of composers and performers that is collaborating at FFA with the Skyros Quartet, a former string quartet in residence at UT now based in Lincoln, Neb.; and Loadbang, an eclectic quartet of "lung-powered instrumentation," including bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and baritone voice.

Though none of the organizers live in Austin anymore, all are still committed to providing a platform for artists here. They make a point of keeping a 50/50 ratio of local/out-of-town artists. Line upon line percussion, an Austin trio that's putting itself on the map, is returning to FFA, fresh from an international tour. Also this year, FFA is assembling an orchestra of Austin musicians to play That the Night Come, by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. This massive work, which incorporates poetry by W.B. Yeats, will be conducted by Austin Symphony Music Director Peter Bay and feature mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen.

Ultimately, though, FFA is about the audience experience. The organizers say that they want to give people a chance to hear something they've never heard before, but in a way that's comfortable. "There's a false correlation between prestige and excellence," Honstein explains. "A lot of people associate fine quality with the trimmings of a traditional evening at the symphony or the opera. But we believe we can offer a top-rate musical experience in an environment that is less rigid and formal, so that people can access the music without being turned off by the experience." This year's festival will be at the North Door. It's a come-and-go thing, so they encourage people to do as they please: stand, sit, even grab a bite in the back and chat.


Fast Forward Austin 2014 will take place Saturday, April 12, 4pm-12mid, at the North Door, 502 Brushy. For more information, visit www.fastforwardaustin.com.

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