Symphony No. I-35

Finally, a Traffic Jam we can enjoy, thanks to composer Steve Parker

Sound artist Mark McCoin with his golf-cart piano
Sound artist Mark McCoin with his golf-cart piano (Courtesy of Mark McCoin)

Nobody likes sitting in bad traffic. The exasperating stillness, the exhaust fumes, the expletives screamed at you (and by you). But while the rest of us have been stuck under that particular black cloud, composer Steve Parker has been molding the silver lining. The result is Traffic Jam, a punny name for the eccentric but thoughtful musical offering being presented at the Blue Starlite Drive-In on Saturday as part of the Fusebox Festival.

Traffic Jam is scored for a few conventional instruments, but the majority of it will be performed with repurposed transportation equipment: bikes as percussion instruments, pedicabs as dancers, even a golf cart outfitted with piano parts. The bumper-to-bumper lineup includes line upon line percussion, sound artist Mark McCoin, composers Ethan Greene and Travis Weller, and a band of community participants performing a cathartic chorus on their car horns.

In the fury of an I-35 bottleneck, drivers understandably find it challenging to appreciate the sheer magnitude of traffic sound. The honks, screeches, and hums are our shared language on the road – the music of our everyday transportation experience. The program aims to help us reflect, celebrate, and, yes, grieve our collective commutes.

In the spirit of rush hour, I spoke with Parker about his project on a Friday at 5pm.

Austin Chronicle: So where did this idea come from?

Steve Parker: I'm always trying to think of projects that have some sort of relevance beyond just being concert music. One issue on everyone's mind is traffic and their frustration with it.

I'm also interested in exploring unused spaces that have a high incidence of activity at some times but are then completely unutilized at others. I've been interested in parking lots and garages in Austin because they seem to hold promise. So this is an outgrowth of those two things: frustration with traffic and activating underutilized spaces.

AC: The concert will include music written by students at Austin Soundwaves, a local organization that provides music education to underserved students. What was your experience mentoring this project?

SP: I really enjoy working with them. It is a great organization, with a great structure and administration. Last year, I worked with the students on an instrument-building project. This year, for this program, it is more of a composition project. We had weekly projects using Audacity and Ableton Live (sound manipulation and looping softwares) where we would record samples of automobiles and layer sounds. Now we are collaborating with composer Ethan Greene to tie things together.

AC: The concert will be at the Blue Starlite Drive-In, which is Austin's only drive-in movie theatre. How did you choose this venue?

SP: Well, we looked at a few other places first – empty garages and parking lots – but surrounding noise was a big factor. The Blue Starlite is a real cool place. It's isolated and enormous. It almost feels like being in West Texas because it is on a plateau and nothing crowds your line of vision. It seemed like a good place to be performing.

AC: The final piece uses community participants' car horns. What inspired you to write for the car as an instrument?

SP: There is definitely precedence for using car horns as instruments. The original inspiration for this piece, though, was Volumina by György Ligeti. The piece is written for the organ and has a lot of densities over the range of this monstrous instrument. I always thought about how that would be on car horns. Being a trombonist, I've always been interested in the breath and volume of horns, particularly large horns: trucks, large barges, and steamboats. In terms of car horns, I think everyone will look forward to leaning on their horns and making a lot of noise.

AC: So how are you writing this piece?

SP: Well, there's not that much you can do with a car horn because there's not a lot of variety in pitch content. So the main variety comes from the space, density, and intervals. If you tap it really lightly, you get virtually no pitch, just the "articulation" of the horn. There is some oscillation in the tone when you hold it down for a while. As people sign up, they enter information about their car, and I can usually find the sound of its horn on YouTube. People have also been emailing me recordings of their car horns with their phones. Everyone will have a unique part in the form of instructions to do certain things with the car horn. The instructions are timed according to a synchronized stopwatch, which we'll practice in the hourlong rehearsal before the concert.

Traffic Jam will be performed Sat., April 11, 7pm, at Blue Starlite Drive-In, 1901 E. 51st. For more information, visit

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Austin composers, Traffic Jam, Steve Parker, Ethan Greene, Travis Weller, Mark McCoin, Austin Soundwaves, Fusebox Festival, Blue Starlite Drive-In

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