"Steve Parker: War Tuba" at Big Medium

In exploring sound's relationship to conflict and use in it, the artist fuses past and present, melody and discord, into a remixed reveille

Ghost Radio by Steve Parker (Photo by Sarah Frankie Linder)

A finger on a wall-mounted brass pipe sends a soulful refrain through a pair of headphones wired to a suitcase, also fixed to the wall. "Let my people go." Two steps to the left, tapping a valve adds a series of Morse code-like staccato beeps and bloops. Another step, another valve, and a thrum like a motor fills in another layer of the developing sound collage. Still audible in spite of the headphones, a broadcast fills the room: a plaintive man's rendition of "You Are My Sunshine" and a woman's mournful crooning in another language. This is just a seconds-long snapshot of the soundscape at Steve Parker's "War Tuba Recital," the solo show prize and product following his winning the 2018 Tito's Prize.

Parker has been creating experimental and collaborative pieces with sound and sculptural instruments for years now. With the prize, Parker continues his exploration in the gallery space. Where previous performances often riffed on sound and space in public – batty megaphone arrangements under the Congress Bridge and choreographed, gridlock-inspired compositions in a parking lot – "War Tuba Recital" operates within the acoustic environmental constraints of a small, indoor area. Parker leans into the constraints of the space and offers individualized experiences with even greater sound intensity. With headphones and the ability to customize your experience of the show, he adds to a body of engaging and generative work in exploration of new themes, namely how the machinations of conflict use sound, historically and presently. He does so brazenly, as in, with a lot of brass.

Often simply metonymic for the military or upper ranks, brass connotes a hierarchical superiority and respect. Ghost Radio, the interactive piece sending clips through a set of headphones in response to the viewer's touch, and Sirens, the piece playing the background clips, repurpose old brass instruments in Seussical arrangements, morphing and mutating off of one another in loops that spread like ivy across a wall or sprout like a saguaro from the center of the floor, respectively. Parker's use of spirituals and their Old Testament references recalls ancient use of music in battle. At the Battle of Jericho, "The lamb ram sheep horns began to blow/ The trumpets began to sound/ Oh, Joshua commanded the children to shout/ The walls came a-tumblin' down."

Parker's interest in sound as an instrument of conflict aligns with these ancient and fabled uses: Mechanizations of alarm and pageantry, galvanization and threat, extend well beyond the World War II focus of his show. What do these intersections mean today, though? The clarion calls of old bear little resemblance to those of today, though concerns may be the same. Parker mixes relics with modern sounds and technology (headphones, digital recordings, ASMR videos) to create an unnerving discordance that occasionally, seemingly accidentally, slips into harmony. This jumble of past and present, melody and discord, soothing and disruption comes together to constitute what could be a wake-up call, a remixed reveille.

"Steve Parker: War Tuba"

Big Medium Gallery, 916 Springdale, Bldg. 2, #101.
Through Nov. 18

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Big Medium, Steve Parker, Tito's Prize, East Austin Studio Tour 2018

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