The Austin Chronicle

Vote for New Music in Golden Hornet's String Quartet Smackdown VII

For the seventh year, Golden Hornet referees this composition competition while you decide the winner

By Robert Faires, March 26, 2021, Arts

Just because the election was over three months ago, it doesn't mean you can't still rock the vote. New music generator Golden Hornet is giving you the chance to cast multiple ballots this weekend – though in this case it might be more accurate to say you're going to classical the vote. The occasion is GH's annual String Quartet Smackdown, the love child of a new music recital and a March Madness-style tournament. In it, short string-quartet works by contemporary composers get pitted against one another in one-on-one playoffs – literally: A chamber ensemble plays sections of each piece for the audience to hear, then vote on which one moves to the next round.

You might think this cheeky approach would strike a sour note with the "serious music" crowd, but this will be Golden Hornet's seventh String Quartet Smackdown, and each year the competition draws more and more composers and sells out earlier and earlier. Moreover, the Smackdown keeps extending its reach farther and farther around the globe; the 2021 entrants hail from Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, Iran, Japan, Mexico, and Nigeria, as well as the U.S. It may be another measure of the competition's popularity that the three judges who listened to all the submissions and determined this year's Sweet 16 are all past participants, and one, Stéphanie Hamelin Tomala, won the Smackdown the last two years. (Her compositions, "A Tribute to Krakow" (2020) and "The Last Dance" (2019), can be heard on Bandcamp, along with other Smackdown works.)

This year, the usual rules are in force for the composers: Their pieces must be written for the standard string quartet and can be only four minutes long. They'll compete in the same setup: Four rounds in which the same professional string quartet plays portions of each composition; the audience votes on each pairing, with winners progressing from the opening round to Quarterfinals (eight works), then Semi-finals (four works), then Finals with the top two. The voting will be, as always, live, with audience members texting their choices when prompted by the hosts, and the votes tallied onscreen as they come in.

However like everything else in town, the Smackdown is in Lockdown, so some changes are in effect for this year's event. The musicians won't be playing the works live; the Vórtice Ensamble String Quartet pre-recorded all of the compositions, in parts and in their entirety, from their home base in Mexico City. And though GH Artistic Director Graham Reynolds and Judlyne Gibson will be hosting live, they'll do so online from separate locations. Finally, as you've likely guessed, the audience won't be watching and voting in person at the Alamo Drafthouse. But the upside of having the competition on Alamo On Demand is that, for once, it won't sell out, as it has in the past. And for Reynolds, that's the silver lining to the dark cloud of the virtual Smackdown. "What I'm most excited about is how this opens up the show to a much wider audience," he says.

So if for some reason you've missed out on this composition competition, this tournament of tunes, this classical clash, take advantage of this opportunity yet to get in on the action. Make your voice heard about what you heard. Vote for new music!

String Quartet Smackdown VII
Sat., March 27, 7pm

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