Composer Nathan Felix Transitions to Video During Quarantine
Short, simple films of mundane tasks analyze human condition
By Nataleah Small,
10:30AM, Fri. Jul. 17, 2020
In his mid-20s, Nathan Felix attended his first symphonic performance at the invitation of his older brother. He recalls marveling at how the group of acoustic musicians generated as much energy and power as an amplified band. The immersive sound proved mind blowing. “I wanted to compose a symphony the first time I heard one,” recalls the Austinite today.
Prior to that experience, the now opera composer and experimental director disdained the music he currently writes.
“I thought classical music was garbage,” offers Felix. “Why would anyone want to go see music that’s antiquated?”
The youthful love affair stood the test of time.
Operas written, symphonies conducted, and multiple awards and commissions under his belt, the 39-year-old native local continues carving out space in the classical scene. Although the self-taught sound conjurer mines a high-brow genre, his music derives its complexity from layering of yearning melodies and cathartic vocals. Felix’s compositions vary from synth-heavy to the orchestrally melodramatic.
This month’s single “Rain Falls in May” balances the subtle inflections of two piano notes with the soaring vocals of Candice Jackson. Previously, last November, he debuted a pair of operas in Texas museums. Alien Wanderers: Alien World: Alien Home premiered at Austin’s Blanton Museum and A Dream is a Dream is a Dream is a Dream…” premiered at the McNay Museum in San Antonio.
During both presentations, singers, musicians, and audience members moved through galleries to follow the action. An immersive quality derived from the close interactions between the show and its consumers. With the traditional barriers of seats and stage removed, the music literally got in one’s face.
In mid-March, the performance style Felix cultivated for the past two years became untenable. Faced with a career in flux, he pivoted to experimental filmmaking during the quarantine. His films are short and simple, most under five minutes and captured from a single angle.
In Q1: Drinking Coffee, published to YouTube on May 18, the composer sits in front of a window in a dimly lit room and sips coffee for nearly four and half minutes. Apart from the sounds of breathing and the beverage poured into a glass, silence abounds.
Including music would cheapen the artistic value of the films, he states. Quietness embodies the feelings of isolation he’s experienced during the pandemic. He chose to record mundane tasks, such as shaving, writing a note, and taking a shot of liquor in front of the Prada Marfa art installation, to analyze the human condition.
“I thought I could explore and use it as a way to look back at the nuances in my facial features and the different characteristics, and what I was going through,” articulates Felix.
At first, he could only record his personal experiences. Then, as quarantine restrictions lifted, he turned others for inspiration.
In Q11: Eating Cake, published on June 25, actress Shelby Gueverra sits in front of a white background and wears a white shirt as a thick slice of three-layer white cake rests on the table before her. For nearly five minutes, the actress resists the dessert. Then at the 4:53 mark, her taking sudden action precedes the film’s abrupt ending.
Although he talks with his subjects beforehand, Felix wants to capture emotion in the moment, not dictate expression. He considers the films a creative take on isolation: an artistic reflection of the times.
“I want to be honest and true to what people are feeling all the time,” says Felix. “This way of being a non-director, turning on the camera, letting it unfold in front of us, and maybe nothing unfolds or maybe it’s so minimal or minute is what I like. It’s not forced.”
He hopes to create more pieces from cities across Texas using new subjects and angles to examine mannerisms. Naysayers claim they lack meaning. He remains undeterred.
Growing up in Austin, music surrounded him. He attended his first show at Stubbs; Atari Teenage Riot opened for Smash Mouth and Sugar Ray to the best of his memory. From the moment a crew member cranked a single guitar chord during soundcheck, he was hooked. That year, he received a guitar for Christmas.
The city shaped his view of success as a musician. Peering through the window of Hole in the Wall as a teenager, he fascinated over normal people performing in small clubs. In contrast with the glorified depictions of rock stars on MTV, knowing his substitute teachers performed in bands made the dream attainable.
These days, Felix considers himself a retired guitarist. From 2006 to 2017, he manned said six strings for Noise Revival Orchestra, during which time he experienced his first symphony. Inspired, he taught himself how to write for different instruments.
During his latter years with NRO, he began writing orchestral music, which quickly lost its luster. Then he wrote choral music and eventually hit a creative wall. He finally settled upon opera and fell in love with its narrative form.
“It’s my way that I can storytell, which goes back to my origins or the origin of most people in Austin,” explains Felix. “I love Austin because you can tell your story via poems essentially. What I’m doing in opera is just a glorified version of a singer-songwriter.”
Along with personal narratives, Felix also relates the stories of others. He’s joined forces with his friend Gylon Jackson and cellist Stephen Young to create a composition inspired by the recent Black Lives Matter protests. The collaborators want to film this month and release it in August in case the feeling of protest begins to fade.
The work in progress juxtaposes a melodic cello arrangement with a jarring free-verse poem. Jackson outlines seven steps for people who experience discomfort and want to speak up amid the protests. Felix wants to cultivate discomfort so the audience will either resonate with the piece or run away from it.
“I don’t want to do something that’s just like, ‘Oh, that’s a nice pretty string piece,’ and then people forget,” emphasizes Felix. “I want something that smacks them in the face and makes them feel uncomfortable because that’s the way I feel about the world now.
“We should all be getting out of our comfort zones.”
Nathan latest film, Q22: Opera Singers Tailgating – Cleburne, TX, drops today: