The 2012 Fast Forward Austin contemporary music festival begins its 8-hour marathon of performances this afternoon at Austin, Texas’ versatile ND-501 studios. This year’s event, the second installment of the Fast Forward Austin (FFA) idea, features performances by local and nationally-acclaimed performers including renowned pianist Vicky Chow and Graham Reynolds, considered, “Austin’s own new music wizard”. Today’s musical menu features established names from the last few decades of new music – David Lang, Louis Andriessen and Iannis Xenakis – alongside brand new works by up-and-coming composers – Shawn Allison, David Biedenbender and Christopher Cerrone – culled from the festival’s 2011-12 call-for-scores.
Last Thursday, I caught up with Fast Forward Austin’s founders, composers Ian Dicke, Steven Snowden and Robert Honstein, and learned, among other things, that a series of “satellite events” have led to tomorrow afternoon’s marathon performance. These appearances, designed both to promote this year’s festival and strengthen the collaborations on display this afternoon, began with a performance of Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night last December. Austin is the second city Mr. Snowden has successfully introduced to Unsilent Night, a staple of New York’s experimental music circles for two decades, and the event represented more than just a way to draw advanced attention to tomorrow’s marathon string of concerts.
The kind of community involvement manifest in the Unsilent Night performance lies at the heart of Fast Forward Austin’s goals. As Mr. Honstein told me in our chat Thursday evening, “first and foremost, we’re a local festival.” In addition to featuring Austin-based musicians, FFA has a tradition of supporting local, musically oriented charities. Last year, the festival donated all its proceeds to Anthropos Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free music lessons to economically disadvantaged young people in East Austin. This year, FFA has partnered with Austin SoundWaves, a local iteration of the famed “El Sistema” initiative. SoundWaves will receive a portion of FFA’s proceeds and some of the children served by the charity will participate in a performance with Graham Reynolds. Beyond philanthropy, FFA’s founders see this kind of outreach as a way to build an audience. Mr. Dicke, in particular, emphasized the potential for young people to enjoy and be inspired by contemporary music, suggesting opportunities, like those fostered by both Fast Forward Austin festivals, could be benefit all American composers in the long-term, were they to be replicated across the country.
As Fast Forward Austin has grown since last year, its founders have worked to expand the festival’s presence on a regional and national level. This broader scope is no better represented than by FFA’s collaboration with renowned pianist and Bang-On-A-Can All-Star Vicky Chow, who will be performing this afternoon. As Mr. Dicke and Mr. Honstein explained, they’ve been cultivating a relationship with Ms. Chow for some time. Both of them met her at different festivals, and then last year, when the Bang-On-A-Can All-Stars came to Austin, Mr. Snowden and Mr. Dicke showed Ms. Chow around town and convinced her to work participate in this year’s festival. The connection between Vicky Chow and Fast Forward Austin is reciprocal – Fast Forward Austin held a preview show in New York this February as part of Ms. Chow’s Contagious Sounds series. Much like the Unsilent Night event, this performance was simultaneously a promotional tool for today’s marathon of performances and a way to foster a deeper bond with a community – the contemporary music community in New York.
Other elements of this year’s Fast Forward Austin festival also reflect the founders’ broadening goals. First, they’ve drawn performers from other parts of Texas and expect to attract concertgoers from San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, as well as Austin. Second, the composers featured through the call-for-scores program are not based in Austin. Shawn Allison hails from Chicago, David Biedenbender is a colleague of mine here in Ann Arbor and Christopher Cerrone is based in Brooklyn. All three composers are in Austin today to attend their performances and support the festival as outsiders, so to speak. To me, it is clear what Fast Forward Austin’s founders are trying to do by expanding the bed of composers and performers who are involved with their festival – they want to make the event a national hub for contemporary and experimental music, the brand of which will be a mix of out-of-state artists and the particular kind of folksy experimentalism dear to the hearts of Austin’s musical faithful.
In many ways, Austin is the perfect location for such an endeavor because, as Mr. Snowden, Mr. Dicke and Mr. Honstein know, the city already hosts a music event that combines the local flavor of Central Texas with national and international drawing power – the SXSW Music Festival. Last month, Fast Forward Austin participated in SXSW as a representative of the UK-based recording label, Nonclassical. Interestingly, Mr. Snowden described the performance experience at SXSW as more formal than Fast Forward Austin, but, nonetheless, characterized the audience they drew as, “friendly”. Although Fast Forward Austin was not the only ‘classical’ group to appear at this year’s SXSW festival, the genre-crossing implications of the collaboration is particularly attuned to FFA’s goals going forward.
In our interview, Mr. Snowden consistently emphasized the festival’s, “lack of an agenda in terms of genre”. A favorite phrase of his is, “cross-pollinating audiences”, and this activity evinced in almost every detail of the festival from the performance venue, the groups participating and the way the founders have worked to promote this year’s event. As Fast Forward Austin continues to strengthen itself as a locus of contemporary music in Central Texas, Mr. Honstein sees the potential for FFA to become part of a network of similar, regional festivals across the country. He sees Fast Forward Austin as part of a larger trend of locally based new music presenters across America. Perhaps the broader scope of this year’s festival will set the tone of interconnectivity Mr. Honstein hopes to catch on with other, similarly minded musical organizations.
Regardless of where Fast Forward Austin goes in the future, this year’s festival is sure to cultivate the founders’ basic goals. As Mr. Dicke explained, he and his two partners hope the festival acts as a, “connector for performers to find audiences, audiences to find performers, composers to find performers and audiences.” Clearly, featuring three emerging, non-Texan composers and a new music starlet like Vicky Chow will help expose new listeners to unfamiliar and exciting performances. Also, as Mr. Snowden noted, Fast Forward Austin’s ideal audience is made of, “people who wouldn’t normally go to a concert hall.” I, for one, am interested to see if, by promoting this year’s event at SXSW and with December’s Unsilent Night performance, a new a crop of curious but unexpected concertgoers attend this afternoon’s marathon concert.