As if organizing a music festival is not complicated enough, the young composers behind Fast Forward Austin decided this year to plan their daylong marathon of new music from thousands of miles away, across three cities and two continents.
Most importantly, Ian Dicke (currently in Sweden), Robert Honstein (New York) and Steve Snowden (Portugal) are miles away from a decent taco.
“In Sweden,” says Dicke, with a grin, “they have tortillas. But they come from England, so they’re as good as that sounds.”
The trio say that this year’s Fast Forward festival on Saturday at the Scottish Rite Theater will be the result of a handful of graduate students on the ground here in Austin, and “thousands and thousands of emails.”
The long-distance game is old hat for Honstein, who has been based in Brooklyn for years.
But with Dicke and Snowden on Fulbright grants, having all three planning a remote festival? Well, that’s new.
“I don’t think it was ever a question for us to keep going,” says Dicke, over a video chat.
Of course, imagining a different scenario isn’t hard. It would’ve been much easier for the festival to simply disintegrate or get handed off.
But from its start three years ago, Fast Forward had a scraggly, do-it-yourself sensibility.
When the organizers staged a fancy string quartet in an un-air-conditioned former dive bar in East Austin, the crowd drank Lone Star tall boys, and it felt like a pleasing, Texas-styled formula had been discovered.
“(Fast Forward is) on the national radar for sure — so it’s not just a Texas thing,” says Doug Perkins. He would know. His percussion group, the Meehan/Perkins Duo, is one of the country’s most respected ensembles.
If there isn’t a straight-up headliner at Fast Forward, Perkins and Todd Meehan (who teaches percussion at Baylor University) are probably the festival’s biggest names, and they’ll be premiering a new work by up-and-coming composer Tristan Perich.
Playing these festivals is like coming full circle for the Meehan Perkins Duo. They started their careers at New York’s Bang on a Can Marathon, in 2001 as members of So Percussion.
“More and more we find ourselves at events like this,” Perkins says.
They’ve broken up the old routine. The duo recently played a concert hall, says Perkins, and although the show was great, he says the experience can feel a little shallow. “We walked on stage, played to a few thousand people, bowed, walked off stage, got in our car, and left.”
The festivals are more open. You can listen to a piece and then chat up the composer.
“To me, it all adds up to a reason to get off my butt and go hang,” Perkins says.
Meehan is more politically correct on the topic, but he agrees. “The more we can present this music in alternative venues might help cultivating new audiences,” he says.
His students played Fast Forward last year, and many of them are returning to see it this time around. They’re still being trained for the concert hall, Meehan says. But, he adds, less formal settings can “be maybe even more rich, and more rewarding than sitting for two hours in a velvet seat and then walking out quietly.”
The duo will draw audiences in with the premiere of Perich’s “Parallels,” which Perkins says has “disorientingly blazing rhythms.”
Perich’s specialty is making 1-bit computer music and blending it with live players. He even wrote an entire symphony in this simple, computer language, that basically blew a few minds. Perich’s work often messes with repetition, says Meehan. “Around every corner, there is a slight variation that kind of freaks your head out a little.”
“I sort of recently fell in love with triangles,” says Perich, by phone in upstate New York. He loved what he called “that crystalline sound.”
And when he discovered triangles were considered “unpitched instruments,” he saw a challenge: He bought a grinder and cut them down. (“It’s just an implied triangle now,” he jokes.) “I found I could tune them to some extent.”
When these half-digital, half-human collaborations come together, “they don’t sound totally alien,” Perich says. “At times you can’t tell which one is which.”
This year’s Fast Forward lineup is eclectic as ever — with art pop from Weird Weeds, to a bass-clarinet duo from California called Sqwonk.
“I’m actually really happy about this year’s lineup,” says organizer Honstein. “I feel like it’s more representative of the country’s music.”
Flutist Francois Minaux will accompany a painter, and there’s new work from Graham Reynolds, as well as Austin’s first-ever performance of Steve Reich’s’ “Music for 18 Musicians,” one of those seminal pieces of post-modern music that have closed out each year of the festival.
Says Snowden, “You come in anytime, and it’s gonna be great.”
They want people to feel free to come and go. The only problem is that Fast Forward is like the buffet of art music — it’s hard to know when to stop.
Fast Forward Austin 2013
When: 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday
Where: Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th St.
Tickets: $20 ($10 students). Come-and-go festival admission throught the day.