For several years, during visits home from college in New York, I drifted in and out of a loosely organized group of Austin musicians.
By 2010, when I came back to play violin full time, the group was growing, as friends of friends sat in on jam sessions and stuck around. Since then, audiences have grown from dozens to hundreds, and Mother Falcon, as we called ourselves, has transformed from an unplanned experiment into a proper band, with a manager, an LLC and soon even our own van.
The group, which has ranged in size between 12 and 20 members, is taking the first steps up a steep learning curve to understand the industry we’d like to join. We’re all a few years older or younger than 23. Many are finishing college. Others are considering alternate careers. We’re recording a second album, and this summer we’ll travel to the coasts to try to take the band from local notoriety to some level of national attention.
It all started around 2007 when Nick Gregg, a student at Westlake High School, began jamming with other cellists after orchestra rehearsals. Gregg and I had been in a string quartet, learning Mozart and Shostakovich at the Austin Chamber Music Center and working on the side with composers Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski on playing music that offered more room to improvise.
Six years and a college education later, the band has expanded to a swirling network of friends who play all sorts of orchestral, rock and foreign instruments. We rehearse in one of several tiny living rooms in a tangle of bows, arms, chairs and brass. Occasionally, a song will come to us nearly fully formed, as with the dense and ambling guitar-based pieces by Claire Puckett. Usually, though, a small group will tinker with some basic musical ideas — a riff, a few chords, or a melody — for many hours before showing the pencil sketch of a song to the rest of the group.
Then comes a seemingly endless process of refinement. Gregg will turn a string of incomprehensible syllables into words. Isaac Winburne, the drummer, will try about a hundred options before picking one. Then, a week later, he’ll pick a different one.
It’s a collaborative process unlike anything I’ve experienced before, but which probably shares a lot with building a company, designing a building or sculpting a sports team. It demands that a lot of people learn how to be diplomatic and work through the thought processes of one another patiently.
The songwriting method is creatively liberating, in part, because you have so little control. You’re only responsible for a tiny piece of the final song, so you can feel free to try whatever you want, knowing you’re not responsible for fully designing the musical moment. “To let someone else make half the decisions, or some big part of them, absolves one of the need to explore endless musical possibilities,” David Byrne, former leader of the Talking Heads, has written about collaborating with other musicians. “The result is fewer agonizing decisions in the writing process, and sometimes, faster results.”
In Mother Falcon’s case, the results actually come slower. We’ll sometimes perform a song we’ve spent weeks preparing, and then decide it needs to be drastically reworked. Saxophonist and guitarist Matt Puckett and I often bemoan how much more quickly we might write a song alone. But then we shake our heads and remember how much we like the product of the big collective process, frustrating as that process can be.
Other times a song that has taken tons of work will die in committee. It loses traction as excitement wanes and we eventually forget about it.
Then comes the live show, which is exhilarating or exhausting depending on my mood. Often, as a violinist, I won’t know which other violinists in the band will be joining me on stage. Once the set has started, we have mental shorthand for figuring out who will play each part.
For example, on the song “Kathryn,” which opens with a violin solo, I play the lead part when University of Texas student Clara Brill, who wrote it, is at home in California. Clara and I take turns playing a certain solo in the song “Fireflies” that was written by Rita Andrade, who now studies viola in Chicago. Sometimes we double up to cover a part written on the pedal steel guitar by Evan Kaspar, because he has a conflicting gig elsewhere in Austin.
Of course, there are balls dropped, parts missed, entrances fumbled, but we all trust that the music is rich enough that a missing piece won’t keep the audience from seeing the bigger picture.
We’re still surprised when audience members think we use written scores. Recently, I received an email from a high school band director asking if we could send him our sheet music. I had to tell him that none existed, but I got to work shortly after on a songbook so people can take our music and rework it for themselves.
It’s a comfortably fluid situation made possible, in part, because we’re young. The real struggle down the line for Mother Falcon, as I see it, will be to try to preserve our creative dynamic as we professionalize.
At this point, everyone fits the band into their lives differently. Several band members, including bassist Dusty Rhodes, cellist Diana Burgess and trumpet player Matt Krolick, are still students, so they rehearse and then stay up all night with class work. Sterling Steffen and Andrew Fontenot, who both play saxophone, and violinist Kira Bordelon, who plays violin, all teach. Accordionist Tamir Kalifa is a photojournalist, and I’m a print journalist. Both of us are trying to build careers as freelancers so we can work our schedules around the band.
Everyone has other, burgeoning careers, whether in music or another field, be it architecture, photography, journalism or education. We’ve got competing life choices, and these days when we choose Mother Falcon we’re all choosing not to do something else.
What we are choosing to do, in effect, is run a small business together in a wildly unpredictable industry. In that environment, we’ll be confronting bigger questions as we figure out how to meet the demands of a brutally unpredictable music industry while preserving the mutually trusting, creatively rich group ethic that made us want to confront that industry in the first place.
Mother Falcon is part of a 2 p.m. show Sunday, March 10, at the the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. The program, which also includes Graham Reynolds, is free with Blanton admission: $9 adults, $7 age 65 and over, $5 students with ID and youths 13-21, free for children under 13 and museum members.
Maurice Chammah, a former Fulbright fellow, has written for the New York Times, Guernica Magazine, Rolling Stone Middle East, The Huffington Post, Daily News Egypt, the Texas Tribune and other publications. Find more of his work is at mauricechammah.com