Contemporary Sounds

Music marathon: Fast Forward Austin celebrates cutting-edge, classical music

Fast Forward Austin celebrates cutting-edge classical music

Austin Photo Set: joelle_fastforward austin_march 2013_5
Weird Weeds Courtesy of Fast Forward Austin
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Directors Steven Snowden, Robert Honstein and Ian Dicke. Photo by Elissa Ferrari, Ferrari photography
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Soundwaves Courtesy of Fast Forward Austin
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Sqwonk Courtesy of Fast Forward Austin
Austin Photo Set: joelle_fastforward austin_march 2013_5
Austin Photo Set: joelle_fastforward austin_march 2013_2
Austin Photo Set: joelle_fastforward austin_march 2013_3
Austin Photo Set: joelle_fastforward austin_march 2013_1

Robert Honstein, Steven Snowden Iand Ian Dicke are the founders of the young, successful, contemporary classical music festival Fast Forward Austin. They are also all very talented composers in their own right, who met while pursuing doctorates in music composition at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to the Fast Forward Austin website, the showcase provides "an eclectic mix of cutting-edge, genre-bending music that fearlessly straddles the borders of pop, classical and experimental music." 

CultureMap sat down with the three founders of FFA and asked them a few questions about the organization and the upcoming 2013 marathon event taking place Saturday, April 6 at the Scottish Rite Theater.

CultureMap: What is the FFA genesis story? Where did the idea come from and what brought the three of you together?

Robert Honstein: I think the first spark of an idea for FFA came when Ian went to the Switchboard festival in 2007. Switchboard is a kind of DIY marathon event in San Francisco that features genre mixing, experimental music coming from both classical and non-classical traditions. I distinctly remember Ian returning, already, with possible names for an Austin version of Switchboard.

The idea didn't really fully form until 2010 when Steve, Ian and I started talking seriously about presenting "our" kind of music in a fun and accessible way. I think we all felt there was a need in the community to bring together a bunch of different strands of music in a laid back setting. We decided that we'd just give it a shot, and FFA was born. 

CM: What have been some challenges you've encountered along the way to creating a music festival?

RH: I think the biggest challenge has been logistical and organizational. FFA is an eight-hour marathon, so basically it has all the challenges of a normal concert, multiplied by four. For various reasons Steve, Ian and I are all out of Austin this year, but surprisingly that hasn't been much of a barrier. So much of the organizational work is through email, Skype and Google Hangout, that being away hasn't really been a problem.

Fundraising is, of course, always an issue. We feel very strongly that ticket prices must be low because it's part of our mission to reach as much of the community as possible. This means it's basically impossible to cover all of our costs through ticket sales alone. I think this is pretty typical for presenters of more experimental music. We make up for this by grants, fundraising and other such things. I don't think we realized going into this how important the development angle would be to sustaining the festival.

On a logistical level, there have been some interesting challenges regarding bringing certain types of ensembles into non-traditional classical music venues. Like, just the nitty gritty production stuff related to, say, amplifying an 18-piece ensemble in something like "Music for 18 Musicians," or figuring out how to fit a truck full of percussion on stage for the big Xenakis and David Lang pieces Baylor Percussion did last year. But those kinds of challenges are part of the fun!

CultureMap: For a festival that's only been around since 2011, you're already pulling in big names and big crowds. What do you think are some of the factors that have contributed to your skyrocketed success?

Steven Snowden: First off, It's very flattering to hear you say that. We spend so much of our time focusing on all of the logistical details that it's easy to forget to step back and take a look at how far we've come in the past few years. Though I have to admit that it still feels like a pretty small operation compared to the many huge and well-established festivals in Austin. Robert, Ian and I have put a great deal of work into FFA, but there's no doubt that we wouldn't be able to do this without a lot generous help from folks in Austin and elsewhere. 

In terms of brining in audiences, I think a lot of it has to do with the concert-going culture that already exists in Austin. Simply put, people like to spend their free time taking in live music, more so than in many other parts of the country. On top of that, we've found that Austinites are often quite eclectic, curious, and adventurous in their listening habits. They're not afraid to take a chance on an unfamiliar artist or style of music because they want to explore less-visible aspects of Austin's music scene.  

Part of that also has to do with the way we program artists for FFA. We make it a point to have a very wide variety of music throughout the day as well as a balanced mix of artists from Central Texas and other parts of the country. Quite often, that means that folks will show up to hear some of their favorite local musicians and then stick around to hear a performance that they wouldn't necessarily seek out otherwise. In this way, we hope to introduce them to unfamiliar sounds and styles.

The vibe of Austin also has a lot to do with why we've been able to bring in some really outstanding artists from all across the country. This city has an almost magical kind of magnetic draw and I think that has a lot to do with the quirky and welcoming culture here. In talking with people who have visited Austin before, I've found it to be quite rare for someone not to count Austin among their favorite cities. This place has a lot to offer and artists are often eager to visit Austin again, or find out for themselves why people are so enamored with this place.  

CM: How do you decide which artists to bring in? Is there something in particular you are looking forward to? 

RH: In terms of choosing artists for the festival we try and balance a lot of concerns. We want something new, something compelling and we want to create a balanced but diverse program. We're interested in juxtaposing a lot of different styles throughout the day. We're also interested in creating a good mix of local and national artists. FFA is a kind of melting pot for all these different factors. Basically, using those general guidelines, the actual programming comes down to Steve, Ian and I reaching out to artists we think will make a great show. 

This year does look pretty awesome. I would hate to single out one thing because I'm so genuinely excited about every single artist, but I do think the UT Percussion Group performance of "Music for 18 Musicians," by Steve Reich, deserves a special shout out. Apparently (and this is according to the publisher, Boosey and Hawkes), [it] has never been performed in Austin, which is totally unbelievable to me. So, we're pretty thrilled to present the first ever performance of this monumental work in Austin.

CM: What do you think this year's performances will have in common? Is there a 2013 FFA theme emerging or is it just more of a pleasant juxtaposition?

Ian Dicke: Musically, I think it’ll be a fairly diverse showing. If there are any similarities between the artists we invite, it is in their do-it-yourself approach to audience building. Many of our artists release records online, apply social media promotional marketing strategies on Twitter, and are comfortable playing in formal concert halls or noisy downtown bars: all at the highest level of musical artistry. These groups embody the new model emerging in the contemporary music industry, and we’d like to think that FFA is a destination for these groups to showcase what they do best.

CM: How do you think your identities as composers have informed your decisions as curators?

SS: The short answer is that we try not to let our individual identities (and tastes) as composers get in the way of what is best for the festival. However, the very fact that we are composers does play a large part in our broader goals as curators.

Ian, Robert and I are definitely musical omnivores, constantly seeking out new sounds, styles and modes of musical expression (which is likely a big part of why we decided to become composers in the first place). Because of that, we strive to assemble a very eclectic group of artists for FFA each year who are highly dedicated, skilled and innovative regardless of their musical aesthetic.
Though most performers at FFA come from some kind of classical background, the music they create often straddles the lines between genres and we recognize the value of any style of music that is performed in earnest. When it's all said and done, we just want to coordinate an unforgettable and unpredictable day of music that people can be passionate about. Even if they didn't realize this kind of music existed before they stepped in the door.
CM: As it increasingly seems like the three of you are moving out of Austin, the state of Texas, or even the country, where do you see the future of FFA?
ID: When we started the festival three years ago, we had no idea that it would attract so much positive attention so quickly. The world of contemporary music is ostensibly small, but the vast distances from major city to major city in the United States sometimes prevent a sense of community from forming. We see FFA as a hub in an important, but underserved area, of the country.
The future vitality of the music that we write, perform and share relies heavily on building new audiences. There have been many ongoing debates on how to reboot the appeal of art music to younger audiences. Our take is that there isn’t anything wrong with the music itself; it’s the way we package it. The past, present and future of FFA remains focused on this mission. We will continue to explore new ways of engaging the Austin community with the music that we love.