Meet the man whose punk rock ethos keeps Austin's avant-garde music alive
When avant-garde guitar hero Fred Frith settled in with four effects pedals at his bare feet to perform for students at Austin Discovery School on Friday, January 31, the elementary school students weren’t the only ones excited.
Local luminary Pedro Moreno, who organized Frith’s appearance at the school and subsequent show at North Door under the aegis of his grassroots Epistrophy Arts organization, was also smiling, thrilled at bringing the British innovator and improv master to Austin for the first time in nearly 30 years. “Frith has been on my short list for years,” Moreno tells CultureMap. “He’s one of my personal musical heroes, and it’s an incredible honor to finally bring him [back] to Austin.”
"We want to contribute to the formidable music culture by creating a space where artists are encouraged to take risks and do something new," says Pedro Moreno, founder of Epistrophy Arts.
Of course, an artist trailing such an impressive resume doesn’t just stumble into Austin for two performances in two days. Moreno, who started Epistrophy Arts in 1998, credits local resident Jinji Willingham, a friend of Frith’s from the musician’s heady days in the experimental New York music scene of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, for getting the ball rolling on January’s concert.
“It’s our aim with this concert and others to widen Austin’s cultural horizons,” Moreno says. “We present music that is artistically vital and on the cutting edge but rarely presented here. We want to contribute to the formidable music culture by creating a space where artists are encouraged to take risks and do something new.”
That’s exactly what Moreno did more than 15 years ago, when he founded Epistrophy Arts out of a frustration with the lack of opportunities to see genuine adventurous music in town. “I was steeped in the DIY ethos of punk rock but had immersed myself in the world of avant-garde jazz, experimental and new music,” he says. “When I got my first chance to see it live, I was hooked.”
Moreno and friends organized their first event at the now-defunct 33 Degrees Records, which was co-owned by Dan Plunkett, who runs the South Austin record store End of an Ear. And Moreno remembers the response to Epistrophy’s first show — performers included Joe McPhee, Arthur Doyle, Susie Ibarra and Assif Tsahar — as “phenomenal,” leading him to coordinate more than 70 other concerts featuring titans of the adventurous jazz world like Peter Brötzmann, Sam Rivers, Han Bennink and many more.
“The visceral thrill of seeing real-deal improvised music in a live setting gave me the courage to keep doing it,” Moreno says, adding that the personal nature of the bookings was also a bonus. “These legendary artists are cornerstones of my record collection — and I can’t believe I’ve eaten barbecue with them, [much less] gotten to see them play!”
But Epistrophy is more than just a personal passion project, eventually attracting support from the City of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division, along with individual and corporate sponsors and aesthetically attuned contemporaries like No Idea Festival curator Chris Cogburn, Norwegian composer Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the Church of the Friendly Ghost and the Austin New Music Co-op.
“Austin has a very sophisticated listening audience,” Moreno says. “Our series seems like a natural fit with a progressive-minded town like this one, [even if] the uncompromising and underground nature of the music has always [made it] challenging to get on people’s radar. I think that our sustained presence has helped to contribute to the growth of a community of like-minded individuals, and all of this activity and energy points to a bright future for creative music in Austin.”
Which is where appearances like Frith’s at Austin Discovery School come in. Although Epistrophy’s 2014 schedule is already packed with shows — including his can't-miss return to East Austin’s historic Victory Grill — Moreno believes that performances tailored to area students make a greater impact.
“By bringing these iconoclastic, visionary artists to our public schools, we are looking ahead to the future viability of adventurous music by building tomorrow’s audiences, players and creative thinkers,” Moreno says. “The kids react so honestly and openly, with a mixture of excitement and joy and sometimes a little fear. This has given me a much deeper insight into and appreciation for the transformative power of this music.”
For his part, Fred Frith praised Epistrophy Arts for bringing him to Austin — and for putting him in front of a school-age audience eager to hear him play guitar with paintbrushes, tin cans and chopsticks.
“Organizations like Epistrophy Arts are the lifeblood of the music,” Frith says. “None of us can exist without them. They have my unbounded admiration and respect. Sometimes people don’t notice, but it’s organizations like these, which support living culture, that actually keep our culture alive.”
Upcoming Epistrophy Arts performances:
- February 19: The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with Hamiet Bluiett, North Door
- March 23: Bobby Bradford, Historic Victory Grill
- April 5: Ballister, Historic Victory Grill
- June 3: Peter Brötzmann, William Parker, Hamid Drake Trio, North Door