Eric Pearson: Virtual Concert Wizard

“OK, we’re live in 5, 4, 3, _ , _ , _ .” 

Eric Pearson doesn’t say “2, 1, 0,” in order to avoid the possibility of broadcasting his voice right at the beginning of the live show. But everyone involved, from the emcee across town to the live performer across the country, have been trained and rehearsed in a minimum of four hours of tech rehearsals to know when to begin, to know which remote-controlled camera to look at, to understand when still slides and video assets will be played so they can take a break, tune, or blow dry their wet canvas so they can apply another layer of paint in the upcoming live segment.

The whole issue of audio bleed is a real one, because in spite of the amount of technology involved in these shows, it doesn’t always feel like an exact science. Eric has built high-powered custom computers that talk to a high-powered shippable on-site computer called a TriCaster, through which interfaces an array of cameras, microphones, audio gear, effects, and OBS software. That allows audio and video to be captured and mixed, more or less locally, piloted from another state, but also preserves the ability to “switch scenes” to Zoom where the emcee and other hosts appear, or to what is typically over a dozen premade videos, all before pushing the single stream out to YouTube where, nine to twenty-five seconds later, the audience sees and hears the result. 

With so many systems talking to one another through the internet, which is variable in speed and stability, it’s best not to say “2, 1, 0,” at the end of your count down.

“Eric continually astounds me by what he brings to the table for each ACG production.”

Jess Griggs, ACG’s Director of Music and Community Engagement who has been on the production team for every show, commented.

“The quality of every performance is always better than the previous concert. I've worked in live sound, radio, television and in recording studios, and I can say with certainty Eric Pearson is the most hard-working and innovative person I've ever worked with for concert production. Without Eric our streams would not be possible.”

We wanted to dive deep. We wanted to learn a bit more about the technology and innovation that has made possible what will be, on December 12th, thirty live-stream experiences since the pandemic began. We also wanted to learn more about Eric Pearson, his story, and what led to the unique combination of skills, drive and resilience necessary to innovate and lead in a time of crisis.

The Technology

A great place to start is to watch Eric’s recent interview on GFAtv. He starts talking 35 minutes and 40 seconds in! In the video Eric sits at his “Command Center,” and discusses audio, video, lighting, and a range of other considerations in some pretty spectacular detail. He even controls the lighting temperature of the room from his cell phone. Pretty awesome. If you are considering creating your own live-stream concert events, this is the video for you!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTT2CDHxyBc

ACG Streaming Concert Technology

We asked Eric to share a bit about this whole experience, and the technology itself:

“The quarantine times surrounding this pandemic have required tremendous flexibility, we’ve had to pivot quickly. I recently asked Vern Graner, our Concert Technical Assistant, ‘Can you imagine another concert presenter being on the phone with an artist and their internet service provider at nine o’clock at night, guiding them through upgrading their service, because the show is teetering on the edge of not happening?’ There’s a lot of going beyond what most might consider reasonable expectations, but that’s the hallmark of creative innovation, especially now. It’s worth it to put in the extra effort to make our experiences magical.

“I wasn’t an expert in video or streaming production before February of this year. But I saw it was something I could do, because of my computer and recording background. When we needed to pivot to online productions I spent hours every week – and I still do – watching videos, tutorials, and reading e-books on everything from Open Broadcasting Software to changing aperture and iso settings on cameras. At the start of this interview I was switching over to the new computer I just built to better handle the streaming requirements for our shows. We’re doing things that no one else is doing. We’re pulling off shows—essentially with me and one other person in our homes—similar to much larger entities with production crews and trucks. People are trying to figure this out all over the country right now, and they’re really taking notice. I get emails at least twice a day asking for help.

“We have built two large flight cases. One is the Audio Network Box, and the other is the Video Box. The first box includes an MR-18 remote audio interface, Neumann KM-184 microphones, network gear, a Dell Optiplex micro-computer that runs the networking software, and has a virtual Windows Operating System so we can get in and deal with some of the networking and the audio patching. The second box has a NewTek video rig including a Pan-Tilt-Zoom Camera that’s totally remote-controlled, and a streaming box called a Tri-Caster. The Tri-Caster is industry-standard—ESPN, CNN, they all use Tri-Caster equipment—it allows us to control the cameras without being present. 

“The software is complicated, so I won’t get into all that detail, but Vern and I both have something called TailScale which is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that basically creates a tunnel between us and the remote location and all our gear. For each show I also spin up a Custom Amazon Server (AWS) that acts as the mid-point for the stream. I pick up the “RTMP” stream at home using Open Broadcast Software (OBS) where I can add the other components like video and Zoom interviews. I’ve got a piece of hardware called a Stream Deck with 32 buttons, each of which takes me to a different pre-determined asset or video stream. So that allows for rapid switching between content. Finally, I stream the end-product out to YouTube for our audience to enjoy!

“What’s truly unique is that we have these mailable drop-boxes. Through a lengthy tech call with a local assistant, we can guide the set up. This solution has opened up new options in terms of what artists we can consider. We’re still limited to US locations, and people with high-quality and stable internet, but having this hardware means that we can work with anyone inside those parameters. And because we can control everything remotely, we don’t need to have a technical expert on hand – just someone who can plug some things in. We’ve been trying to make it as plug-n-play as possible, but if you look at the layout of cables in the Jiji picture, you can see it’s not quite as user-friendly as we’d like yet!

“I really don’t like things not working because we didn’t plan ahead. So we’ve got a second internet service, and we’ve got a person in another location who can pick up the stream in a couple of seconds and take over the show. He’s got the assets and the scenes, so we can finish a concert even if my power or internet goes down. I believe that if there’s something you can do, spend a little money, or prepare a little bit to prevent a foreseeable problem from happening, you should do it. In our case, it means we can preserve a beautiful experience for hundreds if not thousands of people."

Eric Pearson: The Early Years

At ACG Eric’s official title is Director of Curriculum. He’s a classical guitarist with a music education degree. A ten-year veteran of ACG Music Education, he has now stepped into this new role as our Virtual Concert Wizard. We wanted to learn more about Eric, and how he came to have such a unique ability to focus on minute detail while nurturing such a wide array of interests and abilities at exactly the same time. Here’s what we learned about his early years. 

“Both my parents were musical. My mother was an accomplished pianist, my father was really into the Beatles. He knew all the Beatles music, every Christmas was Beatles books or CDs or the next tell-all book by their limo driver! So I was aware of rock music, certainly the Beatles, and also Chopin’s piano music. A couple times my parents tried to get me to start guitar or piano, but I wasn’t interested until sometime in middle school. We had guitar in Ms. Curtain’s music class. Middle school is when you form your opinions on musical style, and everyone’s social clique starts to be defined by the music you listen to. I got really into the grunge and rock, so I started playing electric guitar. Sadly, Eddie Van Halen just passed away. I actually owned a guitar tab book for several Van Halen albums, before I even owned a guitar. So I was learning how to take that system of notation apart before I even had an instrument in my hands. When I got my first guitar at fourteen I learned Eruption right off the bat. 

“I added jazz guitar because I got interested in harmony and intricacy. Classical guitar actually came through Eddie Van Halen as well, because Spanish Fly and Cathedral feature nylon string guitar. So I was taking lessons with three teachers at the same time for a while. Then I figured that to continue studying music you probably had to do classical guitar, so I focused more on that. I was in a small town and it was hard to get people together for rehearsals, so classical guitar as a solo instrument was easier to practice anyway."

Eric Pearson: College

As we get into Eric’s college years it’s worth highlighting two aspects of the early story that seem to be predictive of the future. One is the mention of “taking apart” the system of tablature notation before owning a guitar, the other is the part about three lessons with three different teachers. Already, a voracious appetite for learning and the wherewithal to pursue it, were evident.

“I had been doing a lot of science, computer science, and engineering, and all the math available in high school, simultaneously. I remember when I went to community college program fair they had a folder for the Engineering Program and a folder for the Music Program. I picked up both. So I was in the physics laboratory at 6:30am everyday, doing my lab work – I made a special arrangement with the professor – because I couldn’t get there in the evenings when we had musical and band rehearsals. I was in six or more ensembles at that point. Because I was also the department assistant, I had keys to the facility. I was often there all night doing stuff in the recording studio. I was definitely into technology by then. I continued with physics, math, and sciences, and I was considering sound recording as a career pathway. But I was also interested in music education. I was really inspired by some of the teachers and mentors in my life, and I wanted to continue teaching. 

“So it was all really up to scheduling! There was no way to do the recording major, and still make 8am music education classes. So I focused on education, and just spent a lot of time in the studios. I enjoyed helping out friends with their recordings, and we would check out the new gear at night in halls when no one else was around. 

“During all this I was also working for an organization called the Infinity Performing Arts program. I had been a student there in high school, and during community college and college, I taught 10-15 students and coached ensembles. My knowledge of Infinity spanned being a student, a private lesson teacher, an ensemble director, and eventually the Education Program Director. In 2008 our founder retired and I stepped in as interim Executive Director. It was wild for a year, learning how grants and budgeting and reporting works, but I knew every aspect of the program by then, so I was a logical person to step in.”

A Guitarist in a Non-Guitarist’s World

The intensity continued for Eric through graduate school. But a new important theme also emerges here, and that’s the relative lack of higher education pathways for guitar, especially with regard to music education. At the same time Eric was wrestling with this as a college student and prospective employee, ACG was publishing its classroom guitar curriculum online, GuitarCurriculum.com, and expanding the reach of its school programs. So the seeds were being planted for our pathways to converge.

“As a guitarist you’re not always a perfect fit in most music programs. They never knew what to do with me. Several weeks into my undergraduate degree they asked me what my primary instrument was. I told them “guitar,” and they replied, “Yes, but you need to have a teaching instrument, or direct choir.” I didn’t really have a band or orchestra background, but I had done a little bit of percussion, so I started taking lessons immediately to try and catch up on the years of experience that everyone else had. I don’t know how many classes and lessons I was taking at one time, but I think I had the most overloaded schedule at my undergrad, because I had to do like six percussion ensembles plus guitar, plus jazz, choir, and more. I was probably in twelve groups, with three to four hours of rehearsal a day. It was a lot, but it was a great experience. My point is that guitar is always the afterthought. So that makes it tough if you’re a guitarist, especially trying to do a music education degree. 

“There were no jobs in 2008 for a non-standard music school graduate in Western New York. There was no guitar in the state beyond a few individual programs. I’d see over a hundred applicants for a single teaching job. I had friends applying who were competing in the same pool with their own former music teachers.  It was obvious there wasn’t going to be a slot for me. 

“So I went to Ithaca College for graduate school. I had an intense graduate assistantship with a twelve-hour teaching course load. At the same time I was adjunct teaching at Cayuga Community College twice a week, and I was added to the roster to teach privately at Cornell.”

The Road to Austin

“In the summer of 2010, I had the good fortunate of going to Italy to study with Matteo Mela and Lorenzo Micheli in their summer festival. That was the same summer ACG hosted the Guitar Foundation of America in Austin. If I hadn’t gone to Italy, I probably would have been in Austin for GFA, since I had begun volunteering for GFA in 2009 for their Ithaca convention. Plus I wanted to visit Austin because people had told me by then that Austin had guitar teachers in public schools. That was a real eye-opening possibility for someone from the Northeast, because those programs with full-time guitar teachers just didn’t exist there. 

“A year later the GFA was in Columbus, Georgia. I was there helping out with stage direction, and I met Matt Hinsley. He was standing in line, waiting to register. I walked up and introduced myself. We had a conversation about guitar teaching and guitar in Texas, and he invited me to contact him if I wanted to learn more. So later that summer I reached out by email to see if there were any public school teaching positions in Texas, and his response was, ‘No, nothing we know of, but… we are looking for a part-time ensemble conductor for our adult groups. Would you be interested?’

“At the time, I was trying to put together several part-time jobs that would allow me to stay in Ithaca, so Matt’s offer got me thinking. I remember he asked, ‘How mobile are you? How quick could you get down to Texas?’ I told him I thought I could be on the road in three days. A friend helped me mount a hitch on my van, I loaded everything I needed, and started driving on August 10th, 2011.  

“I was in Oklahoma City getting gas when Matt called me and said, “Hey Eric, where are you?” And I told him. Then he asked, ‘How soon can you be in Austin?’ At that point we had not set a specific date. ‘Can you be here tomorrow morning?’ 

“I cut short the visit I’d planned with a friend in Dallas, left early the next morning for Austin, and drove straight to the ACG office where I met April Long, who was the Operations Director at the time. Everyone else, including Matt, was out of town, and a need had come up they hadn’t anticipated. So I just parked my van and trailer across several spots in the office parking lot, April drove me straight to my first teaching gig at St. Gabriel’s school, and I went to work!"

Austin Classical Guitar and Flexibility

Things happen fast at ACG, sometimes too fast! The organization has grown every year for twenty years. Creativity can be messy, showbiz is unpredictable, guitar education in public schools has been a bit like the wild west, and ACG has been on the frontier. So far in this story we’ve learned that Eric gets interested in things. When he gets fascinated by stuff he dives deep. He’s also no stranger to extremes and intensity. The messiness of ACG has provided endless opportunities for learning, innovation, and sometimes-wild extremes.

“Situations forcing flexibility, is definitely a theme in my life. I don’t know any other way to be. Because I’ve always been in situations where I’ve looked around, seen that something needed to be done, and noticed that no one else was jumping on it. I can think of many cases in school and in previous jobs where I’ve realized that—while I may not be the perfect person for a particular challenge—if I geared up and trained for it, then I could meet the need, be it grant writing, managing twenty-five teachers, or learning percussion. 

“You have a choice when you meet challenges. You can give up and do something else, or you can figure out what sort of training and self-learning you need in order to accomplish the thing. If I have any sort of pathology, it’s that I really don’t like giving up and failing. So if I have some resource to exchange for not failing, be it my sleep schedule, or time, or having to do ten different projects, or learn a new skill set, I tend to choose that exchange. Not since I worked in a restaurant in my teens, have I had a job where you just punch in, have people tell you what to do, and everything’s clear. It’s always been messy. I assume that’s often the case in the arts, and in education. The circles we’re in, and the career path we’re on, demands flexibility.”

Thank You Eric!

Thank you Eric! Austin Classical Guitar is a better organization for your knowledge, your flexibility, your innovation, your drive not to fail, and your insistence to deliver magical results. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t be the organization we are today without you.

And while this interview came about because of Eric’s heroic and singular work to develop our online streaming concert capabilities during this pandemic, we want to be sure and mention that—in addition to being a tremendous music educator—Eric is our Director of Curriculum and is primarily responsible for our two key online curriculum resources: GuitarCurriculum.com and our Braille lifelong learning resource LetsPlayGuitar.org.

We would like to take this opportunity also to say a special thanks to the Still Water Foundation, who gave an unexpected gift over the summer specifically to assist with our pivots to online concert presentation. Purchasing the gear Eric mentioned in this interview, along with hiring our support personnel, was made possible by that gift. 

Finally, we’d like to share our opening concert, from September, 26th, with maestro Pepe Romero. If you did not get to see the concert, or even if you did, we know you’ll love this magnificent experience, and be able to appreciate it even more, now that you know a bit about how it happened!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rlvxy0-e-q0


Looking Up: A Conversation with Andrea Mellard

We are thrilled to present Looking Up in partnership with The Contemporary on Thursday, November 19, 7PM CST. RSVP Online Here. Free, Donations Welcome.

For our Austin Now series, we asked multiple local artists and musicians to collaborate with each other and create an experience that reflects how life is now. In our November 19th performance, Looking Up, we’ll experience the collaboration of sound and sculpture with the Austin Guitar Quartet and the Contemporary Austin’s sculpture garden at Laguna Gloria. 

In a sense, the performance is a guided tour of the beautiful garden through pre-recorded videos interwoven with a live performance from AGQ in the garden’s villa. 

This collaboration of sculpture, sound, and the natural beauty within Laguna Gloria showcases the common path between the three; a different approach to time. 

The Laguna Gloria has reopened since the pandemic began and is providing a safe and inspiring space to allow people to slow down, catch their breath, and unwind. You can learn more about visiting the Laguna Gloria Here.

ACG’s Artistic Director Joe Williams spoke with Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement from The Contemporary Austin, Andrea Mellard about the upcoming performance, and the power of art and nature together.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lftQPaRj9H8&t=67s


Veterans Day

ACG Music & Healing, including Songwriting with Veterans, utilizes a trauma-informed, strength-based approach to facilitate a medium for meaningful expression and personal narrative through music making for Austin community members facing significant challenge or trauma. Directed by Dr. Travis Marcum, and in collaboration with organizations, hospitals, clinics, shelters, and residential facilities we provide individualized music experiences for Central Texans navigating such challenges as poverty, homelessness, physical and mental health diagnoses, and trauma from past experiences.

 

In honor of Veterans Day we would like to share two special songs created with two inspiring veterans through ACG Music & Healing, in partnership with The Georgetown Arts and Culture Program, Resilient Me Military Expressive Arts Programs, and country music artist Wynn Williams.

Through this special songwriting program, veterans John Hill and Bobby Withrow spent the last two months working alongside Travis Marcum (ACG Director of Education and Music & Healing) and Wynn Williams to create personal songs to honor the military community and acknowledge their own experiences in service. The videos we’re sharing today are excerpts from their last zoom songwriting sessions with Wynn and Travis where John and Bobby heard the complete songs for the very first time.

The first song is called A Prayer for the Living, and was written by John Hill with Travis Marcum and Wynn Williams. John was an Army medic in Afghanistan, and wanted to write a song for fellow service members struggling with the pain they hold onto after the experience of war.

The second song is called When Blue Stars Turn Gold, written by Bobby Withrow with Wynn Williams and Travis Marcum. Bobby served in the Navy and now runs the Texas Fallen Project where he supports families all over the state who have lost loved ones in battle. A Gold Star Family is one that has lost a member in service. Bobby wanted to write a song that helps people understand the need to honor our fallen soldiers and to support their loved ones who are fighting their own battle every day.

You can learn more about Bobby’s Texas Fallen Project on the nonprofit organization's Facebook Page. Contributions can be sent to: Texas Fallen Project, Inc, 1150 S. Bell Blvd, Cedar Park Texas 78613.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qD04zETdFH4

 


Songwriting with Veterans: Field of Honor

ACG Music & Healing, including Songwriting with Veterans, utilizes a trauma-informed, strength-based approach to facilitate a medium for meaningful expression and personal narrative through music making for Austin community members facing significant challenge or trauma. Directed by Dr. Travis Marcum, and in collaboration with organizations, hospitals, clinics, shelters, and residential facilities we provide individualized music experiences for Central Texans navigating such challenges as poverty, homelessness, physical and mental health diagnoses, and trauma from past experiences.

 

We are honored to partner with The Georgetown Arts and Culture Program, Resilient Me Community Based Resiliency Programs, and country music artist Wynn Williams to provide a very special musical component to the Rotary Club of Georgetown’s 2020 Field of Honor celebration on Saturday, November 7 between 2 and 4:30pm CST.

The event will be streamed live on FaceBook, and you can attend online here

Music and Healing Director Dr. Travis Marcum, and ACG Music & Healing Artist John Churchill have worked with three extraordinary veterans, William Childress, Bobby Withrow, and John Hill. The afternoon’s program, beginning at 3pm, will include performances by country music artist Wynn Williams, John Churchill on piano, vocalist Hilary Still, and Williamson County Symphony Orchestra violinist Anne Hamman. 

Travis Marcum will also share insights into ACG’s songwriting program, which is designed to help veterans process trauma from their service in the military.

Here’s a special video from John Churchill about his experience with the project, and one of the veterans he’s been able to work with.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhswByr3ROI&feature=youtu.be


Looking Up: Austin Guitar Quartet

This concert occurred on November 19th. Austin Now events are conceived to be unique, moments of creation and togetherness

We are thrilled to present Looking Up in partnership with The Contemporary.

Moving among the sculptures on view at The Contemporary Austin – Laguna Gloria’s fourteen wooded acres, the Austin Guitar Quartet will perform solos, duos, and quartets bringing the works of art to life. Part live stream, part curated tour, this experience will transport us.

 

Looking Up is an opportunity to notice and connect with beauty. We often ask ourselves, “What good can music and art do in the world today?” In exploring this question with our partners at The Contemporary Austin we considered the times we’re in, our “today.” Our “today” can seem filled with fear and anxiety as humanity wrestles with some of its greatest challenges. But still, if we can look up, look up from our individual paths, look up from our screens, look up from our fears, there is beauty.

“We’re excited to make beautiful music during these challenging times.”

The Austin Guitar Quartet’s Chad Ibison and Janet Grohovac shared.

“We’re looking forward, looking up and having a feeling of synergistic connection of all of these creative forces coming together to share this music with the world. These thought provoking sculptures implore us to explore conversations, and in turn, have inspired a very exciting program of repertoire to reflect on the outside beauty at the grounds of Laguna Gloria.”

At the heart of Looking Up is also the beauty of collaboration. It’s collaboration of four musicians, It’s collaboration between Austin Classical Guitar and The Contemporary Austin, it brings together music and sculpture, and it brings together artists and audiences. 

The AGQ’s Tom Clippinger commented,

“Playing alongside these beautiful sculptures will be an incredibly unique and engaging experience, and one that will likely bring out another dimension of the music we haven’t experienced yet ourselves.”

The quartet’s Stephen Krishnan added,

“Combining the quartet’s sound with visuals from beautiful Laguna Gloria is such an exciting concept, and the possibilities of sound and image pairings are endless. We had a lot of fun thinking about which pieces from our solo, duo, and quartet repertory would bring our favorite sculptures to life.”

We are indeed in extraordinary and often disorienting times. Finding ways to celebrate humanity and nature has been challenging but not impossible. Chad and Janet added,

“So many people are working behind the scenes between the film crew, the ACG, and Laguna Gloria. This is our first concert back after many months, and we can’t wait to bring bundles of energy and excitement to you all!”

Andrea Mellard, Director of Public Programs & Community Engagement for The Contemporary Austin shares,

“The strength of artists is how they reflect the contemporary world back to us and envision new futures. That is why I am so pleased to co-present Looking Up with Austin Classical Guitar and hear how the musicians respond to iconic sculptures like artist Tom Friedman’s 33-foot-tall shiny figure "Looking Up" and many of the more than two dozen outdoor works of art in the natural landscape of Laguna Gloria. Thanks to the Austin Guitar Quartet’s perspectives, I hope we experience the arts, the park, and the larger world with new sensitivity.” 

Learn how to visit The Contemporary Austin – Laguna Gloria here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0b9IkmKbTc


Ofrendas: Carl Theil

In collaboration with Mexic-Arte Museum, ACG has asked our beloved community to join us in a creative celebration of loved ones for Día de Muertos through our Ofrendas project. You can experience the works of our community through this playlist. RSVP for the finale event on Thursday, October 29th, at 7pm CDT here

 

In celebration of Día de Muertos, and in collaboration with mexic-Arte Museum, we created the Ofrendas project. Through the project we commissioned twenty Austin-based artists, and invited our staff, community members, and students to create musical tributes to their loved ones. Receiving these beautiful works has been heartwarming, especially during a time when it can be difficult to connect with others. 

This project was inspired by the tradition of ofrendas, or offerings: altars containing photos, gifts, food, and personal items of our loved ones as a way of inviting their spirits to join us in the celebration of their life, created as part of Día de Muertos.

Austin musician and celebrated film composer Carl Theil contributed a beautiful ofrenda. He shared a little about himself and his heritage which has influenced the artist he is today. 

I was born and raised in Mexico City. My dad was Swedish and my mom is half-Austrian and half-German. Music has always been a part of my life. I started playing piano at age 6 and started writing short compositions at age 11. I've also always loved film, so writing music for film is a perfect combination of the two things I love most.”

Carl’s ofrenda is for his grandmother, Herta Bauer. He also shared a bit about what this process has meant to him and his family.

“It was a great honor to be asked to participate, and it also gave me the opportunity to pay tribute to my grandmother, who always looked after us with love and care. I loved revisiting her life as I discussed it with my sister, who helped me gather the information and photographs.

I inherited my grandmother's upright piano, and I think of her every time I play it, so I thought it’d be fitting to write and play a piece on it. It is a symbol of joy that she continues to bring me and my son, as we both enjoy playing on it. I felt it appropriate to write a piece that starts with a simple melody then evolves into a more complex and rich chordal section and finally subsides back into simplicity, kinda like life.”

https://youtu.be/LFaxSqnB5-U


Ofrendas: Nakia Reynoso

Nakia Reynoso is a versatile and beloved Austin musician with a magical voice. He was a Top 8 Semifinalist on CeeLo's team during the first season of 'The Voice' on NBC. Nakia’s ofrenda is packed with intensity and meaning, and we asked him to share some of his thoughts about the piece, the process, and his dad who passed away on this date, October 25th, 2009. Join us live for the finale of our ofrendas project on Thursday, October 29th at 7PM CDT, RSVP Online here. Free, donations accepted.

 

My dad’s parents were indigenous people from Mexico with roots from before there was a Mexico. Dad kept his heritage separate from our lives for his own reasons. So there’s been a real disconnect between me and that heritage and culture. That’s had some pretty negative effects on me long-term. I’ve done a lot of work through therapy and other approaches, but I don’t think it has fully resolved itself. I don’t think it ever will, until I’m able to find some connection on my own.

Exploring these connections has been something I’ve wanted to do. So it was really good timing for me to make this ofrenda. It was an honor for me to be asked, and a real pleasure to take part in the project.

Through the work I’ve done, I became friends with a Lakota Indian. He invited me to do a Vision Quest a few years ago, after several experiences together in a sweat lodge. I had no idea how musical sweat lodge ceremonies are, with all the chanting and drumming. After our first sweat lodge experience he pulled me aside and said “I don’t know you that well, but I want you to know I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and you have some connection to this process that I don’t think even you understand.” So in my ofrenda I knew I wanted to include chanting, and that’s one of the first things you hear, and one of the last things you hear, too.

I have my own altar with pictures of my family, my husband, some friends, Prince, John Aielli, all these people that I look up to and respect. A friend’s mother gave me a prayer cloth, it’s up there too next to some items from my Vision Quest. My dad is there, along with all these elephants because dad was a huge University of Alabama football fan, and their mascot is an elephant.

Originally my ofrenda was going to be mostly chanting and drumming, but once I sat down in this space, I knew I wanted to include an elephant in some way. The first elephant trumpet sound is right after the first drum fill, and it signals my birth. And you’ll see right after that is a picture of me. The last one is shortly before he died. We’re at a restaurant, there’s a picture of him looking away, and then another with him looking right at the camera with his Alabama hat, and you can see on his face he looks a little confused. I wanted the elephant to herald his exit as well.

I started going through photos of dad on my computer. My memories seem to revolve around music, like watching him thumping the steering wheel in time with the radio. He really loved the groove of music. So I wanted to add some groove to it, and that’s where the drums on top of the congas came in.

Dad wasn’t really into synth music, but I added synth anyway. I felt I was not only paying tribute to him, but also to the way that he inspired me. I wanted to put the things I was feeling into the piece. There is this darkness around our relationship. I don’t know that it will ever go away, and I’m okay with that. But that’s the low synth moaning you hear throughout.

The actual melody follows a clear timeline through 2009, of my dad looking really healthy, and then quickly declining, especially after he got his cancer diagnosis in July. Even though the piece is short, I wanted to have his beginning, his middle, and his end. So that’s why the melody switches as soon as you get into the cancer diagnosis, it gets confusing, and kind of scary, and I wanted to throw the listener off balance, because that’s how my life was.

There’s a photo of dad lighting a cigarette right in front of the “no smoking” sign in the cancer ward at the VA. He smoked all the way until the day he died. And it is, of course, the reason for his death.

There were moments in my childhood when dad was not a pleasant person to be around. One of the things I discovered through my work, was distinct memories of wanting to connect with my father, but feeling like he cared more about his cigarettes than he cared about me. I can now recall an intense feeling of jealousy at watching him light a cigarette. They were almost a way of getting out of talking to me. I would be trying to get his attention, and he’d light a cigarette. In his worst moments, those cigarettes turned into weapons.

I’ve come to terms with that. Dad and I had really long talks before he died. The forgiveness part is done. But it was really important to me to let those things live in the music. You hear them in the rumbling, and the pitch-bending. The level of imbalance and confusion of those last few months was so high. That was the only thing I could think to do to represent it.

I truly believe the inspiration that drives us to create, can’t be held. You can’t really touch and hold music, especially live music, and I think that makes it even more sacred. It is spiritual energy from within being amplified and transferred to the audience. That to me is not only fascinating, but it’s also powerful, because everybody receives it in a different way. You know it’s happened when somebody comes up to you after a show, or writes to you, and says you moved them to tears. One of my favorite things that happened when I was on The Voice, was a lot of young gay folks would reach out to me on social media and tell me that seeing my husband and I on television in a completely normalized way helped them to come out to their family. One of the most powerful letters was from a soldier, who was actively deployed in Afghanistan, who came out to the rest of his platoon. These things resulted from seeing our relationship normalized, but also because I was given that platform because of my talent. So I think that as artists we can never discount, nor fully understand, just how powerful an impact we have on people, even people that we’ll never meet.

I think in our nation we’ve let our ego run the show. So many people have fallen under this spell that by taking just the right selfie, or having the perfect life on social media, that’s going to move them forward in life. And while there can be some benefits, what it steals is the real connection. There’s a misconception that all of our power is in the keyboard or in the phone. And none of that is true. My hope is that soon we’ll move away from vanity, and move more toward talking to each other, to being together.

The process of making this ofrenda was very powerful for me. Even talking about it, sharing it with friends, there are many times I find myself crying, and grieving again. And I think as a society, especially in America, we’re taught that grieving happens for a short period of time and then you’re supposed to move on. Other societies don’t do that, especially in Mexican culture, where the tradition is to continually honor and revisit that grief, so that you can change it into forgiveness and celebration and love.

https://youtu.be/wFLDUnhkD6Q


Ofrendas: Page Stephens

In collaboration with Mexic-Arte Museum, ACG has asked our beloved community to join us in a creative celebration of loved ones for Dia de Muertos through our Ofrendas project. Over the course of October we will be sharing the works of our community through this playlist. RSVP for the finale event on October 29th, here

Dia de Muertos celebrates the lives of our loved ones who have passed. Ofrendas are altars containing photos, gifts, food, offerings, and personal items of our loved ones as a way of inviting their spirits to join us in the celebration of their life. 

We have commissioned twenty Austin-based artists and have invited our staff, community members, and students to create ofrendas of their own and share their beautiful, touching, and inspirational work with us.

We had the privilege of speaking with one of our commissioned artists, Page Stephens, in greater depth about her connection to the project and the loved ones she is celebrating. 

“My first submission is a recording of "Here" from Mark Kilstofte's song cycle The White Album with pianist Chuck Dillard. Chuck and I recorded the whole cycle at Furman University, where Kilstofte teaches, about a year ago. Kilstofte wrote the cycle after his father died; every song has to do with some stage of grief. "Here" is set to a poem by Erica Funkhouser and it's about cleaning out a space after a loved one has died and moving to the next stage of life without them. 

The second piece is a recording of "Dormi, o fulmine di guerra," a lullaby aria from Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio La Giuditta. Rick Rowley (harpsichord) and Ben Powell (violin) were kind enough to mask up and play with me.”

Page shared what this project meant to her and the people her work is celebrating.

“During this pandemic, I have felt so isolated from my friends and family. We couldn't grieve together, or adequately celebrate anyone's life the way they deserved. This project is a tiny opportunity to make up for the distance and honor the folks I lost this year.

‘Dormi’ is an ofrenda to celebrate three family friends and neighbors back home in Charlotte, NC: Doris Castevens, Mark Bloom and Scott Craig. They were part of my village and each one of them had an important hand in raising me. Doris and Mark had battled cancer for years, and Scott had battled addiction for most of his adult life. I chose a lullaby because after so many years of fighting, they deserve a rest. They were all exceptional humans.

"Here" is an offering to the families of these folks: the Castevens, the Blooms, and the Craigs. I want them to know they aren't alone, and that they are loved. Sharing this recording also felt right because Chuck Dillard, who performed the piece with me, lost his husband, Doug, to cancer this summer, and I wanted to honor them, too.”

Sunday, October 11th, Page informed us of the loss of her godfather, Cliff Hammond. Our hearts at ACG go out to Page Stephens and her family. Page shared: 

Cliff was a ray of sunshine in a room. He meant the world to my parents, my sister and I. He was brilliant, caring, goofy as all get out, and loved ardently. I will miss him beyond belief. Since I can't be near my godmother, Mary Anne, and my family to grieve together, I'm grateful that I can honor him with this project.” 

https://youtu.be/AuX8PGgyVTo


ACG Originals: Ofrendas

This concert occurred on October 29th. ACG Originals  are conceived to be unique, moments of creation and togetherness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPsRl_5Bqz0&list=PL7wuzEY0eIyBuByMq2EjqosfyoOA2hs_Q&index=1

In collaboration with Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin Classical Guitar is celebrating Día de Muertos with Ofrendas, an event centered around the creative spark of our incredible community and the celebration of  loved ones who have passed.

Ofrendas, altars containing photographs, personal objects, and gifts, encourage the spirit of the departed to return and join the celebration. Inspired by this idea, we have invited our community to create ofrendas of their own.

Over the course of October, we’ll be sharing 20 commissioned works from Austin-based Artists along with videos from our staff, community ensembles, and young guitar students in AISD. You can find these on our facebook and instagram pages, on the video playlist, and on this blog. They will be part of Mexic-Arte Museum’s virtual exhibition as well. 

You can visit the ACG altar, featuring personal remembrances from the ACG community, and other beautiful community altars at Mexic-Arte Exhibit.  Soon you’ll be able to find these on the virtual altar created at Mexic-Arte Museum.

Finally on Oct 29, we’ll present our ACG Originals finale event Ofrendas featuring these incredible works. RSVP for the finale event here

For this special project, we are honored and inspired to include ofrendas by:

Brent Baldwin, Mark Cruz, Mela Sarajane Dailey, Thomas Echols, Erica Flores, Matt Gilchrest, Elizabeth Herrera , Javier Jara, Yuliya Lanina with Joe Williams, Carla McElhaney, Alan Retamozo, Graham Reynolds, Nakia Reynoso, Michael Robles, Carrie Rodriguez, Cassie Shankman, Page Stephens, Carl Thiel, Mad Whitaker, Claudia Chappa & Arnold Yzaguirre.

Guitar students from AISD Programs, Participants from Refugee Services of Texas, ACG members Matthew Hinsley, Travis Marcum, Ciyadh Wells, Justice Phillips, Angelica Campbell, Joe Williams, ACG Youth Camerata, Youth Orchestra, Choir and Chamber Ensemble, as well as community members near and far.

If you would like to get involved, learn more here

I/WE 2020

On Thursday, October 15th at 7pm CDT ARCOS and ACG will present I/WE 2020 as part of the ACG Originals Series. RSVP Online Here. I/WE 2020 is a cinematic experience of story, music and dance celebrating how our humanity transcends borders, languages, and boundaries.

Inspired by interviews with Syrian & Iraqi refugees during their first 90 days in Austin, the original i/we was a multimedia concert we made in 2017. We wanted to explore empathy and listening in an age of polarization. The concert had an amazing cast of international musicians and artists, and won Best New Composition at the Austin Critics Table.

For I/WE 2020, ARCOS, with choreographer Erica Gionfriddo, dancers Bonnie Cox, Ginnifer Joe, Kaitlyn Jones & Oddalys Salcido, along with filmmaker Eliot Gray Fisher, recontextualize the original stories and music through movement filmed in natural spaces around the State of Texas. 

“There is a great responsibility in sharing someone else’s story.”

Says ARCOS choreographer Erica Gionfriddo.

“It requires us to listen deeply to the nuance of what we hear while acknowledging the complexity of our own experience. It requires an ability to respond, or as Donna Haraway calls it, a “response-ability.” When Joe Williams approached ARCOS to collaborate on this reimagining of I/We, we shared this value of response-ability which has allowed us to honor, not re-tell, the stories of Mai, Munel, and the Alaama family. As a white-led organization, ARCOS considers our role in this project as similar to how Joe defined his original approach in 2017; “to facilitate space.” This is not what we, as white, educated, employed and documented United States citizens approximate the refugee experience to be, but a container in which those lived experiences can be honored and shared.”

Bonnie Cox, ARCOS Dancer, on location © Paulo Rocha-Tavares LiaisonfortheArts@gmail.com

Dancer Bonnie Cox who is working with a movement called Waiting In No Place.

“The idea of waiting for six years before you’re able to make any sort of move. It’s deep. It’s heavy. The first Spanish word you hear is esperamos. And that means we waited, but it also means we hoped. There’s no distinction between waiting and hoping in Spanish. And so, I’m trying to feel what it might be like to be waiting and hoping for six years in one place, not knowing when a shift is going to occur.”

Gionfriddo has worked with each dancer through a process of improvisations, inviting personal responses to the stories and music.

“These dance artists found their way to the project because of their personal proximity to the experiences of migration, displacement, loss of home or culture, and the erasure of lineage and history. I have asked them to look closely at the obvious and less visible ways they have been shaped by those experiences.This is a method of body-processing; an often pre-verbal, sometimes ancient state of un-knowing or remembering through movement. What comes out of them is what is needed in any given moment, not a predetermined series of steps or even an improvisation as we might understand it in dance or musical terms. For those unfamiliar with dance practices, this is an intentional abandonment of traditional choreographer-dancer or director-performer relations.”

Oddalys Salcido, ARCOS Dancer, on location
© Paulo Rocha-Tavares 
LiaisonfortheArts@gmail.com

Dancer Oddalys Salcido, who is working with the opening movement, gave us insight into body-processing.

“I kept feeling a sensation of heat in the back of my throat. Like when you’re physically trying to hold back tears, and you’re trying to be strong, that’s where I felt the heat. The property of fire looks very similar to a wave, kind of unexpected and at a constant flow. I feel like a lot of communication is done with the body. It is constantly communicating with us. When it’s hungry you can hear vibrations deep inside. I think when there’s something to be said, and me bringing my stories and history and thoughts, and opinions--my truth--it’s going to blend in, come together with what we’re creating, and provide a different perspective, another truth.”

Dancer Ginnifer Joe is working with the final movement, I miss the soil.

“I don’t know the word for angry and sad. It’s so pointed and it’s so direct, and it really does hit you right in the heart, where nostalgia does. You can hear the experience in the tone of Mai’s voice. My first thought was: listen. Just be present and listen. I know that any interpretation will be colored by any person’s own experience. Me, imagining what I think it will look like, watching me go through this: I guess I have a desire, for myself, to see a warrior, someone resilient, with strength, in the midst of so much pain and grief, with the will and drive to continue on.”

Ginnifer Joe, ARCOS Dancer, on location
© Paulo Rocha-Tavares 
LiaisonfortheArts@gmail.com

At its heart, I/WE 2020 is meeting in the middle. Each dancer brings her own life experience to the story and music with which she is paired. ARCOS and choreographer Erica Gionfriddo meet ACG and composer Joseph Williams and interviewer/co-artistic director Travis Marcum in the middle. Dance meets music. Artwork meets audience.

Each individual can experience this work as both a window and a mirror as themes of home, loss of home, cruelty and violence, waiting and uncertainty, and nostalgia are received in story, music, and movement.

Dancer Kaitlyn Jones is working with the second movement, I am not afraid.

“My personal connection with the phrase ‘I am not afraid,’ has a lot to do with the Black American experience. What does it mean to say that you’re not afraid? Right now in another practice that I’m a part of I’m asking myself ‘What happens if, as a Black woman, I don’t have anything to be afraid of? What if there was nothing I had to be afraid of in the world?’ And that’s a hard question. Something that came up in practice with Erica and I was that it’s hard to be unafraid. That is hard work. And when you’re unafraid does that mean that you’ve accepted that the world is full of scary things, and that’s how you move forward? Or is it that the scary things don’t affect you any more? Or are you numb to the fear? What does it mean when your very existence is a threat?”

Kaitlyn Jones, ARCOS Dancer, on location
© Paulo Rocha-Tavares 
LiaisonfortheArts@gmail.com

“I ask a lot of questions and I think that’s my strength. And I ask questions that I don’t necessarily need to have answers to. The question I ask the most is why. Why am I ‘not afraid?’ I bring the ability to investigate questions, knowing that I may not receive answers. And I think that’s where the real work is: in the middle between the question and the answer.”

We asked Joseph Williams, ACG Artistic Director and composer of the music of I/WE, to share why he feels it is important to recreate I/WE now:

“I/WE is a response to “othering.” It’s a response to the dehumanization of vulnerable people, and a call to remember that there is no significant difference between those who are suffering and those who are secure beyond circumstance.

When we made I/WE in 2017, it was in the wake of the refugee crisis and a prevalent surge of division in our country. The space between us seemed to swell and our common ground seemed to shrink. We decided to pour our energy into a project devoted to understanding, to empathy, and to start by listening.

So why I/WE 2020? Because this invitation, this warming of the frozen parts of our compassion, this call to see ourselves in others is a continuous effort. The context is different, but the process is unending.  We never finish this work and, I believe, it is desperately needed now.”

We are profoundly grateful to the amazing musicians who brought to life Joseph Williams’ score in the 2017 debut performance that was recorded live, and is now featured in I/WE 2020: guitarists Alejandro Montiel and Isaac Bustos, violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist Louis-Marie Fardet, and clarinetist Håkan Rosengren. We also wish to thank our audio engineer, Todd Waldron, who captured the live sound, and then edited, mixed, and mastered the audio for this special feature.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pAvufX_ZS-0