Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out what's remarkable about something in one's own city before locals pay attention to it and give it the cred it rightfully deserves.
Composer Chad Robinson, who was born in Galveston and who grew up in Clear Lake, discovered that the Texas composition scene was better known across the pond than in its own home. While finishing his Ph.D. in composition last year at King's College in London, England, Robinson learned that many of his fellow students not only were familiar with a growing number of Texas-based composers, but also regarded Texas as a mecca for new music.
When he returned to Houston last summer, Robinson decided to roll up his sleeves and do something about this peculiar conundrum: He founded the Texas New Music Ensemble as a nonprofit that champions the works of Texas-based composers by presenting concerts performed by Texas-based musicians. For the ensemble's inaugural concert, set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Studio 101 inside Spring Street Studios, Robinson selected a melange of repertoire from emerging and established tunesmiths, including works by Pierre Jalbert, Donald Grantham and Marcus Karl Maroney.
The group's activities began with salon-style performances in private homes. The intimate setting — similar to how chamber music was enjoyed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries — allows Robinson and his colleagues to offer an engaging, informal ambiance in which listeners are more likely to develop an appreciation for a genre of music that many find intimidating.
"Texas is incredibly versatile, with composers in just about every genre working at a level that's exceptionally high."
Future plans include expanding the ensemble's presence in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Robinson wants to add a student composition competition in an effort to support young talent. He is also contemplating tracing Texas composition traditions back to the early 20th century, an ambitious project he hopes to present as a lecture recital that provides insight into how the practice has blossomed in Texas.
Sounds like Texas
When asked if there's such a thing as a Texas sound, Robinson explains that the Lone Star State is too diverse to be able to be classified in one category.
"It's nearly impossible to lump the spirit of Texas new music into one bracket as we may think of the Second Viennese School," Robinson says. "Texas is incredibly versatile, with composers in just about every genre working at a level that's exceptionally high."
Perhaps the Texas music identity can be defined by the pluralism that has resulted from globalization and immigration instead of a carefully crafted exegesis courtesy of musicologists who may feel it's necessary to codify everything neatly in perfect little boxes.
"In many ways, Houstonians are just coming to realize how great of a city Houston is," Robinson adds. "In considering new music, I think of this realization as a microcosm of Texas as a whole."
For this inaugural performance, Robinson sought scores that have depth and, at the same time, are expressively accessible.
"Strong emotional content always wins over both experienced listeners and new audiences," Robinson says. "I wanted well written works that elicited strong responses but weren't too heavy."
"Strong emotional content always wins over both experienced listeners and new audiences."
The program includes Robinson's Circles for solo piano, a virtuosic toccata-like showcase that unfolds from unfamiliar sonorities that find repose in ethereal stillness. The three-movement sonata cascades with repetitive rhythmic patterns that are self-evident.
The aural vocabulary in each of the movements in Visual Abstract by Pierre Jalbert, currently on faculty at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, was drawn from images. The first movement was inspired by the sound of a tolling bell, the second by Borromini's dome in the Roman church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, the third by a company of dancers as they execute a lively number.
Robinson describes University of Texas at Austin composition faculty Donald Grantham's Fantasy on Mr. Hyde's Song as a frantic schizophrenic score that's emotionally charged. The work is particularly significant to the ensemble as it contains text by Wilfrid Mellers that has become a mantra for the musicians.
It reads: "A real musical culture should not be a museum culture based on the music of past ages . . . It should be the active embodiment in sound of the life of a community — of the everyday demands of people's work and play and of their deepest spiritual needs."