INTERVIEW: Steve Parker on his Grackle-Inspired Sound Walk Around Austin

Steve Parker is a trombonist, composer, and curator based in Austin, Texas. After training in classical trombone, his practice shifted towards socially-engaged projects that bring together interdisciplinary collaborators to experiment with sound and new ways of being together. Steve has created a work for 1.5 million bats, megaphone choir, and hand-built echolocation devices; a participatory project that included 60 automobile horns played by amateurs via intuitive graphic score; and site-specific projects for lagoons, public elevators, and parking garages, among many others. Steve’s latest project GRACKLE CALL, premiering at Fusebox this April, is no different: audience members are invited on a sound walk throughout the city where they’ll encounter dance, poetry, and installations all related to the city’s iconic bird. Fusebox curators Anna Gallagher-Ross and Betelhem Makonnen sat down with Steve to discuss his experiments in sound and curating as a kind of musical composition.

Anna Gallagher-Ross: Could you tell us about the origins of GRACKLE CALL?

Steve Parker: I don’t know if I could pinpoint an exact moment as the genesis of this project, but it might have been moving to Austin. For a lot of people, the first strange thing you notice about the place is these enormous, fearless birds and for me, because I work with sound, I found the call of the grackle very interesting. There’s so many ways to describe their sound. The author Haruki Murakami describes it as a “rusty gate on a hot summer’s day.” To me it sounded like almost an electronic sound, one you could only produce from a machine instead of an organic being.

They are pretty beautiful birds but they are also strange and kind of frightening in a way. One of the things I find interesting about it is the arbitrary way in which we’ve adopted these animal icons for our city; first bats and salamanders, and recently the grackle has been appropriated in this way. But before this people have been divided about the grackle, and the more I dug into them, I found more layers to this bird that are interesting to explore: the traditions of birding, how it functioned in Aztec societies, its invasive, destructive behavior but also its success as a species which is closely tied to human development and the way that we structure our cities, our urban and suburban areas. So it’s a really rich topic and it brings up issues of ownership and land and space and the attempts to control the natural world. There’s been so many attempts to not eradicate them, because its illegal to kill the grackle, but to get them to move to different places in the city. At the University of Texas at Austin they have these sound cannons which are meant to scare them, or downtown they have this alliance of businesses that hires people to shine laser pointers into trees to get rid of them. There’s also a falconer in town who is hired by HEB grocery stores to harass them with a falcon or a hawk. Some HEB stores even have loud speakers which feature predatory bird calls. The bird has also been inspiring to a lot of people in the creation of work. Mose Buchele from KUT, the dancer Heloise Gold has been doing grackle-inspired dances for nearly 20 years, and different poets and things. So all of these things led me to this point.

BM: There’s something in that bird’s spirit that refuses to be driven away.

SP: They’re fearless! It’s almost like engaging with some sort of vestige of the Jurassic period. They seem like dinosaurs, the way that they move around. They don’t care about humans.

AGR: Can you say more about the team you are collaborating with for this project, the people who’ve been inspired by the grackle in different ways?

SP: Yeah! It is still evolving. I’m so excited to work with this group of people because they all come from such different areas. Some identify as artists while others don’t consider themselves as artists, but I think what they do is very artistic. There’s a significant birding community in Austin, under the umbrella of the Audubon society, and there’s one guy in particular who I’ve been meeting with, Martin Byhower, who is sort of a renaissance man. Moses Buchele from KUT is involved; Heloise Gold, who has been doing grackle-inspired dances for nearly 20 years; Alex Keller of Austin Phonography; Martin Rodriguez and Verena Gaudy, two performance artists from San Antonio who create stunning ritual performances; the brilliant Yuliya Lanina whose work deals with anthropomorphization, among many other powerful themes; James Brush, an author who has written a book of grackle poetry; Allison Orr of Forklift who will be creating a movement ritual for audience; Austin Soundwaves, an El Systema after school program at East Austin College Prep, which is right across the street from a bird sanctuary that Travis Audubon is running for the moment.

BM: I love that all the work you do is so collaborative, and in its execution how many people it brings together.

AGR: It’s almost like a kind of musical composition, these projects, an orchestration of all the parts? How do you see your role in this?

SP: It’s what I like doing the most. I’ve been mostly trained as a performer, but the more I do this type of work, the more I like to be removed from the product, figuring out how to facilitate these different parts, and create structures for people to be expressive within, or for people to reveal certain artistic or virtuosic traits they don’t consider to be interesting, or other people don’t consider to be interesting.

In a way it’s this intersection of curatorial work, composition and organizing, but it is kind of like a composition that is realized over the course of several months as opposed to a performance that happens from eight o’clock to ten o’clock. I think there is something really beautiful about fleeting performances but I always feel a little let down by those types of situations, and so I’ve been trying to treat the entire process of making as the entire work, which feels more satisfying to me and ultimately produces something of more meaning and substance. It feels right. I think more artists are gravitating in that direction, both out of logistical necessity in the way that our country support art-making, for better or for worse, and out of a desire to do something meaningful and serves some group of people, and some purpose.

BM: That creates connections in the making of it.

SP: I think one of the things I like about working with all these different types of people is the buzz that is creates when people, especially who are not regular working artists or performers are placed in this situation where they are suddenly like “oh shit I’m the center of attention and Im showing off and this is amazing,” those are the most exciting situations for me. There’s a palpable electricity when that happens.

AGR: I love that in this project the grackle serves as a way for people to walk and explore the city. Could you say a bit about the experience and also the life this project will have afterwards?

SP: You’ll arrive at a location at a certain time, you’ll get binoculars, a guide, some sort of audio tour and there might be a birding guide as well, and I’m not sure the form it will take exactly, but audiences will have a chance to encounter a bunch of different situations and locations, some that are performative, some installation, some observational and then there’s a component of a finale that involves the audience as performers and also brings in anyone present in a sort of civic ritual at sunset. Actually, observing the progression of the grackles at sunset is amazing. They start out on these electrical wires, they look like they’re having a meeting, its very social, it’s like a cocktail party for the birds, then precisely at dusk they fly into the trees and then its this huge cacophony of sound that follows. It goes in waves, and then it dyes down and then they start clucking, it’s a really interesting progression. Its really predictable but also really wild. In the past, I’ve worked with Timos Antonopoulos who’s created an app called Soundyarn, which is a platform to create, experience interactive location-based audio content. For this project there’s going to be an element that is archival, an interactive archive of the project after the formal performance happens during the festival, that will take the form of a birding excursion or tour. You can download the app and you go to different spots around the city where you are directed to observe things or experience things, and the app, depending on your GPS coordinates, triggers different experiences. That is how I hope the project will live beyond the performance.

BM: I’m familiar with your work with bats, but is there another urban wild citizen that you’ve worked with?

SP: I did a project in Philadelphia with a friend of mine, Jebney Lewis for brass, an audio feed of honey bees, carillon tower, and chant by Hildegard von Bingen, a 14th century a German Benedictine abbess, composer, and mystic to explore liturgical symbols, swarming behavior, and urban beekeeping. I’ve also done some stuff with bio-sonification, which is, in effect, translating data from plants into sound. I also helped realize a piece, by John Luther Adams, for 99 percussionists, that uses fragments of transcribed bird calls played on pitched percussion instruments. Often, the birds respond to these calls and create a dialogue with the instruments.

AGR: What is your training and background in sound?

SP: My formal education was as a classical musician. I grew up in Chicago and then went to Oberlin College to study trombone and math. My education was super formal but there was a lot of opportunity to take art classes and work with people outside of the western tradition of performance. And then I went to Rice University and studied really classical music and then I went overseas to Germany and studied with two people there: Abbie Conant, who is a trombonist and performance artist and Mike Svoboda, who was a trombone player from Zappas’ group in the '70s and '80s and worked with Stockhausen, and at this point, I realized I could operate outside of the classical work I’d been doing. And so I came back and got a doctorate with the idea that I could get a job in academia, so that I could do things I wanted to do with the rest of my time, and so I am at the point where I want to do the things I want to do without worrying about this artificial security, I’m a full time adjunct at University of Texas at San Antonio but mostly the focus of me energy and time is just doing the art I want to do. I’ve only been thinking in this way for 3-4 years, it should be primary but I felt I had to give myself permission. One always wants to be pragmatic and responsible.

BM: And you were making it up, too. You needed time to make up who you are now.

SP: And there’s been a lot of situations that have led me to this place that I’ve been really lucky to be involved in. Just on a whim, I did a program at the Blanton Museum when I was a student and grew into thinking about how making projects in a curatorial sense is an essential part to making work and thinking about working with people, and people as materials. I also had the opportunity to do a residency In social practice at the Asia Arts initiative in Philadelphia, and that was a monumental experience for me. We had a number of advisors including including Rick Lowe, Pepon Orsario, Edgar Arceneaux and many other people doing vital work in that area. And so these sorts of experience have led me to the work that I’m doing now. And Austin is one of the places that does have significant challenges as a city but, and I hope its not fleeting, it’s collaborative atmosphere remains one of the few places this type of work can exist.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):

-Grackle Drawing by Steve Parker.

-Image by Phillip Rogers.