Vol. 38 Issue 1 Reviews

Thomas Clark: Larry Austin: Life and Works of an Experimental Composer

Softcover, 2012, ISBN 978-0-9855654-0-4, 117 pages, illustrated, bibliography, discography; available from Borik Press, P. O. Box 12784, Raleigh, North Carolina 27605, USA; telephone (336) 584-5059; electronic mail borikpress@gmail.com; Web www.borikpress.com/.

Reviewed by Annea Lockwood
Peekskill, New York, USA

Austin book coverLarry Austin’s remarkable and extensive body of work incorporates and has often extended the major strains of contemporary musical language over the last five decades, while acknowledging deep roots in historical, western musical practices. His strong sense of historical provenance emerges in such works as the Sinfonia Concertante: A Mozartean Episode (1986) and Variations… beyond Pierrot (1994), and in his almost twenty years of research on Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony, culminating in his powerful realization and completion of that seminal American work in 1993, which was most recently performed at Carnegie Hall by the Nashville Symphony in 2012. As with his remix of John Cage’s Williams Mix, titled Williams (re)Mix(ed), from 2000, I see this as an important service to American music.

Austin’s acknowledgment of forebears is balanced by a life-long passion for experimentation. The wide range of the techniques, tools, and practices which he has evolved, or enriched, over the years seems unbounded, and includes:  algorithmic modeling programs such as his mapping algorithms and fractal functions that form the core of Canadian Coastlines: Canonic Fractals for Musicians and Computer Band 1981, a performance of which was reviewed by John Strawn in the Computer Music Journal Vol. 6, No. 2, 1982; convolution; use of field recordings as primary material; open-form pieces; octophonic and ambisonic spatialization; and Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, that radical, pioneering publication, co-edited with Stanley Lunetta and Arthur Woodbury.

All of the techniques referred to above are described and well contextualized in Thomas Clark’s new study: Larry Austin: Life and Works of an Experimental Composer, recently published in the new series entitled: Borik Press Studies of Composers. Clark is ideally positioned to write such a study. He is a composer and was a colleague of Austin’s at the University of North Texas, where they co-authored Learning to Compose: Modes, Materials, and Models of Musical Invention, published by Wm. C. Brown in 1989.  “Our working style of collaboration consisted mainly of long conversations (usually over lunch on the university of North Texas campus) that forged the essential ideas and approaches…” Clark writes and explains that the same enjoyable conversations formed the basis of the Life and Works sections of this book, again mostly over lunch.

The Life section makes clear the influence of early experiences such as trumpet studies, and composition studies with Violet Archer at North Texas, who imparted an awareness of rigor and the importance of practicing composition,” Austin recalls. In the mid-1950s Austin and his growing family moved to the University of California, Berkeley, intending to study composition with Roger Sessions, and at Mills College with Darius Milhaud, but Berkeley’s prestigious musicology program was also enticing to Austin. No conformist he, when asked to research and analyze Wolfgang Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, as Clark recounts, “instead of carrying out an orthodox investigation, he went about editing and recomposing the Mozart score “to improve it” even to the extent of “shortening or lengthening proportions according to his own compositional impulses,” shocking his seminar professor, musicologist Edward Lowinsky. It is no surprise, then, that many years later Austin once again “tinkered” with Mozart, in the Sinfonia Concertante, as Clark notes.

Austin’s path towards creating the ideal computer music and intermedia center is described, culminating in the establishment, with composer and intermedia artist Phil Winsor, of the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI) at his alma mater, North Texas State University, which also hosted the 1981 International Computer Music Conference, an historical event featuring the work of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller.

“I still have the attitude of experiment in the piece I’m doing. I am excited to be discovering new possibilities, even with techniques I’ve used extensively,” Austin observed in 2003. This core focus is brought out well in the Works section, which chronologically maps his explorations under the categories: improvisation, homage variations, mapping, fractals, other models, computer music, convolutions, ambisonics, conversations, specific soloists. Austin’s compositional approaches are interestingly described and anchored by detailed notes on his major works in each category. The conceptual and technical breadth of these explorations is very impressive. Given this range and his continual probing of the materials of music and technology he must have been an exciting teacher. These main sections are completed by a biographical and compositional timeline, a detailed list of works, publication dates, a discography, writings, and a bibliography.
Generous and nurturing to younger composers such as myself, Austin’s music and ideas, years of teaching and mentoring, and his organizational leadership have made him an important influence in the experimental music community. Through the publication of some of my work in Source, for instance, I made contact with the new music community in the United States, which was a vital stimulus, and eventually became my home. The award of the Magistere prize by the International Institute for Electroacoustic Music, Bourges in 1996 was a fine recognition of Austin’s many contributions, as was the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Electroacoustic Music he received in 2009. Thomas Clark’s study of Larry Austin’s life and works is excellent, succinct yet comprehensive, and will be an important resource for other composers and researchers for years to come.