Texas New Music Festival Celebrates New Works

Texas New Music Festival (TNMF) is the brainchild of Chad Robinson, Founder and Artistic Director of the Texas New Music Ensemble (TNME). Building on the success of last summer’s inaugural festival, this year’s 8-day event (July 14-21, 2024, at MATCH Houston) will bring 27 composers and five conductors to Houston for a week-long celebration of new creations and new ideas.

“One of the biggest reasons I wanted to start a summer festival for composers is simply because we don’t have one in the fourth largest city in America and I don’t see why we wouldn’t,” says Robinson. “We need one based around new music and specifically to bring composers to Texas.”

This year’s composers are coming to Houston from every region in the United States, and as far as Canada and the United Kingdom. “The response has been really great,” says Robinson. “Last year we had 18 composers and seven of them are returning and bringing friends. Word of mouth from returning fellows has been huge.”

This year’s cohort of composition and conducting fellows is a very diverse group, from high school and college students to PhD candidates and assistant professors, as well as people who have retired from other professions and are pursuing their musical passions. Robinson gives the example of Jonathan Newmark, a retired colonel from the U.S. Army Medical Corps and one of the nation’s leading authorities on medical responses to chemical and biological warfare and terrorism, who is returning as a composer fellow this year. He will be composing a piece for the Carya String Quartet, set to original choreography by one of three participating dance artists.

The structure of the festival allows creativity to flourish. Each fellow can choose to compose a short piece for solo flute or clarinet, plus a longer work for a “Pierrot” ensemble—a quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano named after 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg’s seminal work Pierrot Lunaire— or for the large 15-piece Texas Festival Ensemble, or a piece for string quartet and dancers.

In addition, composers interested in film scoring can submit a score with an original film which will be premiered at the popular Film Fest Night (July 16). “It’s one of the most fun events of the festival and something we do in addition to everything else,” says Robinson. “The level is really high. It runs the whole gamut. We’ve had a 15-minute live action superhero film, and really inventive experimental 2-minute works—all different types.” Robinson doesn’t like to put restrictions on creative work. “We are open to whatever they are doing. We really want people to feel like they are here to present all their work in all their capacities.”

Presenting 27 world premieres in eight days is no small feat. Robinson has organized the festival concerts in a way that showcases a wide array of works and the variety of ensembles for which they are written. Guest artists will bring their star power to the festival stage for several concerts as well.

Opening night (July 14) will include four world premieres performed by the TNME Ensemble (a Pierrot ensemble) and pianist Yan Shen’s brilliant interpretation of Roger Session’s “Kennedy Sonata.” Autonomous (July 15) will focus on works for solo instruments, including guest artist Poppy Beddoe’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne for clarinet, and guest composer Rob Smith’s Essential Torque for piano and electronics. Film Fest Night (July 16) will be followed by Animate (July 17), a concert of world premiere collaborations between TNMF composition fellows and guest choreographers Jennifer Mabus, Lindsay Cortner, and Emily Roy.

The two Introduction and Inception concerts (July 19, 20) will feature premieres of works by TNMF composers written for the Pierrot ensemble, with Guest conductor Michelle Perrin Blair at the podium. An evening of jazz works for piano and saxophone presented by Houston legends Joe LoCascio and Woody Witt (July 20) will precede the grand finale Breakthrough concert (July 21), where new works for TNMF’s large 15-piece chamber ensemble (Texas Festival Ensemble), conducted by Felipe Tristan, will be heard by the public for the first time.

Guest composers Rob Smith and Marcus Maroney, both Professors of Composition at the University of Houston Moores School, will join Robinson in working with the composition fellows. Throughout the festival fellows will break into small groups for focal sessions to present and discuss their music. Robinson likes to emphasize the non-hierarchical nature of these sessions. “We don’t have lessons in the strict sense,” he explains. “We want everyone to be there as equals, then we can just focus on presenting ideas, sharing ideas, and celebrating new works going out into the world.”

A typical day for the participating fellows begins with a morning wellness workshop, led by guest flutist Meg Griffith. Griffith is part of a non-profit called Whole Musician, which works in residency with major ensembles to promote the well-being of musicians, practicing a blend of yoga, meditation, and Alexander technique to help prevent injuries. In addition to the focal sessions and rehearsals, guest speakers will give talks on a variety of subjects. These include Sarah Lucas, Assistant Professor of Musicology at Texas A&M University Kingsville, who will discuss her extensive research on the music of Bela Bartok, and Rob Smith, who will lead a discussion on entrepreneurship and how to build a career as a composer. The fellows will also have an opportunity to talk about their own unique musical ventures. “The entrepreneurship aspect is a huge deal for us,” says Robinson. “It’s important.”

An impressive 25 professional musicians will be working alongside the composition and conducting fellows throughout the festival. Robinson, who now teaches at Texas A&M University Kingsville, is also bringing in some of his students to work behind the scenes to gain experience in arts administration, stage management, and sound recording. “It’s a great way to learn all aspects of production,” says Robinson.

Robinson hopes the Texas New Music Festival will not only be a place to celebrate new works, but an event that draws people from around the country to come and experience Houston. “We want them to really see what the Houston music scene is all about. We want to make this city a destination for composers throughout the country.”