Awesome Austin

AEJ and I spent several days in Austin last week for the premiere of “Undertow,” my new piece for Hill Country Middle School’s band. Although I didn’t need to be at rehearsals until Monday, we flew in on Saturday so we’d have some time to find a place to live. (The plan is still to move there this summer.)

We went straight from the airport to a house in the West Lake Hills area. It was an older house — for rent — in the center of a heavily wooded 2+ acre lot. Completely secluded, and we’re told, heavily populated with deer. And other less-cute critters like huge roaches and scorpions and spiders. We decided to keep looking.

That night, we had dinner with Jerry & Stephanie Junkin, composer Steve Bryant, and conductor Verena Mösenbichler. Jerry took us to Aquarelle, a French restaurant down near 6th Street. The place was fantastic, but the portions were a little small.

I’m kidding; that’s just a little sample while we waited for appetizers.

The meal was fun — and delicious. It was so good, in fact, that AEJ and I went back the next morning for Sunday brunch. The brunch was equally good, from the fresh fruit salad with prosciutto…

… to AEJ’s excellent steak…

… to my selection, the snapper.

The next day for lunch, we went to a place in south Austin, Hill’s Cafe. Voted Best Burger in Austin by the Statesman, we had to try it.

The burger was… incredible. A fresh, sweet, fluffy bun, grilled onions… Amazing. I didn’t take pictures because my hands were covered with grease. The place is quite a scene, too. It felt very… Texas. Old guys with non-ironic mustaches that stretched to their ears. Boots. The works. I wanted to take pictures, but was afraid I’d get my ass kicked.

The rehearsals with the Hill Country Middle School Band were just amazing. I had over 90 minutes with the band on Monday, and we spent most of the time just doing a Q-and-A, as there was practically nothing to fix in their performance. I didn’t take pictures of the students, but I did spot this teddy bear, killed, with its cold, fuzzy corpse stuffed behind the audio cabinet. Perhaps the killer was a Sooners fan?

Late that night, we went to Antone’s, a club down on 5th Street, to meet our realtor for the first time. That’s Brad — Brad Bradburn (seriously! isn’t that a great name?!) — our realtor, on bass.

The concert on Tuesday was just amazing. I couldn’t believe what Cheryl Floyd (the Director of Bands) and the group did. The piece is hard — alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 every measure — and they played perfectly. I can’t wait to get the recording so I can post it. Here I am with Chuck Fischer (conductor of the second band at Hill Country, and also the percussion teacher — who is largely responsible for pushing me to write harder and harder percussion parts for his amazing section) and Cheryl Floyd.

What does Cheryl’s shirt say? What’s that? Did they make custom shirts about the concert? Yes. Yes they did.

And here’s the back:

Here I am with those awesome percussionists. Look how young they are! You won’t believe what they sound like when you hear the recording…

It really was an amazing performance.

It’s pretty amazing to think of what the Hill Country Middle School band — and the parents — did. My piece was, I think, the 9th commission for Cheryl’s band, preceded by pieces like Frank Ticheli’s “Shenandoah” and “Cajun Folk Songs” and Ron Nelson’s “Courtly Airs and Dances.” The fact that a middle school band would be commissioning pieces in the first place is incredibly unusual. Not only do the parents make this possible financially, but they support the band by attending the concerts and chaperoning the students on the many trips the band takes for performances around Texas. Take this, and add the fact that the students play incredibly well — better than just about any band I’ve ever heard at this age. The parents also took care of our housing — with Dave and Judy French providing us a two-bedroom townhouse downtown throughout our stay — and our airfare, courtesy of Mark and Holly Gunn.

Then there’s the video. The students in the band made a movie about the commission — a documentary filled with questions directed at me (“what’s the piece called?” and the most common question they wanted to ask, “did you write me a solo?”). I wish I could post the video; it’s amazing.

So they commissioned my first piece for young band, they flew me in, they put me up in a great place, they treated me to wonderful meals, they made customized shirts for the entire band, they made a documentary about the experience, and they played the hell out of the piece, a piece which is ridiculously difficult for a band this age. They’re incredible. Oh — and they got me a present: this snowglobe of the Austin skyline. It couldn’t have been a better trip. Is it any wonder why I’m moving to Austin?


Nikk says

Congrats, John. I am glad to hear you had such a wonderful experience (and dang that steak looks tasty).

I am very impressed the Cheryl's commissioning record...that is something I wish more middle (and high) schools would do, and am gratified to see the lead the Hill Country middle school has taken in this regard. Now if only more schools would follow!

Looking forward to hearing it!

And hey...why not post the video you mentioned on YouTube? Or get one of the kids to do it...I am sure they all have their own YouTube accounts in this day and age!

Matt Carlson says

Yeah, Mack Attack!!! Those T-shirts are awesome, John! I got to get me one of those? Hahaha! I'm so glad the performance of Undertow went great. I can't wait to hear the recording. Wow, you're right, they sure know how to treat a composer in Austin! Well, I hope you and Abby find a place you like out there soon. Talk to you later, John!


Travis Taylor says

Those Middle Shoolers are taller than you are (save a few)... Are you sure you're not 13, and just pretending to be grown up?


Montoya says

Hills is about a mile from my house!!!

Steve from Austin says

I've been patiently waiting for this blog entry. I'm glad everything went well. A group of us were hanging out at the Elephant Room last Saturday night and someone asked "Hey, has there been a Mackey sighting around here yet?" Can't wait to have you in Austin.

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