IIf we could describe Texas as music, what would it be like? Certainly, the state of Lone Star shines so vast that even the greatest songwriter might not dare to consider such a question. But what about some of our most vivid and vibrant landscapes like the San Marcos River, the Enchanted Rock or the Big Bend? Translating these Texas locations into music has become something of a quest for the Austin Montopolis independent chamber band and its founder Justin Sherburn.
PaperCity recently chatted with the composer as Montopolis prepares to give his final theatrical concert in Houston (this Saturday, September 18 at MATCH) and Dallas (September 25 at the Texas Theater), an epic musical journey along The Living Coast.
Sherburn says that after years of being a sideman in rock, jazz and even tango groups, the opportunity to compose sheet music for silent film screenings led him to create Montopolis. Calling on other musicians and friends who have performed with the Austin Symphony, Okkervil River, Tosca String Quartet and Polyphonic Spree, Sherburn has assembled an ensemble capable of fusing rock, country, folk and classical roots into a contemporary classic sound. ideal for accompanying visual storytelling.
A river of music turns
It wasn’t until Texas documentary filmmaker Anlo Sepulveda asked Sherburn to create the music for his award-winning film. Yakona on the San Marcos River, that Montopolis found its musical path in the great landscapes of Texas. A screening with live accompaniment led to a tour, then to the realization that this would be the ensemble’s new mission.
âWe did this show which was a great experience for everyone involved,â Sherburn said of how a show turned into a tour. âIt was unique, regional and specific to our communities and our culture. This set us on the path to more nature-focused work in Texas. “
Staying local, Sherburn turned to enchanted rock and then, with growing musical and ecological ambition, to Big Bend. With each project, the shows became more theatrical. Sherburn worked with a photographer or cinematographer to capture images of places, but he also collected stories from people who have lived or experienced the area.
River Oaks District
âIn central Texas, everyone has a story about Enchanted Rock,â says Sherburn. âPeople have a real relationship with her. “
With each production, the live performances evolved into a theatrical production due to both the subject matter and the theatrical locations they found themselves playing. The founder of Montopolis describes each show more as a theatrical performance than a concert.
The musical journey from the desert and mountains of Big Bend to the Gulf Coast may seem like a deviation, but Sherburn says it happened organically. By composing The legend of the big turn, he spoke to scientists and environmentalists, and those stories persisted in researching the next project.
âWater and the petrochemical industry are the two things at the forefront of the mind of any environmental scientist in Texas,â says Sherburn.
By this time, he had also started to learn more about Hurricane Galveston of 1900, something growing in North Texas that he hadn’t learned much about.
With that inspiration from the Gulf, Sherburn brought in Anlo Sepulveda for his cinematic skills, and along with drone pilot Reagan Jobe, they headed along the Texas coast in 2019 to collect footage, scenes, and stories. of present-day life on water and on land. Sherburn composed music along the way, letting the waterscapes and stories inspire him. The film they shot and the interviews he collected became the basis for the song vignettes in the production.
âWe were in Port A two summers ago and I talked to a surfer and he tells me what it’s like to be a surfer in Port A,â Sherburn describes of his creation process. âI would take this quote while Regan flies his drone and gets these amazing footage of people kitesurfing. Now we have two pieces of this story.
âThen I’m going to write a rock and roll that meets a contemporary classical piece, jubilant fun music. This is the thumbnail.
Weaving these scenes and moments together, The Living Coast adrift the public in life on the coast for more than a century.
âThe first act is anchored by the story of Hurricane Galveston, and the second act is anchored by Hurricane Harvey,â says Sherburn, who describes The Living Coast like a work of light and life as well as of tragedy. âThis is the story of mankind on the Texas coast. Here is our past and here is a future, which is defined by scientists. “
When I asked him how the musical representation of these Texas landscapes leads him to create very different sounds for everyone, Sherburn notes that each place inspires very different sounds, starting with the instruments. Enchanted Rock evokes “a beautiful minimalism” which reflects modern American minimalism like the work of Steve Reich or Brian. When creating music to capture the enormity of Big Bend, the sound had to become wider, bolder, and more Copland-esque, Americana.
As for The Living Coast, Sherburn believes that the sea, the sky and human coastal life require âmore festive and activeâ music.
âI added a trumpet, more horns and celebration,â he says. âWe received a lot of great footage from Galveston and Mardi Gras has become a theme. It sounds much more modern, more rock and roll and festive jazz.
Of course, the hurricane sections required dark and dramatic musical changes. âYou follow that narrative and create music that supports the story you tell,â says Sherburn.
From river to desert to mountains and seas, the musical meanders of Montopolis through Texas led the group on a greater mission – to emphasize both the majesty of the land but also part of its fragility.
âBasically what we’re trying to do is depoliticize the conversation about climate change,â says Sherburn. âWe start with the celebration and end by connecting our audience with scientists, so they can learn de-politicized information about the future of Texas’ climate. “
In this way, art, science and state pride can find harmony in a spectacle of Montopolis.
âWe have the ability to travel the state in all different political contexts and celebrate and respect the natural wonders of our state,â Sherburn said. “We can go to Lufkin, Waco, Dallas and play for a variety of audiences and everyone can go along.”