To most Texans, the Lone Star State is the land of the maximal. To composer Nathan Felix, its broad landscapes provoke a minimalist response.
Contemporary classical music fans can decide for themselves which approach fits with the Nov. 19 digital release of Felix’s ninth album, Texas Skies.
The album release is the latest in a string of events for the busy composer, who most recently performed a new operetta at the High Line Nine gallery in New York, composed an opera honoring a friend’s miltary hero father, traveled to Orlando to perform a “headphone opera” that debuted at the 2018 Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival, and last week performed “Black Neon Rose” — a piece for four harpsichords, a string quartet and a choir — at the San Antonio Museum of Art.
In the four songs of Texas Skies, Felix traces his childhood memories of traveling around the vastness of Texas, one vacation per year led by his single mother. Three titles are straightforward: “West Texas,” “East Texas” and “The Panhandle,” with a fourth track evocatively titled “The Wall,” referring to a recent visit to the border town of McAllen.
“West Texas” brings lush chordal washes and arpeggios — cascades of melodic notes — to the repetitive western desert zone. “It’s like an endless beautiful painting that you’re just driving through,” Felix said of the scenery, suggesting that the song might make a good soundtrack for a driving trip.
For Felix, “The Panhandle” recalls the distinct memory of heading north from Amarillo and being overtaken by a hailstorm.
“Hail started coming down and hitting the car … and we realized, ‘OK, this is gonna get really bad,’” he said. Though threatening, “it looked actually beautiful, magical. But it was coming fast. So I played a lot into that memory of being trapped in beauty.”
Felix uses a musical approach more akin to synesthesia than mimicry. To evoke the sound of hail, for example, his piano notation allows the performer to loosen the rhythm of the notes.
“I did notate every note but I also put in the score that it doesn’t have to be precise, because you’re making an effect with the piano by making little trills, and it sounds like these random little drops are coming down,” he said.
The compositions are written for two pianos, but the coronavirus pandemic altered the recording approach of Felix and featured pianist Timo Andres. Essentially in lockdown in March, Andres performed both tracks himself, layering one track over the other to produce the duet effect.
Once Felix had the recordings in hand, he gave them to musicians Justin Boyd, a multi-instrumentalist and teacher at the Southwest School of Art, and a Brooklyn musician who works under the name Dead Leaf Echo to create remixes of each track.
Including the remixes on the album is a way to give classical music a wider reach, Felix said.
“That’s always been a goal of mine since I got into being a composer, because I came from a rock ‘n’ roll and punk background,” he said. “When I discovered classical music, to me it was like I’d been hiding under a rock for so long. And so I always think, ‘If we can do things that can reach an audience that may have been like me when I was in my early 20s, why not try and help bridge that gap?’”
Texas Skies also bridged another generational gap. After listening to an Austin radio broadcast of the album on KMFA with his mother, Helen Kinneman, Felix said the two bonded over their shared memories of the old family road trips that inspired it.
Kinneman said while she finds her son’s music beautiful, she remembers the trips in their big Chevrolet Suburban Silverado differently.
“They were long, they were expensive,” she said. But the open skies and “big Texas horizons” were beautiful, and when hearing the music she likes to imagine how Felix sat in his captain’s chair daydreaming and taking it all in.
“I pictured that, trying to focus on what he was experiencing,” she said. “But the music is beautiful. Lovely. It took me there.”
Others can experience Felix’s translation of Texas landscapes into music by purchasing a digital copy of the album on Bandcamp or on vinyl when it’s released in March for the upcoming South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin.