San Antonio artists have responded to the contusions and confusions of the past few years — political and social upheaval, global pandemic, local winter storm — with personalized visions of connection to the past and hope for the future.
Composer Nathan Felix released his third symphony Santa-Almada on Dec. 9, a live recording of a concert that took place in Austin last May. The six-movement choral work traces Felix’s family history, obscured by the absence of his father.
Jazz musician Brandon Guerra teamed up with longtime friend Nick Mery, a musician and filmmaker, to create Deathbloom, an 11-song reconsideration of Winter Storm Uri, a disastrous hard freeze that left thousands of San Antonians without water and electricity for days in February 2021.
Guerra also teamed up with pianist Jonathan Leal for a new concept album, this time inviting San Antonio poet laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson to make After Now, released in November. The compendium of six songs takes a hard look at events of the recent past and posits a positive future.
Traveling in Europe and Scandinavia over a period of years, Felix felt he had achieved his dreams, touring the world as a musician after his band Noise Revival Orchestra appeared on MTV in 2008. Yet he was in a malaise, going through a divorce and feeling distant from his son, Revolution.
Around the same time, urgent messages from his estranged father began to arrive to the band manager’s Facebook page, demanding that Felix contact him. Having had no contact with his father since he abandoned his family when Felix was just five years old, the musician initially felt no need to respond.
Years passed before a phone call was finally arranged. Father and son talked for an hour, then the two lost contact again.
The result of all this family tumult eventually emerged as Santa-Almada, a symphonic choral treatment of loneliness and abandonment, loss and discovery, and finally hope and love.
Lyrics in the first movement, titled “Fathers and Sons,” consider how the memory of loss can continue to haunt:
If the past is behind us
Then why does it feel so close
Songs in Latin, Spanish, English, and Italian question the pain of wounded love and ask forgiveness. The final movement, titled Kosovo, ends with a glimmer of hope:
The past is gone
But the future is life
“My personal life felt like it was just turmoil,” Felix said. But allowing the complicated dynamic of his father’s absence back into his life and coming to terms with his divorce through his art helped him reach a new state of mind. “My heart’s a little softer now,” he said, and he’s had further conversations with his father.
When the work debuted in Austin in May, Felix said having family and friends in the audience produced revelations, including that many people endure similar circumstances and experiences. Being honest in his music and writing is key to creating a space for people to share difficulty and resolution, he said.
“I learned that if there’s an authenticity and genuine sentiment in the work I produce, it’s better for the craft of the art, for the listener, as well as for the artist,” he said.
“When we write things that are authentic, it’s like getting something off your back and sharing it. And through that process, you meet other people that have gone through that and it makes you feel less isolated.”
When Mery says that the power went out during the harsh winter storm of February 2021, he means it in multiple ways.
While Mery was hit less hard by the storm, Guerra’s home lost power and water, enduring rolling blackouts that allowed five minutes of electricity every few hours. Mery said those in power were absent when they were needed most, and have largely escaped accountability for their failures.
The two musicians decided to honor the significant moment in Texas history with an 11-song exploration of their experience released on the storm’s one-year anniversary.
Song titles tell the tale, from “Introduction/A Chance of Snow” to “wiltd grdns (REMIX)” and “Change (in the weather).” Strikingly, “100 hours (freezing)” pairs audio of news reports with drums, as does “E.R.C.O.T.,” which in its fiercely pointed drumming makes a mockery of the Texas energy council’s name.
“It was a life-changing event,” Guerra said, and Mery — under the name Merykid — said he hopes that making an album about it will in some way help keep the conversation alive and hold people accountable.
“As long as people are talking about events or stories, then there’s a chance that there will still be room for accountability,” Mery said as San Antonio prepares for another arctic cold front predicted to bring days of subfreezing temperatures to the region.
Though Leal lives in Los Angeles, he grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and he and Guerra have remained friends since playing drums together in the Phantom Regiment drum corps in 2010.
When Leal heard Deathbloom, he contacted Guerra with the idea of making a similarly themed album, this time on the societal tumult of the past few years. Guerra was familiar with Sanderson’s justice-themed poetry and invited her to contribute spoken word performances, which helped shape the project that came to be titled After Now.
The first song begins with Sanderson intoning the words “We await for a time after now” over solo saxophone, then continues with “on an uneven plane,” which Guerra described as addressing social inequality and political instability through jagged syncopation and growling saxophone.
Other tracks adopt hip hop rhythms and jazzy intonations, shifting frequently between dark and light tonality. Sanderson’s poetry takes on racial violence, school shootings, and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, but resolves with determination:
We are desperately in need of something uplifting
A wellspring, a silver lining
Some sun shining apart the heavens
Rays of light to slice away the intolerance
Let’s find a balance, some guidance back to civility
and the ability to work together
Guerra said the tone of the album is a direct reflection of the fight between pessimism and hope for a better future.
“Obviously music is not going to actually stop bullets, or stop wars or things like that. But it can get people thinking, and it can get conversations going and just be a reflection of what’s happening around us,” he said.
Each of these album-length recordings can be purchased in digital form on Bandcamp.