Attendees wearing wireless headphones observe as an ensemble performs Nathan Felix’s The War Bride behind glass doors, making the performance mostly silent to those not wearing headphones.
Attendees wearing wireless headphones observe as an ensemble performs Nathan Felix’s The War Bride behind glass doors, making the performance mostly silent to those not wearing headphones. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A familiar San Antonio denizen, the Mexican freetail bat, might hold a key to enjoying the Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival to its fullest. Both do their main work at night, and both rely on sound to communicate and navigate in the dark.

Of the more than 50 artists and artist groups invited to take part in the 11th annual Luminaria at Hemisfair, at least half used sound as a key component of their work.

Taken as a whole, the crowded Hemisfair grounds were alive with a cacophony of melodies, beats, spoken word, songs, and voices throughout the cold evening Saturday.

“We all do sound,” artist Xavier Gilmore announced as his 7 p.m. performance was overtaken by several children eager to join in on his synthesizer noise tribute to San Antonio percussionist Bongo Joe. Gilmore referred to the children’s raucous interference, and their parent’s admonishments, as well as his own performance.

The same inclusive spirit animates the Luminaria festival, according to its organizers, meant as an exposure to contemporary art accessible to all.

Traditional forms of music were presented on the main stage, with a lineup of local indie rock, pop, and hip hop favorites. Other stages offered a variety of musical, spoken word and performance forms, including a reading by author Nan Cuba on the indoor Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México stage, which also offered warmth on a 48-degree November night.

Cuba preceded duo Juan and Armando Tejeda, performing the “Xicanx” blend of indigenous, Mexican folk and conjunto music featured on their new album project, Raiz XicanX, to be released at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center on Nov. 17.

Outside UNAM, hundreds of festivalgoers negotiated long lines between food tents offering sausage on a stick, roasted corn, and empanadas. One festivalgoer was heard to exclaim, “Where’s the art?” to her companion. With many Hemisfair buildings illuminated in the same brilliant rainbow colors of LED lights as many of the featured artworks, the difference was difficult to distinguish.

Down one level in the grotto area, where the River Walk enters the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center footprint, wandering festivalgoers might have wondered why so many people wore headphones.

Up to 200 pairs of sleek, black plastic headphones had been distributed for composer Nathan Felix’s The War Bride, a “headphone opera” written especially for Luminaria. While an ensemble of musicians and singers performed locked inside the glass walled LDR Room of the convention center, audience members who had procured headphones listened in to a libretto about Felix’s late grandmother Jean Groundsell, who was a teenager in England when World War II broke out.

Baritone Jeremiah Drake sang into a headset microphone while seated near a pool. To those without headphones, he was simply a lone voice singing in the grotto’s echoey chambers, while headphone wearers heard the full ensemble he accompanied.

The headphones make you feel like you’re in your own world, Felix said as his ensemble prepared to perform. Wearing them “really cuts you off from the world and brings the music so close to you. You’re inside a motion picture,” he said.

Similarly, sculptor Riley Robinson’s Voice Over “sound mirrors” offered attendees a chance to hear each other at a distance. Each radar dish-shaped sound mirror was positioned on either side of the river but reflected voices as though they were near. Robinson intends to install the piece at points on either side of the United States-Mexico border in the near future.

Rose Chagolla, a native San Antonian and first year Luminaria attendee, used the parabolic microphone  to talk with her sisters across the river. “I heard them clearly, but they said they just heard me mumble,” she said.

Of the Luminaria festival, which she said she just happened upon, Chagolla said, “It’s really pretty. There’s so much to do and look at. I had heard about it before, but I just don’t know why we never came.” She said she definitely plans to attend again.

With accessibility to all a major theme of Luminaria, an “Open Gallery” and “Open Stage” were offered new this year, giving any San Antonian the chance to sign up online or in person for a chance to display their artwork or onstage talents.

A hardy crowd of about 40 withstood cool breezes near the Magik Theatre as solo singer Allyson Alonzo, who performed on the main stage of the Día De Los Muertos festival Nov. 1 at the Rinconcito de Esperanza, crooned love songs during her 9:30 p.m., ten-minute sign-up slot.

Nearby, in the historic Schultz house on the Nueva Street Hemisfair promenade, a live tattoo performance by artist David Alcantar impressed tattoo designs by San Antonio artists Joe Harjo, Ethel Shipton, and others on the bodies of several intrepid Luminaria audience members.

While sound occurs, hits eardrums, registers, then fades into the night, these audience members took home permanent reminders of Luminaria’s impact on San Antonio.

Others, new to the city, took home lasting impressions of a less literal kind, along with responsibilities. Agave Apartments residents Alex Molinari and Francesca Hill recently moved to San Antonio from Florida. Having stumbled upon Luminaria on Friday during installation, they came back for Saturday night’s events.

Molinari and Hill each accepted potted plants illuminated with a portable LED lights from a participatory installation by artist Patty Ortiz. Ortiz’s complex work, incorporating video, text, and performers dressed in floral costumes, focused on “Dreamers,” as young immigrants in the country illegally who were brought here as children are called. Audience members were asked to receive a live plant to take with them.

“I feel like it’s a big responsibility, but I really like the symbolism of it,” Hill said.

Of Luminaria, Molinari said, “The thing I like is there’s a lot of families here. I think it’s making something unique available to everybody.”

Luminaria continues Sunday with artist workshops and demonstrations from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Hemisfair and a special performance by classical music ensemble Agarita from 4 to 7 p.m. at Mission San José. Check the website for more details.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...