Montopolis is the headliner for the GSDFW Awards Nov. 14. Photos courtesy of Montopolis.
Oct. 8, 2019
For most people, Big Bend is a myth. They’ve never been there. They’ve read an article perhaps, seen photographs, maybe a documentary. Big Bend is what they conjure it to be in their mind, undoubtedly romanticized to the max.
So how do you get people to care about the land they’ll never experience? Can the urgency of a live arts performance convey enough sense of place to create compassion for a landscape and its inhabitants?
To Montopolis, the answer is yes. The Austin collective fuses performance of original music by composer Justin Sherburn, with live narration and storytelling, plus taped interviews, all set against a film backdrop.
North Texans will get a chance to see for themselves this fall. Montopolis will perform The Legend of Big Bend at the Green Source DFW Sustainable Leadership Awards on Thursday, Nov. 14, at the Dallas Arboretum.
“Our shows focus on people’s relationship with the land,” says Sherburn. “We read historical texts, and also from personal accounts of people that lived there. We include poetry about the landscape and a little science.”
Sherburn gathered the ensemble to perform live scores to silent films and then expanded into modern film soundtracks. Yakona by Paul Collins and Anlo Sepulveda about the San Marcos River spurred Sherburn’s interest in focusing his creative endeavors on nature.
Montopolis’ next project was a live multimedia show, Enchanted Rock, merging landscape photography by Rip Shaub with legends of the massive granite outcropping. The group hit its stride with The Living Coast, about Texas’s Gulf Coast, “the collision and conflicts between the fossil fuel industry, the natural environment on the coast, and climate change,” says Sherburn.
DOCUMENTING AN ICON
“Big Bend is an inspiring landscape,” says Sherburn. “It is vast and iconic and gives you a great perspective on just how small and insignificant you are. Going there is humbling, and that is a great departure point for writing music or creating anything.“
Sort of a cross between chamber music and rock and roll, the music of The Legend of Big Bend features guitar, trombone, bass, drums, piano and a string trio. Montopolis taps into members of the Austin Symphony and Tosca String Quartet, as well as Okkervil River and The Polyphonic Spree.
“There is a great deal of collaboration,” says Sherburn. “Although I compose all the notes for the classical musicians, we work together on articulation and phrasing. I leave room for improvisation with my rock and country players.”
The Legend of Big Bend incorporates Old West stories of Texas Rangers, bandito raids and train robberies. Interviews with residents, naturalists and scientists who call the vast high desert wilderness their home fuse with music composed to reflect their experiences and the emotions behind them.
“The narrative elements are also very collaborative,” says Sherburn. “The current script for Big Bend was developed by award-winning screenwriter Peter Mattei. Our narrator Robert Kraft and I are constantly refining the stories and their delivery.”
With a musical line-up of string trio, guitar, piano, trombone, bass and drums, the sound for Big Bend is, well, big. A vital part of the Montopolis impact is the audience’s sensation of physical vibrations resounding from acoustic and electric instruments.
“It’s more than just watching the next documentary about Big Bend National Park,” says Sherburn. “It’s our physical presence. It’s not sitting in your living room watching a cold static screen. It’s a living experience.”
“I think what is needed right now,” continues Sherburn, “is that statistics and numbers have kind of lost their meaning in a way to communicate urgency. So it falls to the storytellers to communicate what the scientists and journalists cannot.”
The Legend of Big Bend and The Living Coast become historical records of nature. As the rapaciousness of development continues, these type of productions may someday be the only way these areas remain in memory, for humans to understand what we wantonly lost.
“We try to remind our audience of the preciousness and the fragility of the land,” says Sherburn. “We would love for people to come away with a renewed respect for their environment and be inspired to take action to protect it.”
'The Legend of Big Bend' at the Green Source DFW Awards
About: North Texas green heros will be honored at the annual Green Source DFW Sustainable Leadership Awards hosted by Green Source DFW and its parent organization the Memnosyne Institute. The Austin-based performance group Montopolis will headline the event this year with a multi-media work entitled The Legend of Big Bend. The show incorporates live music, film, storytelling and poetry to showcase the park's beauty, biodiversity and history.
When: Thursday, Nov. 14, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Where: Dallas Arboretum, 8525 Garland Rd, Dallas
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