Montopolis weaves photography, video, live music and narration for "The Living Coast," their latest tribute. Photos courtesy of Montopolis.

Texas Green Report logoMay 26, 2020

Montopolis is an Austin-based orchestral rock band that creates multi-media performances that showcase the ecological jewels of Texas. Featuring original music by Justin Sherburn, the traveling shows weave history, storytelling and ecology with photography, video and live music to bring attention to regional treasures and the threats they face.

The group was set to perform a live show next month in Dallas, sponsored by Green Source DFW and the Dallas Sierra Club but it had to be canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus threat. Prior to the cancellation, Amy Martin talked to Sherburn about the inspiration behind the group and their latest show The Living Coast for the Texas Green Report, a production of Green Source DFW and the Memnosyne Institute.

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(MONTOPOLIS MUSIC INTRO - 'SURFING LOVELY')

AMY MARTIN: It can be difficult to travel to the world’s wild places. Family and work obligations, time and money constraints. So how do you get people to care about land they’ll never experience?

Montopolis, an Austin performing arts ensemble, feels they’ve found a way. We’ll get to know them in this episode of the Texas Green Report, a production of Green Source DFW and the Memnosyne Institute. I’m Amy Martin.

You’ve been listening to original music by composer Justin Sherburn performed by Montopolis from their latest show, The Living Coast. The group fuses live music, narration and storytelling with videotaped interviews. Visuals are projected on a large screen behind the musicians.

Justin SherburnJustin Sherburn composed the music for "The Living Coast."

JUSTIN SHERBURN: A live performance demands your attention. It focuses energy of everyone in the room. You can't turn your head away. It demands your attention and your meditation on the topic at hand and that's really what led us to this form. A nature documentary is a wonderful thing, but what we do you can't turn away from. You’re there, you are part of an experience, a live experience and it's emotional because we're expressing emotion in that moment. It's more of a communal aspect of people coming together to better understand the world and to celebrate it

AMY MARTIN: Montopolis is pure Texas. Their shows bring to life the state’s most scenic and epic places: Big Bend, Enchanted Rock, San Marcos River and now the Gulf Coast. Their sound is all Texas, too. Blues-rock electric guitar bumps up against pedal steel, Texas swing pairs with country & western. Yet it’s also a sophisticated chamber music ensemble with string and brass sections. All of it propelled by a rock-band rhythm section and Sherburn’s powerful, artfully arranged keyboards. 

MontopolisMontopolis features members of the Austin Symphony, Okkervil River, Tosca String Quartet, and the Polyphonic Spree.

JUSTIN SHERBURN: Every Montopolis show has different instrumentation because every landscape requires, you know, different tonality. For The Living Coast, we really wanted to focus on the celebratory aspects of it. You know, the coast is a place where people are active. It's teeming with life and we wanted to express that. We went to Mardi Gras in Galveston and shot a lot of video and that celebration had a real impact on us.

(MONTOPOLIS MUSIC - 'MARDI GRAS GALVESTON')

AMY MARTIN: The Gulf Coast embraces contrasts as big as Texas. Vast flat salt marshes, undulating coastal plains and bright beaches coexist with the adrenaline-fueled recreation of wave and kite surfing. And these both must make peace with marine industry: fishing boats, oil refineries, wind farms.  

JUSTIN SHERBURN: People surf, people shrimp and work, so you know there's much more instrumentation. There's a trumpet and trombone, there's the typical strings we have: violin, viola, cello. I think we're a little more rockin’ this time just because it's a fun place. It's a place where people go to vacation. So we have a great wonderful rock guitar player Greg Parsons. It's definitely a more celebratory AND instrumentation overall. 

AMY MARTIN: As a composer, Sherburn tackles the challenge of conveying a sense of a place through sound. The music for Legend of Big Bend was open and epic, a sense of vast spaces and the Old West. Mystery infuses the Enchanted Rock score. The music for Yakona about the San Marcos River is slippery like water, sometimes rushed, sometimes languid. 

The cinematic style varies, too. The fluid otherworldly look of The Living Coast is crafted by producer and cinematographer Anlo Sepulveda of Austin. His eye turns oil refineries and cargo ships into works of geometric art. 

Drone pilot Reagan Jobe of Fort Worth contributes dynamic aerial and underwater camera footage. Drone cameras skim coastlines, chase surfers across waves, dive into the sea in search of dolphins. It is nothing less than thrilling.

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron. Photo by Anlo Sepulvada.

JUSTIN SHERBURN: I've just been very fortunate to put together an amazing team on this project. My long time collaborator is Anlo Sepulvada and we first worked together on a film called Yakona, his film and he hired me to compose the soundtrack for it. We ended up touring out that as live show. He had a particular interest in underwater photography and in capturing this aquatic world. So he really centered on that and got really good at capturing that specific environment. Probably more importantly Anlo is from Corpus Christi and grew up on the coast. He was really a driving force behind doing this specific show because he was really inspired. 

 He spent days upon days upon days going up and down the coast and he knew where to go, he was his location scout. I went down there on just a few trips with him to Corpus Christi, into Surfside jetties, the Matagorda Bay area and we took along Anlo and Reagan Jobe, who is an old friend of mine from high school and a wonderful photographer and specifically a drone pilot. So there is just incredible drone video throughout The Living Coast.

We’d go to Corpus Christi and we'd film surfers and oil refineries and the shrimpers out selling their shrimp on the pier. So we just captured a lot of stuff. It's a very, very complete visual portrait of the Texas coast. 

AMY MARTIN: An overriding message of The Living Coast is that humans exist at the mercy of weather. A dramatic focal point of the show is the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. It killed upward of 8,000 people and destroyed a majority of the island’s structures. 

With sepia-toned archival photography as a backdrop, voice actor Robert A. Kraft reads historical news excerpts and shares stories from survivors. He brings a heartbreaking reality to the human toll. The urgency is captured in a heart-stopping and dynamic musical score.

(MONTOPOLIS MUSIC - 'GALVESTON HURRICANE')

Driftwood on Texas Gulf CoastDriftwood. Photo by Anlo Sepulvada.

AMY MARTIN: Global warning and rising sea levels already impact the gulf. The Living Coast showcases this by interviewing coastal naturalists and climate scientist Dr. Wendy Gordon. UT ecologist Megan O'Connell often joins them live and provides educational outreach before and after the concerts. 

JUSTIN SHERBURN: One of the wonderful things you know that feeds me in every performance is hearing that emotional reaction from people. There's a few different moments in The Living Coast where I can actually hear people’s emotional reaction. I think one part of the show that really gets people… So I wrote the music to about 95 percent of the show — it's funny I'm talking about this but — so there's this… I think it's this combination of a song that everybody knows and the specific imagery in that moment. We do this version of Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain by Willie Nelson as an instrumental song and it's accompanied by these beautiful images of children on the beach and they're just playing, they're playing in the water and it's a beautiful scene. I think that just inspires everyone. It's the sense of hope and the sense of why we're doing this, why we would discuss climate change and do something about climate change. It's direct answer to that question because they're beautiful young children on the beach and I think that that just really reaches people. They see their own children. 

AMY MARTIN: Watch and listen to clips from The Living Coast and other Montopolis productions at MontopolisMusic.com. Visit our website at GreenSourceDFW.org to read a prior feature on the group. For the Texas Green Report, I’m Amy Martin. 

(MONTOPOLIS MUSIC CLOSER - 'PLAY LONGER')


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