Sounds, and Sweet Airs: Houston's AFA

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan

The day I realize I’m one of those so-called “millennials” is when I go to meet Michael Remson at Double Trouble and have a brief moment of anxiety before I leave the house. How are we supposed to find each other if we have never met? Even with people I know at places we meet all the time, it’s still common practice to text and say, “I’m here!” upon arrival.

My need for connectivity is not going to be met. Remson and I are not Facebook friends. I don’t have his phone number. I don’t even know where I’m supposed to park because it turns out Double Trouble is on the part of Main Street where parking is more of a hunt and peck situation. Luckily, there’s street parking a couple blocks away. The walk back toward the coffee shop involves tip-toes: the gauzy caution fences of some building under construction jutt out into the sidewalk, the concrete already lopsided.

As I enter Double Trouble, I discover it’s more a bar than a coffee shop. I do the one thing I can do to make myself more recognizable: I wear my Brazos t-shirt. It feels a bit like a clandestine meeting in a spy movie (I’ll be the one in the red t-shirt with the dog on the front…). Is this how people found each other before cell phones?

Remson is already there and glances up at me as if this is a routine we keep every Friday. We talk about the weather. It’s been raining for days. Remson has been trying to fight off a cold but says that today is the day he feels like he’s starting to lose. The sky is gross, the slushy color it becomes before a rain, which does not bode well for outdoor commitments the next day: I’m supposed to work the Rice Village Flea Market, and he is part of the 28th Annual Houston Art Car Parade.

I am the thing between Remson and home/dinner/sleep. He upgrades his beverage from a coffee to a beer.

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“So way back, you know, twenty years ago when we started, that first summer was forty-three kids, and this year, all the programs taken together, I think we’ll top out at about 1800 kids who will be involved with AFA in some way or another.”

This is the quintessential non-profit fairy-tale, something someone like Remson always hopes to be able to say. Currently, he serves as AFA’s Executive and Artistic Director, a position he has held since 2004, but he has been with AFA since the beginning.

What is AFA? Formerly American Festival for the Arts, AFA is Houston’s “largest non-profit provider of music education programs.” In the summer, AFA hosts its signature Summer Music Conservatory, where instrumentalists and composers study with AFA faculty members in sessions that range from three weeks (piano, choir, string orchestra) to six weeks (symphony orchestra, composition). Summer 2015 will also introduce two brand-new sessions: a one-day workshop for All-State Choir (high school students) and a week-long workshop for Elementary Choir (third through fifth grade).

With the success of the Summer Music Conservatory, AFA started year-round initiatives five years ago, including after school programs, the Houston Girls Chorus, and programs for young composers. The key to these programs, Remson tells me, is partnership: “We have what we call a presenting partner, which is a major arts organization here in town who has helped us co-develop these programs and is involved in putting resources into them.” Their top three partners? Da CameraHGoCo (the education wing of the Houston Grand Opera), and the Houston Ballet Academy.

In conjunction with the year-round programs, AFA also launched a series of in-school residencies “where we put a professional musician in a classroom, usually a classroom with a teacher, to sort of enrich and enhance that program in various ways.” According to Remson, music programs often “just don’t have enough time to stop and do some of the more fun things that they might like to do, or they might feel that they don’t have the expertise on some levels to do.” Sometimes there is external pressure, such as administrations wanting to have an enormous amount of programming. “Or [sometimes] you just need more bodies, you know, just more teachers in a room.”

Though it’s a smaller area of focus, AFA also works to “[bring] music programs into schools for kids with developmental or physical disabilities” through a series of programs called “Music in the Mind.” Each program focuses “on the goals of the school.” Prime example: the AFA is in its third year residency at the Center for Hearing and Speech. The school’s goal is to train children with cochlear implants to develop their speech and language skills so they can be mainstreamed as quickly as possible. There, AFA faculty “tends to focus on vocal things for them, where they do anything from singing to storytelling to rapping to practice speech and language skills in that context.” The hope is that “music just becomes another vehicle for the school to achieve its goal.”

Remson tells me AFA is “not that mission-driven” but the message is clear: that AFA is flexible and willing to send faculty where they’re needed. “And what, ultimately, the vision is,” Remson says, “is that AFA can be a place where kids can check in at various points along their musical development.” Because Remson knows that “no program can be everything to everyone for your entire K-12 experience.” However, if AFA has something to offer students at every level, they will be free to “go off and pursue whatever it is they’re pursuing and when they’re ready to come back that there’s a getaway for them to plug back in to what we do.”

In other words, it’s not about numbers or branding. It’s about what’s best for each student.

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Though AFA will celebrate its twentieth anniversary this year, the AFA Collaborations Concert only came to be in 2012. “It’s a little complicated,” Remson says, “but the first thing to know about it is that one of the reasons it was created was to give us a vehicle to showcase our faculty.” With eighty teaching artists a year, the platform to perform is not nothing, especially since it’s important for the kids to see what their teachers can do. The second goal? “To showcase the incredible roster of composers that we have had involved in our program both as faculty members and as alumni who have gone on to do some really great stuff.” Lastly, as collaboration is essential to AFA’s livelihood, AFA wanted to have a means “to be able to approach other arts organizations to do collaborative shows together.”

The process, on paper, is simple. Remson picks a theme, approaches an artist or organization, and “we basically create the context for how it’s gonna happen.” Once that is secure, Remson invites a current or former faculty composer and an AFA alum and commissions new works based on the year’s theme. This year, the theme was a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

This is where it gets complicated: the chosen organization this year was (you guessed it!) Brazos Bookstore. Though we have readings all-year round and certainly enjoy music, the store itself is not necessarily a performance space, or at least not the first place you would think of when hosting a contemporary music concert. Remson worked it out this way: “So with Brazos, of course, we wanted to commission and create two narratives that were connected to the theme in some way or another and then have those narratives inspire the musical works that were created.”

The composers—AFA founder J. Todd Frazier and AFA alum Hugh Lobel—“really had the option of incorporating the narrative in any way they wanted,” but both of them decided to just use the texts as inspiration. Consequently, the pieces, written by Gulf Coast poetry editor and UH Creative Writing PhD candidate Christopher Brean Murray, and Brazos marketing director Benjamin Rybeck, “will be read before the performance of the music.”

Though Remson commissioned Rybeck’s piece “Conducting,” Brazos did some commissioning, too, in the form of our first-ever writing contest. Writers were asked to submit a piece based on this year’s theme; the only limit was that it be no more than 500 words. We gathered the submissions and sent them to our esteemed judge Ben Fountain, who chose Murray’s poem “Blue Jay Variations.”

Lobel and Frazier, paired with Rybeck and Murray respectively, are no strangers to collaboration. To AFA, Lobel says, “Working across, through, and in-between artistic mediums has taught me much more about what human expression is capable of, and has shaped the very core of who I am as a composer.” In an email to me, Frazier adds, “I find I am most inspired and do my best work when collaborating, either with another art form or extra musical subject, such as a historic event, poem or text.”

With writers, though, it’s different. Rybeck elaborates: “I am an uneasy collaborator—too possessive, too prickly. I want everything to go my way.” However, this type of collaboration, one that happens in stages, suits him fine. “I get to write a thing in private, and then someone else gets to do a thing in private,” he says. “I can’t wait to see [and] hear what Hugh comes up with.” As for Murray, he says, “Writing a poem is like dreaming while awake, and sometimes music can help induce that waking dream-state that isn’t always easy to access.”

Music and words. Words and music. Maybe not as odd a pair as they seem?

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From talking about the collaborations concert, Remson and I delve into all sorts of topics, ranging from AFA’s 20th Anniversary Concert, which will honor the aforementioned Frazier (and hopefully raise money for a bus to help move students to concerts and rehearsals around town), to technology, to whether as a Wisconsinite I like cheese—too much to put here. Then, he finishes his beer and returns to the subjects of his impending sickness and the rain. The bar has become a little louder as dinner hour approaches.

“Oh boy, that was good,” Remson says, setting down his empty pint glass. “I don’t think I feel any better, but it was good.” I ask whether he’s into craft beer, and he says no, another sign that Remson and I are from different times. He names the beer (Wittekerke) then says this like a mantra: “Just a delicious beer. Just a delicious beer. Something to be said for delicious beer.”

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