Three of Austin’s Most Creative Men
By Andy East; Photos by William Russell
There is nothing more human than creativity. In fact, everything from the streets on which we drive to the art that inspires us is the product of ingenuity. Given Austin’s fabled music scene, it should come as no surprise that the Live Music Capital has long been seducing the artistic spirit of creators the world over. But Austin’s unique mélange of artists transcends its insatiable appetite for music and extends into the realms of literature, dance and film. ATX Man takes you inside the creative minds of three of Austin’s most prolific creators—New York Times best-selling author Stephen Harrigan, critically acclaimed composer/bandleader Graham Reynolds and Ballet Austin’s award-winning artistic director and choreographer, Stephen Mills—as they reveal the driving forces behind their illustrious creations.
Although best-known for the New York Times best-selling historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, Stephen Harrigan is a former staff writer, senior editor and current contributor to Texas Monthly. He has authored nine books, four screenplays—including HBO’s The Last of his Tribe starring Jon Voight and TNT’s King of Texas starring Patrick Stewart—and dozens of articles that have appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Life, National Geographic and Slate. Harrigan has won several awards including the TCU Texas Book Award, the Spur Award for Best Novel of the West and, most recently, the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the American Society of Historians for his latest novel, Remember Ben Clayton.
“Writing a good sentence is like hitting a baseball just right,” says Harrigan. “What’s frustrating is it’s hard to hit a baseball just right. You swing and miss a lot. There’s no guarantee that the harder you try, the better it’ll be. You’re always working with blind faith that there’s this perfect sentence that you just can’t grasp.”
Although Harrigan strives to maintain a work routine, his creative process is comparable to literary backpacking, as he navigates through his research and planning while maintaining a flexible itinerary to explore the story that is unfolding before him.
“You need to plan to a certain degree, and then you need to jump in before you think you’re ready so you’ll see where the characters and landscapes of the book are going,” says Harrigan. “I come out [to my office] every day. I wake up to go to the gym or take a walk. I’m usually in my office by 9 a.m. on a good day, working on books.”
The amount of research involved with writing accurate historical fiction is a demanding task, even for a New York Times best-selling author. For his latest novel, Remember Ben Clayton, Harrigan travelled to France and even meticulously researched the brands of chewing gum that could be found in stores in early 20th-century France.
“I try to be honest, precise and emotionally rich,” says Harrigan. “Whether I succeed at that, I don’t know. But those are the values I aspire to as a writer.”
Harrigan confesses he is not the same writer that he was when he scored his first big break with the publication of The Dawning of the Age of Armadillo in the nascent Rolling Stone Magazine in 1972.
“Now I’m less interested in literary effects and elegant phraseology [than before],” says Harrigan. “I’m more interested in the story and the characters. It used to be the writing itself that excited me, and now what excites me is communicating what’s in my head directly to the readers.”
With a bibliography comprised of several critically acclaimed books and screenplays, it follows suit that choosing a favorite may be toilsome. But if asked to name the three oeuvres he is most proud of writing, without vacillating, Harrigan would likely rattle off the titles of the last three he finished in chronological order.
“I’m most fond of [my most recent work] becasue I haven’t had time to fall out of love with it,” says Harrigan. “The further away in time you are from something you’ve written, the less impressed you are with it. I always equate it to your high school yearbook. There you are, forever enshrined just as you were. It can be embarrassing.”
“There are books—without naming names—that I don’t think were the right books for me to have written at that time,” Harrigan continues. “But you don’t know that. You keep plugging away. Some are more successful than others, but the ones that aren’t pave the way for more successful ones. In my mind it’s all one big project.”
Harrigan, an Oklahoma native, has spent all but five years of his entire life in Texas, growing up in Abilene and Corpus Christi. As a longtime Austin resident, he has witnessed the metamorphosis of the city’s writing scene.
“The more I lived in Austin, the more interesting it got,” says Harrigan. “I feel the city and I grew up together. There’s a lot of great writing in Austin. [The writing scene] is thriving. It’s bursting at the seams. I feel at home in all sorts of ways. But especially in the way that I am surrounded by people who understand the kind of work I do and do that kind of work themselves. It’s a real community.”
Recently inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, Harrigan has no plans to rest on his laurels and does not worry about running out of new material.
“The idea that, ‘Wow! I’ve done that now!’ is a foreign concept to a writer,” says Harrigan. “You’re always trying to better yourself, write a book that’s better than the last one, one that is more appreciated, one that tells a story in a different way. It’s endless. It all still remains to be done.”
Visit stephenharrigan.com for the latest updates on Harrigan’s work and appearances. You can also catch him at the Texas Book Festival, Oct. 26-27, promoting The Eye of the Mammoth.
Three Influential Writers
Ernest Hemmingway “I’ve had all the standard influences as a writer. Hemmingway is probably the strongest, but I actively try not to write like him. But once you read his work at an impressionable age, it’s in your DNA.”
Willa Cather “I think she was one of the great American writers. With her, like Hemmingway, there was a supernatural clarity to her writing. It’s breathtaking.”
Hillary Mantel “She is someone who has really impressed me lately. [Her books] are almost spooky with how they take you back in time.”
The Eye of the Mammoth
Released in April, this career-spanning compilation of essays highlights the best non-fiction in Harrigan’s fourdecade career as a writer for several magazines including Texas Monthly and The Atlantic.
The Gates of the Alamo Harrigan’s famed work was a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book, and won the TCU Texas Book Award, the Western Heritage Award and the Spur Award for the Best Novel of the West. Maxwell Jones of Newsweek called The Gates of the Alamo “masterly storytelling… Harrigan makes us care afresh…The result is a genuinely moving epic.”
Remember Ben Clayton
The Wall Street Journal heralds Harrigan’s latest novel as “a poignantly human monument to our history.” It also won a Spur Award, the Jesse H. Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters and, most recently, the James Fenimore Cooper award for the best work of historical fiction.
Heralded as “the quintessential modern composer” by The London Observer, Austin-based composer/ bandleader Graham Reynolds has genre-meshing sonic tapestries that have spawned a panoply of critically acclaimed film, theater and dance scores, resulting in dozens of awards including the Lowe Music Theater Award, an AMP Award and five Austin Chronicle Best Composer Awards. Besides film scores, Reynolds’ diverse works include more than 50 alt-classical concerts, five symphonies, two concertos, a touring live-action graphic novel and he is a member of Austin theater companies Rude Mechanics and Salvage Vanguard Theater.
“Music is very friendly. It gives me an excuse to meet other people,” Reynolds says. “I can create on my own or collaborate with others. It never ceases to be fresh and exciting, but it’s also a language unto itself [that is] most overt when you are improvising with other musicians, creating new phrases, sentences and paragraphs.
“It’s a very complete experience,” he continues. “Take acting [for example]. Acting is performative, but it’s not something you can do by yourself. Acting without an audience doesn’t feel complete. Music has it all.”
Reynolds’ collaborators run the gamut from actor and Tenacious D frontman Jack Black and film director Richard Linklater to DJ Spooky, Ballet Austin and Forklift Danceworks. With such a wide array of projects and collaborators, Reynolds’ creative process can greatly vary from project to project.
“The process depends drastically on what the project is,” says Reynolds. “It’s coloring the lines of that concept and flushing it out. I try not to put the editor hat on and let it all come out.”
Oftentimes, Reynolds will listen to other music and write additional parts to it.
“I will, in my head, be playing a different guitar line or a different string line,” he says. “I write it down and take away the pre-existing music to build up new music. It usually ends up sounding nothing like what I was originally constructing on top of.”
Physical spaces also provide the Austin-based musician with sources for inspiration, allowing him to journey deeper into the ethos of place. Reynolds cites a recent trip to Marfa to experience the West Texas city in preparation for his upcoming project The Marfa Triptych, commissioned by Ballroom Marfa.
“I spent time in Marfa and took notes,” says Reynolds. “I try to have my head swimming in the language of the place or whatever world I am writing in so an idea is developed in a half-conscious, half-unconscious way.”
While Reynolds has had a big impact on the Austin music and art scenes, the Live Music Capital has also influenced his music.
“Austin’s always had an exciting [music] scene,” he says. “It was always reasonably diverse and reasonably active, but it has gotten a lot stronger and more diverse. What really impressed me here was the country music scene. It has always been a pillar of quality for Austin.”
Reynolds, a Connecticut native, recalls visiting Austin for the first time in the 1990s.
“I grew up in Connecticut close to New York, but I felt I wanted to see another part of the country. San Francisco was too expensive, and I play the drums and other loud things, so an apartment wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to have a special practice facility. I was [in Austin] for an afternoon, and I loved it. I came back as a follow-up to South By Southwest to confirm. South By Southwest is a pretty good sales pitch for a musician, and I could have a house.”
While living in Austin has provided Reynolds with a creator-friendly environment, since coming to the Live Music Capital, Reynolds has also evolved as a musician.
“I’ve tried to embrace things I tried to resist at first,” explains Reynolds. “I tried to avoid predictability or worry about things that had been used before. By the end of the 20th century, [there were] these ideas of the more you push the boundaries, the better. It’s easy to mathematically come up with music. To create something new is not nearly as special as people think. Newness has become equated with value. I love to explore, but there are many ways to value music, and newness is just one of those ways.”
Reynolds continues to expand his repertoire and is currently working on an album with Austin-based country singer Dale Watson that will surely regale our eardrums for years to come.
“The list of things I want to do will never end,” says Reynolds. “There’s always a new person to collaborate with, new genres to explore or redefining what I’ve already done.”
Visit grahamreynolds.com for the latest on concerts, albums and projects.
Three Influential Musicians
Sergei Prokofiev “The thing I love about early 20th-century classical music is that it was in a weird transitional phase from being a popular act to an academic art, where music went from being written taking the audience into consideration to not taking the audience into consideration. It goes from being a conversation with the audience to being a monologue.”
Duke Ellington “Jazz was in a similar phase [as early 20th-century classical music], from being dance music to becoming academic music. You escape certain parameters by going from dancing music to listening music. You don’t go the Broken Spoke and play country music you can’t dance to. Ellington crossed both periods. He has the perfect balance between improvising and composing, not only composing for an instrument, but for specific players. He was a good coach.”
The Beatles “The Beatles are just inescapable. It’s hard for any Western musician that has anything to do with rock or pop to deny that the Beatles are a major influence. To me, they were the most influential rock musicians of the 20th century. They were in a constant state of exploration. They blew up the parameters they were playing in, pushing the boundaries, but they still had a core that could communicate to a wide audience.”
Sept. 21–22, Star of Texas Fair & Rodeo
PowerUP is the third and final installment of a trilogy of collaborative dance efforts with the Forklift Danceworks and the City of Austin starring linemen and women from Austin Energy, with 20 utility poles, bucket trucks and cranes as props. Reynolds’ score will be performed by a 30-pience ensemble featuring Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor Peter Bay. forkliftdanceworks.org
The Marfa Triptych: Three Portraits of Texas: Part One: The Country and Western Big Band Suite
Nov. 16, Crowley Theater, Marfa, TX
Featuring an eclectic 13-piece country band including Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert, Dale Watson collaborator Ricky Davis and Reynolds’ band, Golden Arm Trio, the night will pay a musical tribute to West Texas live from the high desert of Presidio County. Ballroom Marfa has brought on Reynolds to debut one piece annually for the next three years beginning in November.
Before Midnight (2013) Rife with alluring piano and guitardriven compositions worthy of the Greek Isles, the soundtrack for Richard Linklater’s latest feature film starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is a must.
Bernie (2012) This soundtrack has it all. From Austin country music and vocals from Jack Black to classical compositions and Egyptian rhythms, Reynolds’ score captures the soul of Richard Linklater’s quirky true-crime dark comedy.
Duke! Three Portraits of Ellington (2011) Reynolds conjures up the spirit of Duke Ellington in this stunning exploration of the jazz legend, combining jazz, big band and string compositions.
A Scanner Darkly (2006) Reynolds’ score for Richard Linklater’s cinematic adaptation of author Philip K. Dick’s legendary existential nightmare is touted as the best soundtrack of the decade by Cinema Retro Magazine.
Even during his inaugural season as Ballet Austin’s artistic director 13 years ago, critics extolled Stephen Mills for the originality of his choreography. In 2004, The Washington Post went so far as to declare Mills “one of the nation’s best kept secrets” after Ballet Austin’s performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
And Ballet Austin has not missed a step under Mills’ direction, blossoming into one of the highest-regarded ballet companies in the U.S. Mills has won several awards for his choreography, including recently taking top honors at the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur International Choreographic Competition and the Audrey & Raymond Maislin Humanitarian Award by the Anti-Defamation League for his seminal work, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. But if asked, Mills is quick to point out that destiny can strike when you least expect it.
“[Until college], I didn’t know ballet as an art form even existed. It didn’t register with me,” says Mills. “In high school, I got into theater. When I graduated, I got a theater scholarship to a small college in Northern Kentucky and I was required to take a dance class. The second I stepped into the studio, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
“When I was 8, I had encephalitis, and I was in a brief coma,” Mills says. “The fact that I was able to walk in the end was miraculous. So sports were not part of my life. When I went to college and I learned that I could use my body like this, it was a revelation.”
Fast-forward to today, and Mills has choreographed more than 40 works in the U.S. and abroad, establishing himself as one of the world’s most innovative voices in ballet. “Making dance is always interesting,” says Mills.
“It’s like writing. You’re standing there in front of the blank piece of paper and people are waiting for you to do something. You’re on the clock. The idea that you build something massive from nothing and you do it with your body is just mind-blowing.”
Mills’ creative process is often collaborative, allowing for spontaneous interplay between him and the individual dancers.
“The thing I love most about making dance is the collaborative part, working with different artists, and afterward it’s either good or bad,” says Mills. “But people make art because they need to make art. What happens afterward is insignificant.”
“When I go into a studio with dancers, sometimes I have an idea and sometimes I don’t,” he continues. “I give them movement tasks such as, ‘I want you to inscribe the alphabet with your right arm,’ and send them away in little groups. We go back and show each other what we’ve done. There’s not a lot of danceable moves, but it starts a conversation that we can build from.”
From classical to contemporary ballet, Mills’ work covers myriad themes, even taking ballet into uncharted territory with his award-winning work on the Holocaust, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project.
“It was simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding, and continues to be so,” Mills says. “It was hard because of the obvious reasons. You’re talking about one of the most catastrophic events in human history and trying to draw lines of relevance from 70 years ago to today, crossing generations. A dance about the Holocaust is ridiculous if you’re not doing as much teaching as you can. But it brings out the best in people and the spirit of volunteerism in the community.”
Ballet Austin is going to Israel in September for five performances, with the final performance taking place in the theater where the Adolf Eichmann trial took place. Although Mills has created in works all over the world from Hong Kong to Cuba, he is more than grateful for the opportunities and environment Austin has provided.
“I came to Austin 25 years ago as a dancer needing a job,” says Mills. “The community is very supportive. I’m allowed to do pretty much what I want. Art can only flourish in an environment where there is philanthropy. That’s just the way it is. Here at Ballet Austin, we have built a nice support and structure about the work we do. We don’t have to go out and make the case for our work. We have people in the community that are very generous, and because of that generosity, we are able to do what we do.”
Visit balletaustin.org for more information about Stephen Mills and upcoming productions.
Mikhail Baryshnikov “As a man starting out dancing, I don’t think I could’ve landed in a better period than the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Mikhail Baryshnikov from the Kirov Ballet in Russia defected, this explosion of dance happened. The level of the man in classical dance became elevated. He became an influence as setting an unreachable standard for me.”
George Balanchine “[As] the director of the New York City Ballet, he was certainly one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century and had an influence on me as a dance maker.”
Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project Since premiering in 2005, this full-length, contemporary ballet has been celebrated by critics across the U.S. and abroad for its focus on discrimination and the protection of human rights. The project was made possible through the support of several organizations including the Holocaust Museum Houston, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Endowment for the Arts, and consisted of the dance, a public lecture series, teacher development, an outdoor art exhibit and community dialogue.
Hamlet Mills’ modernization of Shakespeare’s classic harrowing tale of vengeance set to the music of Phillip Glass has been seen all over the U.S. performed by several ballet companies.
Cult of Color In collaboration with Graham Reynolds and Houston-based visual artist Trenton Doyle Hancock, Cult of Color tells the story of a vegan priest that is propelled on a quest to bring color to the black and white underworld.
Ballet Austin Upcoming Events
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Sept. 13–15
The Nutcracker Dec. 7–23
Ballet Austin in Israel Sept. 21–24
Ballet Austin is gearing up for a five-show tour of Israel, performing at the September 2013 Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre in the Western Galilee Region of Northern Israel, where they will perform Light/ The Holocaust & Humanity Project. The final performance will be at the Beit Ha’am theater in Jerusalem, the location of the trial of infamous Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of the logistics of relocating Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
3M Grant for Innovation Sept. 2014
Mills has recently been commissioned by 3M Corporation to create an original ballet based on the concept of innovation, premiering September 2014. “It’s the largest commission I’ve ever gotten,” Mills says. “3M Corporation is making a nice investment in the arts.”