The Man With the Golden Arm

Graham Reynolds looks bored. It is a Thursday night in downtown Austin, and Reynolds is onstage at the Mercury Lounge. Around him swirls a flurry of last-minute activity: cellos being tuned, reeds adjusted, microphones positioned, sheet music riffled and organized. But Reynolds–wearing a guayabera, combat boots, union-blue military pants, and an array of hoop earrings–remains sedate, his impossibly lanky figure slouched nonchalantly over his piano. The crowded bar is awash in a sea of dyed hair, pierced lips, tight pants, beat-up boots, and tattoos, all adorning the same rock and roll kids you might find in any rock club across the country.

The difference is that tonight’s program consists entirely of music from the western classical tradition. The event is “Classical Hoot Nite”: a play on the rock club tradition of “hoot nites” in which different musicians get together and pay tribute to bands like ZZ Top or the Rolling Stones. It’s a celebration to mark tonight’s premiere of “Classical Crossover,” the radio show which Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski of the local jazz/ska/metal band Brown Whornet host for KMFA, Austin’s classical station. Reynolds’s band, Golden Arm Trio, is the headlining act. Alongside bands such as Brown Whornet and the Blue Noise Band, they are here to tackle works by Gershwin, Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, just to name a few.

If all this seems a little incongruous, it should. For years, the audience for classical music has been well defined and severely limited. On one hand were the experts, the connoisseurs, and on the other were the easy listeners. But increasingly, classical music is finding an audience among young people outside the classical mainstream. What’s more, musicians who have only played in punk or indie rock bands are composing original classical music, bringing classical music into the 21st century and into the clubs.

It is well after 1 a.m. when the Golden Arm Trio begins. They launch into a vivid theme from Tchaikovsky, the violin leading stridently through the sturm und drang of the accompanying instruments. Reynolds is at the center of the stage, wedged between a drum kit and a piano. His unassuming posture and laconic manner belie the fervor of his playing. He is known for his particularly aggressive manipulation of the piano, and his drumming style, while technically adept, draws much more from the world of rock than that of jazz or orchestra. In short, he plays loud. Reynolds whacks the body of his piano with drum sticks or uses the length of his forearm to strike the keyboard. Sometimes he even employs the extracted viscera of an upright piano, the strings laid out like a prostrate harp, Reynolds crouching above the innards, beating them with mallets and methodically plucking them with a small slat of wood, like Jackson Pollock hunched over one of his canvases. Tonight the piano remains intact; it’s the music being dissected.

At the end of a sweeping glissando, Reynolds brings his left hand crashing down into an atonal chord, and the band abruptly stops. Leaning forward into the center stage microphone, he intones, “Thanks. That was Tchaikovsky.”

In the 19th century, Franz Liszt scandalized Europe with his maniacal assaults of the piano keyboard and his well-publicized Don Juanism. Huge crowds attended his concerts, and high-society women would swoon and gasp as he played, sometimes attaching cameos of his image to their gowns. Today, classical music may not generate such idolatry, but Reynolds still manages to pull off something of Liszt’s pop star appeal. He’s an unlikely sex symbol: intellectual, friendly, vegan, and terrifically deadpan–what’s more, he takes a genuine interest in people. This seems to resonate particularly well with women, and it’s become a matter of course to find him surrounded by a posse of female admirers.

Reynolds already has Liszt beat in another category: Whereas Liszt did not begin to compose orchestral pieces until well into his forties. Reynolds, 30, can already chalk up a full-scale symphony and concerto. In two years, Reynolds has gone from being just another band guy to being one of the most prolific young composers around.

When he came to Austin in 1993, he didn’t know a soul. Bored and near broke, he divided his time between free shows at Emo’s, the local punk rock dive, and free classical concerts at the University of Texas. Like many before and since, he had moved to Austin for its music scene (and its housing market: “I thought about New York or San Francisco,” he says, “but since I had drums and a piano, I wanted a house.”) He started placing ads in local papers in the hopes of putting together a band. “When I moved down to Austin, I had a few grand plans. I wanted to piece the band together person by person so that we would be a solid unit in any combination.” Reynolds soon had a three-person combo on his hands. Around this time, a musician he had met, Jeff Keyton, introduced him to Buzz Moran, a doorman at Emo’s at the time. Moran recalls, “He came into work one night to see Jeff. After he left, I was making fun of Jeff for knowing a vegan, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I know, but you’ve got to hear him play. He plays like a meat-eater.'” Keyton brought in a tape of the band’s first recording, a live set on local radio station KUT, and Moran was sold. “I hadn’t heard anybody in Austin play like that. I couldn’t believe that nobody had jumped to put out a record for him, so I just did it.”

Reynolds has been playing piano since he was five years old. He grew up in Bethany, Connecticut, where he shared a house with his brother, his parents, and his mother’s day care program. “I used to play with the kids all the time on the piano. I’d have one kid on my lap, another kid up here, another kid down here, and we’d all be playing eight-hand piano.” It was experimentation like this that started to steer him away from traditional styles. “My brother and I started improvising, and our classical teacher didn’t know what to do with us, so she sent us to a jazz teacher. We weren’t playing jazz, but the only people who taught improvisation were jazz teachers.” Later, while attending Connecticut College, Reynolds became disillusioned with academic music altogether and instead majored in Latin American History. He poured his musical energy into playing with bands and doing college radio. It was there that he developed his taste for underground music. “I relate more to Sonic Youth than avant-garde jazz. You take Mix Master Mike and you compare him to Louis Armstrong or Bing Crosby. I mean, pop music has developed more in the past century than either jazz or classical.”

This helps to explain why the Golden Arm Trio’s first show was at Emo’s. “Buzz got us our first gig,” Reynolds says. “It was a Monday night. Dollar pints and stuff. Events that night led to [our saxophonist] no longer playing with us. So, after one night of playing, the Golden Arm Trio was a duo. But we kept the name.” Eventually, things started to thin out even more when the bass player started missing gigs. “I’d be at the show, and he wouldn’t come, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I got all my stuff here, we’ve got an audience here,’ and I just played. After that it became me and whoever played with me.”

These days, the group features an ever-changing lineup, with instruments as varied as cello, sax, vibraphone, violin, trombone, double bass, and bass guitar, and has released two records (Golden Arm Trio and Why the Sea Is Salt) on Moran’s Shamrock Records. The music swings from rock to classical to klezmer. Taking cues from bands like Sonic Youth and composers like Henry Cowell, the group often makes improvisational forays into the art of noise: The saxophones squawk and squeal; the violins beat their strings with pencils rather than bows. Says Reynolds, “I never set out to consciously create a style. I always assume that if my musical personality is strong enough that will come out on its own.” But if Reynolds’ musical personality is one of manic exploration, his sober, vegan self seems to suggest a contradiction. Moran offers some clarification. “Graham only became a vegan because his brother, Keith, bet him a dollar that he couldn’t do it for a month. Well, he won the bet.” He adds, “Graham will do absolutely anything to win a bet or a dare. It’s the same thing as him deciding he’s going to write a symphony and calling forty-two people and convincing them to play his symphony.” Which is exactly what he did.

“I never went through the academic music system myself, so I never learned the ‘basics.’ So, writing the first symphony seemed like as good a way as any to learn how to write the first symphony,” explains Reynolds. When Brown Whornet’s Stopschinski heard about Reynolds’ plans, he suggested they join forces. The most daunting part of the endeavor was to wrangle all the musicians they would need. The first to enlist were local string hotshots, the Tosca String Quartet. Ames Asbell, the group’s viola player, describes the experience of working with the two novice composers. “I didn’t expect them to be nearly as rock and roll. I couldn’t believe these guys wanted to do this kind of stuff. They were really gutsy to do it.”

On February 12, 2000, the two original symphonies were performed at the Scottish Rite Theater. The years that Reynolds and Stopschinski had spent playing in clubs paid off. Even the balcony was filled, but it wasn’t the usual symphony crowd. Hipsters and musicians, decked out in their vintage suits and dresses, came out of the woodwork to mingle with the professors and aficionados. The symphonies created such a buzz that South by Southwest, the yearly music industry festival, asked them to do a repeat performance to coincide with the festival. The effect on the composers was tremendous. Says Stopschinski, “I was really surprised that people gave a damn that we did this kind of stuff.”

The two immediately embarked on a whole series of performances ranging from chamber music, concertos, brass and percussion ensemble, and bassoon quartets to concerts for solo trombone and solo clarinet. The series became so popular that it acquired its own title: the Golden Hornet Project. When Randy Harriman, program director at KMFA, stumbled upon one of the shows, he was surprised to find a large crowd of young people “sitting around, drinking beer, and listening to chamber music.” He recognized an opportunity to reach a new audience and enlisted Reynolds and Stopschinski to create a show called “Classical Crossover”.

In a sense, the radio show is a culmination of their entire project: the merger of underground and classical music. In addition to giving a name to the kind of musical exploration they’re doing, it allows them to seek out other musicians who are treading on similar ground. For Reynolds it’s a matter of course that musicians should be composing for themselves. “Players in an orchestra have choice about very little… they’re taught not to put their individual mark on a line, unless it’s a solo. It makes me wonder what the emphasis was for becoming a musician if you’re going to dedicate your life to it and then not have the power to express.” Many musicians who grew up playing classical have jumped ship for that very reason. They see the rigid formality of classical playing as too limiting.

Increasingly, groups have emerged that combine classical elements with cues from other more popular genres. San Francisco’s Tin Hat Trio ranges from chamber music to bluegrass to tango. The group Rachel’s composes everything from standard string quartets to orchestral pieces that include electric guitar, drum kit, even musical saw. The German group, Alles Wie Gross, promotes what it calls “chamber rock” in which a tight rhythm section of drums and bass lays down solid rock grooves while a string quartet flies over the top with different levels of intensity. Many of these musicians are refugees from the classical scene. Some are just ambitious punk rockers. But, most importantly to Reynolds, they’re all composing original classical music.

Even within this musical vanguard, the Golden Arm Trio continues to push the envelope. Plans are in the works for a second symphony, a concert for string orchestra, and, yes, even an opera. The group is also taking steps to ensure its legacy. Golden Arm Trio is venturing where few bands dare to go. They’re taking it to the kids.

The new Austin Lyric Opera building is a bold, postmodern assembly of earth tones and polished steel. It suggests a contemporary approach to opera, an approach accentuated by their recent ad campaign which features copy like, “Sex, violence, sword fighting. A night at the opera.” But on a balmy day last spring, the building hosted a performance of a more innocent sort: a children’s piano recital.

For the first Golden Hornet children’s music recital, Reynolds and Stopschinski had composed an entire program of children’s music for the piano. A cast of about 20 local children, ages five to sixteen, were on hand to perform it. With the exception of one high-schooler, the young performers were the students of Golden Arm alum Laura Phelan.

Piano recitals can be pretty nerve-wracking, especially for the performers, but for the most part, the kids seemed confident if a little nonplussed at the bizarreness of some of the music. Only once did a performer, a mortified eight-year-old girl, abandon the piano in the middle of the piece. Many of the compositions had been named by the students themselves, and the program featured selections ranging from “The Crab” to “It Just Makes Me Giggle,” which, appropriately enough, elicited several giggles from the young crowd.

The show ended with David Lewis, a Westlake High School student, performing a largely improvised piece along with Reynolds and Stopschinski, the three of them tagging in and out until, at the end, all six hands were banging away at the keyboard. It was a rousing finale, with plenty of flair and excitement. After the show, everyone gathered to eat cookies baked by Reynolds and Stopschinski. A couple of kids wandered over to the piano to plink away, and in no time, Reynolds had joined them, occasionally lifting them to pluck the strings in the back. For Reynolds it was a brief return to the carefree days of his mom’s day care. Very brief.

A week later, the Golden Arm Trio would set out on a 25-day tour, piling into the Golden Arm van with an arsenal of instruments and self-produced recordings, and driving the entire perimeter of the country. They were scheduled to play in a few galleries and theaters, but mostly in clubs–because even with all the chamber music, symphonic music, and classical crossover, these guys are still very rock and roll. And what would they be listening to on the road? Says Reynolds, “Predominantly Merle Haggard and Prokofiev.”

Chad Nichols is a musician and freelance writer living in Austin. Two Golden Hornet symphonies will be performed Oct. 6 at the Austin Lyric Opera Building.

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Published at 12:00 am CST