Arts / Performing Arts

Turning Beloved Texas Places Into Theatrical Music Shows — Montopolis Proves It’s Not Just Another Indie Group

Catch The Living Coast Live in Houston and Dallas

BY // 09.13.21

If we could depict Texas as music, what would it sound like? Admittedly, the Lone Star state shines so vast even the greatest composer might not dare contemplate such a question. But what about some of our most vivid and vibrant landscapes like the San Marcos River, Enchanted Rock or Big Bend? Translating these Texas places into music has turned into something of a quest for Austin’s indie chamber music group Montopolis and its founder Justin Sherburn.

PaperCity recently talked with the composer as Montopolis prepares to perform its latest theatrical concert in Houston (this Saturday, September 18 at MATCH) and Dallas (September 25 at Texas Theatre), an epic musical journey along The Living Coast.

Sherburn says after years of being a “sideman” in rock, jazz and even tango groups, an opportunity to compose scores for silent film screenings led him to create Montopolis. Calling on fellow musicians and friends who played with the Austin Symphony, Okkervil River, Tosca String Quartet and Polyphonic Spree, Sherburn put together an ensemble that could merge rock, country, folk and classical roots into a contemporary classical sound ideal for accompanying visual storytelling.

A Music River Turns

It wasn’t until Texas documentary filmmaker Anlo Sepulveda asked Sherburn to create the score for his award-winning film Yakona about the San Marcos River, that Montopolis found its musical path into the Texas great landscapes. One screening with their live accompaniment lead to a tour, then the realization that this would be the ensemble’s new mission.

“We did that one show that was a great experience for everyone involved,” Sherburn says of how one show become a tour. “It felt unique, regional and specific to our communities and culture. That sent us on the path of doing more Texas nature-centered work.”

Staying local, Sherburn turned his composing sights onto Enchanted Rock and then, with growing musical and ecological ambition, to Big Bend. With each project the shows became more theatrical. Sherburn worked with either a photographer or cinematographer to capture place images but he also collected stories of the people who have lived in or experienced the area.

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“In central Texas everybody has a story about Enchanted Rock,” Sherburn says. “People have a real relationship with it.”

With each production, the live performances have evolved into a theatrical production due to both the subject matter and theater venues they found themselves playing. The founder of Montopolis describes each show as much more of a theater performance than a concert.

Coastal Stories

The musical journey from the desert and mountains of Big Bend to the Gulf Coast might seem to swerve, but Sherburn says it happened organically. While composing The Legend of Big Bend, he talked with scientists and environmentalists, and those stories lingered when looking for the next project.

“Water and the petrochemical industry are the two things on the forefront of any environmental scientist’s mind in Texas,” Sherburn says.

Around that time, he also had started reading more about the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, something growing up in North Texas that he hadn’t learned much about.

A scene from The Living Coast shows how arresting this show can be.
A scene from The Living Coast shows how arresting this show can be.

With this Gulf inspiration, Sherburn called on Anlo Sepulveda for his cinematography skills, and along with drone pilot Reagan Jobe, they headed along the Texas coast in 2019 to collect images, scenes and stories of present day life on water and land. Sherburn composed music along the way letting the waterscapes and stories inspire him. The film they shot and the interviews he gathered became the bases for song vignettes in the production.

“We were down at Port A two summers ago and I talked to a surfer and he tells me about what it’s like to be a surfer in Port A,” describes Sherburn of his creation process. “I would take that quote while Regan flies his drone and gets this amazing footage of people kitesurfing. Now we have two pieces of that narrative.

“Then, I go and write a rock and roll meets contemporary classical piece, jubilant fun music. That’s the vignette.”

Weaving these scenes and moments together, The Living Coast sets audiences adrift into life on the coast for over a century.

“The first act is anchored by the story of the Galveston hurricane, and the second act is anchored by Hurricane Harvey,” says Sherburn, who describes The Living Coast as a work of light and life as well as tragedy. “Here is the story of humanity on the Texas coast. Here is our past and here is a future, which is being spelled out by scientists.”

Music Topographies

When I asked how depicting these Texas landscapes in music leads him to create very different sounds for each, Sherburn notes that each place inspires very different sounds, starting with the instruments. Enchanted Rock evokes “a beautiful minimalism” that reflects modern American minimalism like the work of Steve Reich or Brian. When creating music to capture the enormity of Big Bend the sound needed to become broader, bolder and more Copland-esque, Americana.

As for The Living Coast, Sherburn believes sea, sky and human coastal life require “more celebratory and active” music.

“I added a trumpet, more horns and celebration,” he says. “We got a lot of great imagery from Galveston and Mardi Gras became a theme. It sounds a lot more modern, more rock and roll and celebratory jazz stuff.

Montopolis Live 1
Depicting the Gulf Coast with music called for celebratory horns.

Of course, the hurricane sections required dark and dramatic musical changes. “You follow this narrative and create music that supports whatever story you’re telling,” Sherburn says.

From river to desert to mountain and seas, Montopolis’s musical meanderings across Texas have lead the group to a greater mission — to emphasize both the majesty of the land but also some of the fragility.

“Basically, what we’re trying to do is de-politicize the conversation around climate change,” Sherburn says. “We start with celebration and we end by connecting our audiences with scientists, so they can learn de-politicized information about the future of the Texas climate.”

In this way, art, science and state pride can find harmony within a Montopolis performance.

“We have the ability to go around the state into every different political context and have an equal celebration and reverence of the natural wonders of our state,” Sherburn says. “We can go to Lufkin, to Waco, Dallas and play for a variety of audiences and everybody can get behind it.”

Montopolis performs The Living Coast at Houston’s MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston) on September 18 and at Dallas’ The Texas Theatre  on September 25.

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