All in the Family

A session at Sugar Hill Studios reveals the hidden sounds of fathers and sons

Early on, Tom kept his hand in music. He served as the assistant conductor for the Houston Symphony Chorale for nearly five years in the '60s. He was even the choir conductor at the Bering Memorial Methodist Church in Montrose for about five years during that same decade, sometimes leading Erich in mini musical productions. But as life's pressures started to mount, Tom began to abandon his muse. "As things became more complex ... I didn't have the energy anymore to write," he says. His composing and conducting chores slowed to a trickle in the '70s, and by 1980, "I just really quit."

That may be why, at Sugar Hill studios, he remains silent much of the time, nervously lighting cigarette after cigarette. The composer says he doesn't look forward to reading the reviews of his music, if and when it reaches the consumer. It's the kind of comment that says Tom expects negativity, and he's already had enough of that, either from himself or someone else.

Tom's sometimes critical personality had its effect on Erich. When asked to describe their early relationship, Erich, sitting with his back resting against the acoustical cushion that lines a studio wall, remains silent for a few seconds. He then looks up at his father, who is a few paces away, and asks, "How would you describe our relationship?" "Adversarial," is all Tom says.

As the day moves along, little truths about their relationship float to the surface. Erich offhandedly admits that he ran away from home several times as a teenager. Tom knows he was a major reason why. Father would come home from work to find his son picking away on an electric guitar. Erich knew his father didn't like rock and roll and electric guitars, so he usually practiced unplugged, picking away on unamplified strings.

This recording session, in a way, is a healing session. It's a chance for Erich to say, "I respect you and your music, despite it all." Erich began putting the sessions together about a year ago; it was important for him to give his father's compositions the loving studio care they deserved. So he hired the best musicians he could find, rented the best piano he could get (the nine-foot Steinway is the "Rolls Royce," he says) and hired his old friend Bradley, an engineer who has worked with Erich on "hundreds of sessions," including the guitarist's two eclectic instrumental albums.

The Avingers -- son, father and mother -- are now in the process of editing and mixing the raw tapes of Tom Avinger's music. They'll eventually manufacture about 1,000 discs and tapes for distribution. A European label has expressed interest in releasing the CD overseas, and Austin-based Heart Music may do something with it domestically.

This recording session means different things to the different Avingers. Tom tries to shrug off the whole affair, saying only that he considers himself simply a consultant on a project, there just to ensure its quality. But if you ask Erich what it means to him, he pauses reflectively. He knows this music has influenced him in profound ways, both as a composer and a listener. He knows that, had things gone a little differently, he could have been the pianist playing his father's tunes in the Gold Star studio. But he also knows he wouldn't have felt comfortable following his dad's footsteps into classical music. His path, the one he selected so many years ago, followed the sounds of jazz and rock.

After his long pause, Erich finally answers the question of a father's music and a son's passion.

"I just had all this cute shit running through my mind," he says, immediately dismissing all the pop-psychology possibilities. "It means I am free to love my dad the way he ought to be loved .... It means we are free from the past, our adversarial relationship."

Then, as if to prove that freedom, Erich expresses something that he has perhaps thought for years, but could never articulate.

"I've always been in awe of my dad. He's a fucking genius," Erich Avinger says. "No music that I ever did could be as good as his.

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