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All in the Family

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

Erich Avinger gives the impression of being everything his father is not. The younger Avinger, a Houston guitarist who has taught virtually every six-string player worth hearing in this town, talks passionately about his dedication to music. He talks about how he has learned to live with the emotional fear and financial insecurity that comes with artistic endeavor. He talks about why it was necessary to put his career on hold during a particularly sweaty week in May so he could preserve the music of one of his favorite composers at Sugar Hill Recording Studios.

Erich Avinger talks a lot.
Tom Avinger, on the other hand, doesn't. Tom is a mirror opposite of his son, Erich. Erich is a nervously thin man whose long blond hair is frequently tied back into a ragged tangle that only slightly resembles a ponytail; Tom has a protruding belly that's in danger of popping the lower buttons on his blue-striped shirt, and his short hair is gray and neat. He's a man of few words, and mostly self-effacing ones at that. When he thinks no one is watching, Tom looks sad. His eyes droop and the corners of his mouth sag. He smokes thin brown cigarettes at an unconscious and alarming pace.

Unlike Erich, Tom hasn't devoted his life to music. Security, stability, keeping his family -- including Erich -- comfortable have been Tom's top priorities. But that dedication came with a price tag; it meant putting his earliest dreams and desires on hold, dreams that had once included being a full-time classical composer. Instead, he worked as a computer programmer in the oil industry. It was only at night that he could sit and let the sounds he heard in his head wash over him. While the children slept, Tom Avinger wrote oratorios, an opera, chamber music, cantatas, sonatas and piano variations.

Eventually, the pace wore Tom Avinger down, leading him to abandon composing in 1980. But by then the father's creativity had burned a hole in the son's psyche, and helped push the son toward his own musical career. And that's partly why these two men -- father age 65 and son age 38 -- are now standing around Sugar Hill's old Studio A. Erich and his mother, JoAnn, are doing something that Tom could never pull off during his reluctant, part-time music career: recording some of Tom Avinger's compositions with the love and seriousness they deserve. JoAnn has financed this endeavor, and Erich is serving as the project's producer, a gift of sorts being returned from one generation to another.

It is Thursday, May 25, four days into the weeklong recording session. Pianist Rodney Waters, a staff accompanist at Rice University, is poised in front of a nine-foot Steinway that has been rented especially for the session. Waters is in the studio working on Tom Avinger's Sonata for Piano, a dark, restless and partially atonal composition that Erich calls ''my favorite piece of music on the planet .... There is more musically going on in that piece than any other piece I am aware of.''

Tom wrote the sonata in 1967 for David Appleby, who was then the head of the piano department at Houston Baptist University. Tom also wrote the Sonata for Violin and Piano -- a tense and dissonant piece -- for Appleby's daughter, Kathryn, in 1968. The now retired Appleby has performed Tom's Sonata for Piano several times around the country and has even recorded a few of those performances. But they were always recorded under circumstances that could only be called less than ideal.

Sitting alone in Sugar Hill's Gold Star studio, Waters maneuvers his way through the sonata's three tricky movements without pausing. A few of the passages are dense and enormously difficult. When Waters emerges from the studio, he immediately receives his reviews from Erich and Tom, who have been standing around Sugar Hill engineer Andy Bradley's cramped, wood-lined booth, following along with sheet music.

"That sounds good to me," Tom says after Waters' second take. "Do you feel like you can do it any better?"

"I don't think I can do it better," Waters responds. "But I can do it differently."

"This one felt sunnier," Tom says. "The other [take] felt a little more reserved."

"This one felt more like yours," Erich chimes in.
This recording process is obviously nerve-wracking for Tom. It's taken him a long time to get in this situation. A child of the Depression, he was born the year of the stock market crash in Weslaco, Texas. Tom's father, a farmer in the Rio Grande Valley, declared bankruptcy during that dark economic period. The hard monetary lessons were not lost on a young Tom.

Still, when he attended Baylor University, he did so in pursuit of his earliest dream: to compose music. He graduated from Baylor in 1952 with a degree in music composition and theory; five years later, he received a master's in composition and theory. He even married into music. His wife, JoAnn, graduated from Baylor with a degree in sacred music.

JoAnn figured the young couple would live the boho life, renting a garret in New York City and composing music. But when Erich was born, familial responsibility kicked in for Tom. The year before, he had accepted a full-time position in Louisiana with the Humble Oil and Refining Company -- the precursor of Exxon -- doing clerical work for petroleum engineers, but now the job had a permanent quality about it. After all, it was a stable way to support a young family. Four years later, Tom was promoted to the computer position, and the Avingers moved to Houston. Eventually, Tom spent just short of 41 years working at Exxon.

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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