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Montopolis, the rock and roll chamber, orchestra will perform at the MFAH.
Montopolis, the rock and roll chamber, orchestra will perform at the MFAH.
Photo By Sunday Ballew

An Interactive Experience: Montopolis Performing the Legend of Big Bend at the MFAH

Every Texan knows when to clap during “Deep in the Heart of Texas” but not every Texan has had the chance to see the stars burn big and bright. Montopolis, an Austin based rock and roll chamber orchestra, is bringing The Legend of Big Bend to Houston’s MFAH, bright stars and all.

This special event will feature a live performance intertwined with footage of the natural landscape, as well as interviews and stories about the national park. It will be a multi-sensory experience designed to transport the audience to West Texas and the journey will be led by Austin based composer, Justin Sherburn.

Sherburn started Montopolis while still playing in indie rock band Okkervil River and Glover Gill’s Tango. Gill has been a Houston fixture with his long running, weekly residency at Houston’s Continental Club. “I came to know the Tosca String Quartet and through working with Glover and playing tango music, I got interested in writing and composing music on the page.” says Sherburn. Discussing Gill Sherburn says “He’s been a real mentor to me over the years. He’s really taught me a lot about music and life. He’s a great guy.”

He describes the melding of the two genres, “The basic idea was to combine my indie rock friends with my classical music friends.” Sherburn began by scoring music for silent films and Montopolis performed in theaters in and around Austin but he felt his projects were lacking a key element. “The thing about that is it’s pretty two dimensional. People like to sit in a darkened room and the music really becomes secondary. I wanted to do something that was a little more interactive.”

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The composer beams when discussing his band, “Montopolis is what I do and I love it because we can be extremely dynamic. We are a small chamber orchestra; we can be a tiny little string trio, very simple, quiet and meditative or we can be a very loud rock band. I like to work with that and be that dynamic, be very loud and get very small and quiet.”

Sherburn began to focus on Texas landmarks and the impressive natural landscapes the state possesses and wanted to draw attention to the power and importance of nature. He previously scored the award winning film Yakona, about the San Marcos river. The film takes the viewer through the life of the San Marcos River from the time of the indigenous people to now. It is a powerful reflection of all of the hard working ecosystems bubbling beneath our modern world.

Montopolis also recorded the album, Music for Enchanted Rock, and partnered with photographer Rip Shaub to take audiences on a visual and audio trip to the well known pink granite mountain. Listeners will have to fight the urge to skip their planned exit and just keep driving.

With his latest release Sherburn hopes to once again inspire audiences to look around at the nature in the great state of Texas. This time, he explored the landscape and legends around the Big Bend National Park.

When asked what drove him to focus on this park Sherburn says, “It’s an incredibly dramatic landscape. I think most of Texas is rolling hills or just flat lands. We don’t associate Texas with stunning geography, like California or Wyoming normally, but when you go out to West Texas it’s stunning, its dramatic, it’s unearthly. Its this place that seems like an entirely different country, a different planet.”

He describes the ease of inspiration provided by nature, “Out of this minimalist masterpiece you have this incredible mountain range and geologic activity out there that is just stunning. The first time I was out there I was kinda overwhelmed.” He continues, “It does have that element of untouched. Even if you’re in a car out there it can be hours before you’re going to get anywhere. There’s this element of danger that’s just inherent with being out there and that’s really exciting. There are all kinds of things out there that just are ripe for material to write music about.”

For The Legend of Big Bend Sherburn partnered with filmmaker David Barrow to capture the magnificent beauty of the park. He traveled alongside Barrow to conduct interviews for audio material featured in the multimedia presentation. “We get all perspectives; poets, historians, scientists and anybody who has some experience that they want to share.”

When asked about the inspiration behind the stories and voices featured Sherburn says enthusiastically, “We have a lot of stories! We have stories about train robberies, Texas Rangers, bandidos raids, and Glenn Springs. There’s also a wonderful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye about the stars at Big Bend.” He adds, “It’s just combining all of these things and the thread that ties them all together is the place.”

Sherburn’s desire is to add the dimension he felt was missing from his work on silent films, “It’s really interactive and that’s a big part o

f the show, getting people to interact and think about land and environment.”

Sherburn was recently awarded a grant from the Texas Historical Foundation for his next project about the Texas Coast with a focus on the Galveston hurricane of 1900. He describes the organic partnership, “They support people who are documenting Texas and touch on Texas history in some way. All our shows are themed around places in Texas so we always include a bit of history, it’s not the entire focus, but it’s really nice to get perspective. For me it’s all just inspiration for music, for the writing of the music.”

Montopolis will perform the Legend of Big Bend, Sunday April 28, The Museum of Fine Arts,1001 Bissonnet, 3-4:30 p.m., tickets $15. Albums will be available for purchase at the MFAH and Sigs Lagoon.

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