Butler alum shares lessons learned with current students

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Robert Honstein, photo by Elisa FerrariAs a graduate student at the Butler School of Music, Robert Honstein (M.M., Composition, 2007), said he recalls listening to guest speakers and alumni of the college come back to share their work, their stories and advice to a successful music career.

“I learned so much from that,” Honstein said. But it also left him wondering, “How do I get to where you are?”

Since that time, Honstein has begun to find that path. He completed his D.M.A. at Yale University and has since worked as a composer both on his own and with the collective Sleeping Giant. And in March, he came back to the Butler School from his home in Boston to share some of his journey.

“I’m just starting out. I’m at the beginning. There’s something good in sharing about the value of being in that in-between place,” he said. “It’s not too long ago I was a student, so I have that perspective of building my career.”

Honstein’s visit coincided with Eighth Blackbird’s performance of Hand Eye at McCullough Theatre. Sleeping Giant composed the piece, Hand Eye, which was commissioned by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival and co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall. The Austin performance date included visual projection to accompany the music, which was made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Texas Performing Arts.

Honstein specifically discussed the creation of Hand Eye, which was different than the usual commission. Typically when a new work is commissioned, Honstein said he has free-range to compose music within time, space and instrumentation parameters. For Hand Eye, the Frankel Foundation asked the composers to look at its private art collection in Detroit, select a piece, and write music based on it.

Honstein selected Six-Forty by Four-Eighty by Zigelbaum + Coelho and created a 15-minute piece of music, Conduit. Composing within the collective added another layer.

“When you’re by yourself, you only answer to yourself,” Honstein said. “In a group, you have to maintain integrity and work that into the collective vision.”

That included merging the works together into a cohesive show, determining the order and then setting the music with the Eighth Blackbird musicians, who were vocal about what sections worked and didn’t. In the end, Honstein said each element of collaboration made Hand Eye that much stronger.

Aside from his work as a composer, Honstein also co-founded Fast Forward Austin with fellow Butler alums Steven Snowden (D.M.A., Composition, 2014) and Ian Dicke (D.M.A., Composition, 2012). Through small concerts and its eight-hour marathon concert each spring, Fast Forward aims to bring classically trained musicians and their music to younger audiences.

“We try to find alternative venues for music typically seen in a concert hall to take away the formality and etiquette. It’s more comfortable,” he said. “It’s a trend happening all over the country. In Austin, there are so many young people here. That crowd might be interested in our music in the right setting.”

Thanks to Fast Forward, Honstein visits Austin a couple times a year, and hopes to continue to give back to the Butler School.

“UT was the first time for me that everything was just about music. I sang in the choir, I would go sit in on symphony rehearsals—just having all that happening was really thrilling. I dove in,” he said. “It was a great experience. I learned so much.”

Photo by Elisa Ferrari