P. G. Moreno, Epistrophy Arts, and a Year without Rituals
Peter Brontzmann and Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten meet their students at Epistrophy
by Robin Storey Dunn
I don't know Pedro Moreno, other than to see him at shows, but it's been twenty years of shows, so it feels like I know him. He's the vision and labor behind Epistrophy Arts, a small nonprofit that brings free jazz and improvised music to Austin, Texas. Sam Rivers, Hamid Drake, Sunny Murray, and William Parker; Fred Frith and Henry Threadgill; groups from Central America and Europe, artists who never would've gotten here otherwise.
It's been more than a hundred shows. Moreno's there when the door opens, greeting everyone with a fan's irrepressible smile. Unassuming and unobtrusive, he darts around the room and attends to details. The venues change, and music is never the same twice, but the audience is familiar; we're excited to gather, sit in the dark, and focus our senses.
When the music starts, it comes from every direction, bouncing off the walls and settling in the middle of the room; it spins a sensory web. It says, This is what free sounds like. It's a rare audience for Austin; no one talks over the band. The audience moves and shakes quiet as Quakers.
That's how it is for me, anyway. I don't know how anyone else feels. Faces across the room reflect delight.
I grew up in a small, strange church, a Holy Ghost church. The music was never the same twice. When the Spirit came, and it usually did, a pre-programmed beat from a Wurlitzer organ and a cacophony of voices led to something ecstatic, medicine for body and soul. The closest thing I've found since are Epistrophy Arts shows. Strange sounds, something you'll never hear again, and you're only there because you were called, because you heard something so few hear. It's a rarity that touches on the sacred.
We haven't gathered in more than a year, a year without rituals. With summer approaching and expectations of venues reopening, I reached out to Moreno to see how he's doing and find out what's next for Epistrophy Arts. Before the shutdown, he said, he had a complete 2020 season booked.
"I thought we were gearing up for what was going to be one of the most amazing years. It's such a hard thing to wrap my head around. I mean, the first thing Epistrophy Arts is about is the live experience. The whole communal, live in-person experience, that's been the focus, and I've dedicated myself to that."
Moreno's dedication is manifest. Over twenty-two years, he's presented more than a hundred shows. He hosted a long-running radio program, and through a side project, Adventurous Jazz in Schools, he's brought artists like Fred Frith into local classrooms. He's fostered a dedicated fanbase. Austin's improvised music community, nascent in the late nineties, has flourished since Moreno began booking shows. It's a small community, a niche within a niche, but vibrant.
Carl Smith, who formed the experimental trio E.C.F.A. in Austin in 1997, credits Moreno for the scene's health. Smith, who's known Moreno for years, calls him "an angel of the creative music arts" and "a true patron."
"No one," Smith says, "has dedicated himself to the music the way P. G. has."
Aaron Mace, who helped found nonprofit performance space The Church of the Friendly Ghost in 2003, credits Epistrophy as his inspiration. That same year, Chris Cogburn held the first annual No Idea Festival, dedicated to improvised music and collaboration. In 2014, Nathan Cross founded a label, Astral Spirits ("The New Wave of Heavy Free Jazz"). In turn, Astral Spirits has released recordings by Joe McPhee, Roscoe Mitchell, and Wadada Leo Smith, artists who first played locally through Epistrophy Arts.
Wadada Leo Smith performs at Epistrophy
Moreno brought Norwegian-Swedish trio The Thing to town and fed them barbecue so often that member Ingbrit Håker Flaten moved to Austin. In 2015 Håker Flaten started the Sonic Transmissions Festival, highlighting experimental jazz and free improvisation alongside punk and hip-hop.
"We've seen a really amazing growth," Moreno says. "There are so many independent presenters, people who book free jazz and free improvised music, and I think it's great. It doesn't feel competitive. I can focus on a certain niche or a certain area I'm interested in. There are opportunities for artists to play here, and I don't have to do it."
Moreno finds synergy in cooperation, a principle foundational to free jazz and improvisation. He's open, like the music.
"I have strong partners, Chris Cogburn with No Idea Festival and Ingbrit with Sonic Transmissions. We meet and brainstorm and find ways to collaborate, and we help each other out with logistics."
I asked what the community can contribute.
"It's difficult to experience adventurous music, so treasure it, value it, support it. We need more involvement and need people to stay with it. We need people to nurture it and help it to grow.
"I call on everybody to amplify and help share the word. Social media. Just a simple act of just sharing. It's a huge help. When they come to the shows, I always ask people, and somebody says, 'I came from Alaska,' 'Oh, how'd you hear about the show?' 'A friend of mine from Chicago told me about it.'"
Moreno's been listening.
"This time, while it sucks in many ways, it's been a gift in just being able to listen to music. I have this horde of music I've been working on for years, and now I can sit back and listen to historic recordings and new things. It's amazing. With attention, too, which is something I didn't really have before."
He continues to find new music to love.
"Sonic Transmissions and Astral Spirits, another big partner of ours, they're connecting with young bands, and that's been my exposure to a lot of stuff. And Bandcamp has been really eye-opening for just connecting directly with artists and getting their music.
"The focus at Epistrophy Arts has principally been on masters, on elders, but we keep an eye whenever we can and promote new voices. It's essential. I'm thinking specifically, for me the last few years, James Brandon Lewis has been a revelation. We presented him at the Sonic Transmissions Festival, but he'd been here before.
"James Brandon Lewis comes from the same tradition, and he's paid his dues, and he respects his elders. And he's got these projects, his trio, and Heroes Are Gang Leaders, and quartets, and a few other things. That's been unreal; I just love digging into that work. And Irreversible Entanglements, they had a record come out last year using poetry and free, improvised music and jazz that is astounding. Moor Mother, she's in the group. She's unreal. "The British stuff with Sons of Kemet, and Comet, that's really cool too. Some of the similar traditions, but a whole different expression, I think, which is exciting.
"That's what I love about this; no matter how much you know or think you know, there's always something else popping up somewhere, so it's very vibrant."
After a year without live music, its infrastructure-venues, travel, crowds-is uncertain. The North Door, Epistrophy Arts' most recent home, closed permanently. A local estimate predicts that ninety percent of clubs and venues won't reopen post-pandemic.
"There's insecurity," Moreno says, "at knowing what the world's going to look like when we return, because the spaces... I mean, real estate is still at a premium in Austin. I'm thinking about when things start getting back to normal, just the incredible demand for music. It's gonna be a bottleneck.
"We started out kinda punk rock style and did whatever we could, churches, record stores, whatever we could rent. We may have to go back to that for a little while just to find rooms for people to set up their instruments and play."
Moreno came to free jazz as a punk kid; it's a short leap. Free jazz does what punk only talked about. It abandoned the rules and with that any chance of material success. It follows that labors of love, decidedly not-for-profit, sustain it.
Whatever's next, Moreno plans to be there.
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