River Measures – An Interview With Cellist Leanne Zacharias

Fast Forward Austin and the Austin New Music Co-Op partnered with cellist Leanne Zacharias to present an epic, site-specific performance of nine different, one-hour performances of solo cello music along Austin’s lakeside trails in December.  We caught up with Leanne recently to talk about the ideas behind the performance and the challenges of making it all happen.



photo by Chris McConnell


Q: Playing nine concerts in three days is quite a marathon-type of performance, particularly in a solo context.  How did the idea for this particular event come about? 

A number of themes and threads running through my work collided in this project. I was interested in the periodic nature of the Fast Forward festival – one full day, once per year – and wanted to create something that incorporated elements of periodicity in a central way. I was also very interested in returning to Austin’s river and river trail, after performing Travis Weller’s Concerto Laguna last year. Paddling myself to work was a dream come true! Rivers are vibrant, active sites for humans as well as animals. Waterways abound with life, and in Austin this is easy to spot in turtles, fish, birds as well as runners and walkers. Music and performance are excellent, gentle ways of drawing attention to a place or environment. I was also interested in the parallels between natural rhythms like seasons and migratory patterns to artistic practices like practicing an instrument and other repeating practices: running, training regimes of various kinds, meditation, yoga… I wanted to design a new practice for myself. All this eventually led to the concept of a one-weekend series of concerts that traced a path along the river through downtown Austin.


photo by Chris McConnell

Q: Performing in an outdoor setting is obviously a different kind of artistic experience than the average player might be used to, particularly in the midst of a busy city.  Are there any challenges you face that are specific to that kind of creative environment?

Yes, I had to prepare for an array of potentialities that might present challenges: wind, cold, rain, sun, sounds from the city, sounds from other people or animals on the trail… I also had to prepare the logistics carefully in terms of transit and timing. Like a wilderness trek, issues that are easily taken care of in modern buildings took more thought (for example, how will I clean my hands after moving all my gear, before playing my cello in each concert?). Basics!


photo by Steven Snowden

Q: Given your diverse history as a performer, an event like this one isn’t necessarily a one-off kind of thing for you.  Can you talk a bit about your philosophy as a performing artist, and where a concert series like this fits in with what you are trying to do?

Well, at the core is my belief that performers, as interpretive artists, should be exploring every element of concerts as part of their practice: the space, the interaction between audience and performer and between audience and the space in addition to the repertoire itself. Live concerts should offer an entirely different experience than listening to a recording. I want to create situations that offer new perspectives on music to both performers and to listeners. Instead of giving one performance in Austin, I gave nine and each was unique. Musicians rarely have this opportunity outside of touring, yet there is so much to learn from it. It also gave the audience more opportunities to attend, to return, and to be closer in proximity to an instrument and to musical works (particularly new music) than concert settings typically allow.


photo by Chris McConnell


photo by Steven Snowden




Q: Will you be back through Austin performing again soon?  Are there any upcoming projects that you would like to let audiences know about?

I don’t have any Texas performances booked for 2015, although it’s pretty safe to say that I’ll return before long. I have ideas for several future projects I’d love to bring to Austin; now it’s a matter of corralling support and working out the details.

A few questions for you:

Can you describe your interaction with the river measures project? What were the challenges for you as an audience member?

Well, I attended the concert that was eventually performed underneath the First Street bridge near Lady Bird Lake after the rain started coming down. I suppose at the time there were occasionally some challenges hearing the cello over some of the sounds from the city above, and maybe a few moments of distraction from people passing by. It’s interesting to hear a car horn that hits a note fitting in perfectly with the harmonic structure of the music – but that was in a good way.

Was your experience with the pieces I performed different than it might have been in a traditional concert setting?

I think so, definitely. Ideas for performances of new music outside of the traditional types of settings have been something that I’ve given some thought to in recent years. When I first moved to Colorado for my master’s a few years ago, one of the first things that I encountered ‘musically’ was a sort of makeshift amphitheater at the summit of one of the Flatirons near Boulder. I really liked the idea of merging that kind of outdoor environment with an audience and a work of art. As I was listening to the River Measures performance, I was thinking a lot about the concept of the performance space and what it might suggest. I think that with a number of new things going on in the classical music world, there’s been an incentive to present them in a way that’s a bit more informal, and hopefully in a way that’s more approachable and akin to any other kind of music, and I think that in that respect this performance achieved that.

What pieces or musical details from River Measures resonate most strongly for you?

I really liked the interlude material you were playing between the pieces that were different stylistically. I thought it served as a nice bridge between the different musical ‘areas’ of the overall performance. The thing that I liked most though, was the idea that some very competently and soulfully performed music was existing right alongside everything else that was going on in that small area of the city. It was great to see all of the people being drawn to the performance and sticking around to enjoy it, especially the kids.


Fast Forward Austin and Church of the Friendly Ghost are also partnering on January 22nd, 2015 to present a performance by the Friction Quartet, which will be hosted at The Studium.  For more details you can read up about the performance here.


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