The world is a marvelous engine of chaos, as Buddha says, “Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.” While this can be troubling, it may also be surprising and enchanting as was the case with the author Ann McCutchan, a friend I met through DSO Clarinetist Forest Aten. Retired Prop Master Al Grab introduced Forest, Al used to work on Dallas Summer Musicals. When I was a boy in Austin, Dave Jarrot hosted a popular morning radio show, but a generation earlier, my parents knew Mr. Jarrot – before they met each other – swirling around the Central Texas theater scene. And it was Dave who referred me to Al.
All connections along this great chain of talent occurred through social media. To paraphrase Forest’s line, “If you are talking about writing in North Texas, you must talk to Ann McCutchan.” Nothing about her accomplishments as a Clarinetist, the tip of an iceberg including adaptating Stravinsky while in Hawaii and performing with an early version of Brave Combo.
It was for love that our heroine relocated from Denton to Austin in the early 80s. One morning her now ex-husband commented that the American-Statesman’s Classical Music editor was leaving. “He said I wrote good letters,” she says with a modest smirk. She got the job, writing voluminously throughout the decade, as Classical music experienced a healthy resurgence. Ms. McCutchan, a charming narrator, illustrates the transition with well-told tales. Understanding her rare skills, the paper worked around her eventual return to performance, employing substitute writers for shows in which she performed, “As you can imagine, this kind of thing would never happen today.”
Most folks remember Austin’s early 80s for the True Believers, Joe King Carrasco, SRV and the explosion of the Live Music scene but Ann functioned in a different music scene. The Armadillo World Headquarters, famous for folks like Willie, Waylon, Zappa and Dylan also welcomed performers of third wave and jazz, like Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. A pioneer in this arena was Tina Marsh, founder of the Creative Opportunities Orchestra with whom Ann performed alongside Pauline Oliveros. Ann was a founding member of Isis New Music dedicated to Contemporary Chamber Music, producing works by composers like Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, Steve Reich and Dallas’ Robert Rodriguez.
With a laugh, she refers to the music as “wacky”, describing the time with a warm smile, “I met so many fascinating people. Great interviews, people I connected with. It was a very rich time. I knew there was another music scene going, but Classical music was my life. I never felt I was missing out.” Eventually Isis disbanded with the tragic passing of pianist, Vinson Hammond, who lost his battle with AIDS in 1992. As a result of this struggle, Ann was instrumental in establishing a charity event to raise money for AIDS victims, as she explained, “The Austin Chamber Music Marathon was a 12-hour concert, noon to midnight, at the First Unitarian Church, involving more than 200 classical musicians. It was a mammoth, amazing undertaking that became an annual event, eventually morphing into the Mostly Music Marathon, because we sprinkled in dance, literary readings, and a few non-classical music acts.”
A friend archiving the estate of French flutist Marcel Moyse thought Ann was perfect to write the book, “They needed a musician who could write but did not know him, he was a polarizing figure.” Completing her MFA at Houston, she taught at Ithaca and Wyoming, creating their writing program before returning to UNT’s Writing Program over 20 years after she left as a music student.
For her next project, McCutchan collected conversations with 25 leading composers of the 20th Century, from John Adams to John Zorn for a book. The Muse That Sings acts as bridge between her dual artistic backgrounds. Her comfort with theory and the inchoate layers of the creative process suited Ms. McCutchan to the challenge. 2011 brought two books: a memoir, Circular Breathing, a personal reflection on the music of her life, and the “eco-biography” River Music about Earl Robicheaux, a Louisiana musician who documented the sounds of the Atchafalaya River Basin.
With artistic vitality as a writer and musician, Ann McCutchan continues to engage her creative spirit. When we met early last month, she had just come from a lunch with members of the Symphony, as she said, “I still think of them as my people.” It is difficult to imagine how she’s not still one of them as this summer sees her writing two different libretti, for composers Mark Taggert and Andrew Rudin. Days after our conversations, she drove to New Mexico for intensive work with her Australian Shepherds Cole and Callie by her side.