Graham Reynolds on MXTX: A Cross-Border Exchange

KUTX is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by highlighting some of our favorite performances from Hispanic musicians from Austin and beyond. Watch the premiere of Graham Reynold’s cross-border exchange featuring artists from Mexico and Texas at the bottom of this post.

Ask Austin musician/composer Graham Reynolds about one of his many projects and you’ll rarely get a short explanation. Reynolds specializes in overarching concepts that involve a lot of planning, capital and people. And he’s quite often balancing several of these simultaneously. In March alone, he played a performance at Buzzfest, collaborated with University of Northern Colorado faculty and staff for their Open Space Festival, performed three different SXSW showcases, and revived his opera Pancho Villa From A Safe Distance in Bloomington, Indiana. 

And all the while, he was planning the debut of MXTX: A Cross-Border Exchange, a thrilling new project that encompasses a collaborative album of thirteen compositions just released on Six Degrees Records, an enormous sample library, and a series of performances. And it all premiered live on air on KUTX Thursday, April 14th.

Reynold’s MXTX concept dates all the way back to the 2016 election. “The world became such a political vehicle,” Reynolds recalls, “especially for hatred and building divisions, with things that are symbolic but also actually physical, like the wall that was being built. And this is a very overt effort to counter that and demonstrate how artificial a physical border like that is. In a way, Texas and Mexico, we’re a community, we’re closer to Mexico City than we are to New York, or to L.A., and Texas used to be part of Mexico. Geographically and culturally, there’s a lot shared here. And we wanted to demonstrate that.

Reynolds roped in three other trusted curators: composer Oríon García, founder of the Austin-based Latin/o/a/x Peligrosa collective; Monterrey, Mexico-based art and music curator Coka Treviño; and Mexico City composer and bandleader Felipe Pérez Santiago. I came up with the idea,” Reynolds explains, “and they came on board essentially to help curate the contributors. And so it was as artistic curators, both to the simple library and to the album. Felipe was also sort of an additional music director, because he leads the Vórtice Ensemble in Mexico City. And so half the album was recorded in Mexico City with Vórtice, and half  was recorded at my studio here. And Golden Hornet (Reynold’s non-profit) was the administrative arm that, you know, raised the money.” 

Got all that? Yeah, me, either. I asked for more details. 

“So the first thing we did was commission 40 artists, half from Mexico and half from Texas, to create folders of samples, loops and sounds and bits of noise and whatever. They came up with improvisations on their instruments.About half were deejay producer types making things electronically and then about half or more composer types with notated scores. It ranged, each folder was created in a slightly different way. Then, once the sample library was done, we commissioned 13 artists to make tracks for the album. We asked them to use components from the sample library and then mix them. And so they made all these demo tracks using the sample library and then notated scores. We recorded sessions, half with Vórtice Mexico City, and I led the sessions here. And then it all got mixed in Mexico City.”

Coordinating the efforts of forty musicians from different backgrounds each creating 16 samples or more was a huge undertaking. Reynolds details the challenges. On the electronic DJ producer side, a lot of them don’t notate music. We would have someone who knew how to do that assigned to help them imagine what they could do. What would you do with a cello? Maybe I’d take this synth part and we would notate it for them. But on the composer side? You know, DJs use sampling and looping all the time. But not all the composers do that on a regular basis. So for them, creating a sample set was a new experience.” 

And once that was done, it came down to the thirteen composers to create the different tracks that appear on the album. “They had total license,” explains Reynolds. “The parameters were, use the sample library, use the ensemble here or in Mexico City. But as far as genre, as far as approach, as far as anything you want to do it was free reign, they didn’t have to use all the instruments or all the samples or anything like that. That was just the palette.” 

The result is a surprising and unique collaboration. Works include the curators along with composers like the famed Houston-raised composer/percussionist Susie Ibarra. Guest stars like Botisch from Nortec Collective were pulled in, and though most of the work is instrumental, Rubén Albarrán of Mexico City’s Cafe Tacvba sings on the single “Mundo en Extinción”. Throughout the recording, you never quite know what’s coming next.

“That’s the nature of commissioning in a way,” says Reynolds. “We did get sketches along the way. And we had conversations about where people were going and tried to help. But I was excited by everything that came in and. Some of the demos are very different from the finished product, and that was exciting, too.” 

If this all sounds enormously complex, that’s because it was. “A lot of emails,” Reynolds recalls. “When you turn up 40 artists for a sample library and 13 more artists for the album? And then the musicians playing on the album are in two different cities? Yeah, the administrative part of it was extensive.”

All told, this is the culmination of work that began five to six years ago. The pandemic slowed up things, of course, but also allowed for opportunity. “It allowed us to take our time with the mixing and the mastering and all those other things. It probably would have been out a year ago, but I don’t think it hurt at all to sit on it and be more deliberate.” And that doesn’t even begin to mention the fundraising aspect of the international project. 

Yet for all the careful planning, the end result is joyous and free-spirited music. Now comes the work of preparing the huge free sample library for release. And the ‘deconstruction’ of the works on the album – breaking down how each piece will be performed live in Austin with Reynold’s ensemble and DJs – and later again with Santiago’s Vórtice Ensemble in Mexico City. 

For some, completing this ambitious, years-in-the making project might be cause to kick back and relax. It’s a big accomplishment for everyone involved. Yet for someone who specializes in juggling a lot of balls in the air, there’s little doubt of more creative and exciting projects ahead. Along with the rest of Austin, he’ll celebrate MXTX, but in some ways, for Graham Reynolds, it’s just another day in the office. 

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