A brass quartet will debut composer Marcus Maroney’s ‘Interwoven’ at the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern on Saturday.
ROCO concludes its 2021-22 season Saturday at a typically unorthodox location: the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. There, a brass quartet will debut composer Marcus Maroney’s “Interwoven,” a piece specifically designed to capitalize on the underground reservoir’s unique acoustics.
Steps away from the cistern lie the first examples of an innovative program that has since expanded across the city. Embedded at dozens of strategic locations around the park — and extending along the bayou all the way to Hidalgo Park, deep in the East End — are QR interfaces that link, via smartphone, selections from the local chamber orchestra’s vast library with anyone who happens to walk by.
Collectively known as ROCO On the Go, many of these QRs function as musical commentary to landmarks and other points of interest around the park. Some are droll, others more reflective. At the Waugh Drive bridge, where a colony of bats live, is a link to Turkish-American composer Erberk Eryilmaz’s “Flying Sirto,” which simply “sounds like a bat,” quips ROCO founder, artistic director and principal oboist Alecia Lawyer.
But next to the enormous word “Observe,” part of sculptor Anthony Thompson Shumate’s Monumental Moments series, is a QR link to 20th-century African American composer William Grant Still’s “Darker America,” a nudge “to make people think and observe what’s happening in our world,” Lawyer says. Others are equally evocative: Arnold Schoenberg’s “Varklarte Nacht” (transfigured night) at the Houston Police Officers Memorial, for example.
When: Performances at 10 a.m., noon, 2, 4 and 6 p.m. May 7
Where: Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, 105b Sabine
Details: Standby only; 713-665-2700; roco.org
The project dates to “realizing everyone was trapped” by the pandemic, Lawyer says. With ROCO unable to perform for live audiences, her team began brainstorming ways to better utilize the wealth of recordings — more than 90 hours of music — the orchestra had stockpiled in its nearly 17 seasons. ROCO records all of its concerts, archives them in a “Listening Room” on its website and spends a good chunk of its budget to cover the publishing rights necessary to keep them online.
Once a digital marketing novelty that had been all but abandoned before the pandemic, the square-shaped avatars suddenly became invaluable to fields such as real estate, used-car sales and food service, where QR codes replaced restaurant takeout menus virtually overnight. Lawyer figured ROCO might be able to make them work, maybe somewhere outside, and reached out to a contact with Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Its first QR kiosks went online along the park’s trails in October 2020.
“I’m always looking forward and not backward, so it was really fun to go back and see the depth and richness of what was there,” Lawyer says.
Since then, ROCO has partnered with 10 other area organizations to sprinkle QRs around their facilities, a list that includes Harris County Precinct 2, Texas Southern University, Texas Children’s Hospital, The Menninger Clinic, Houston Botanic Gardens and ROCO’s home-base venue, the Church of St. John the Divine in River Oaks. The codes are not always as site specific as at Buffalo Bayou Park: Memorial Park visitors can choose between three playlists organized according to mood: Bold, Soothing, and Joyful. Lawyer says the staff at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center is especially good about promoting their QRs, which match music to five different types of nature hikes.
The QRs simply link to a SoundCloud file in ROCO’s Listening Room. Once they’re up and running at a given location, ROCO staffers periodically visit the sites to check for missing and damaged codes; Lawyer says the program has expanded so much that one employee’s duties now largely consist of looking after it alone.
“There’s no end to this, and what I love is releasing this to other people’s creativity and other people’s ideas, letting other people have a say in how it’s manifesting,” she adds. “That’s what’s fun.”
ROCO On the Go recently expanded again to the Houston Public Library, where it distributed QR-affixed bookmarks to affiliated branches; and SPARK Parks, a network of school playgrounds that have been made available as community parks. Coming soon will be Baylor College of Medicine, the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, the Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park — part of Lawyer’s broader goal of ensuring ROCO provides “the soundtrack to Houston.”
“I guess what’s fun is (how) Houston can use us to show what Houston can produce, like the entrepreneurialism and the arts here,” she says. “It’s not just ROCO. It’s about our city and the arts that are here, and the businesses that are here, and the innovations that are here. You can use us to show that in a way that’s very different. That’s exciting to me, too.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.