Musician George Chase plays flugelhorn in the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern for an event produced by ROCO
Photo: Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
ROCO concludes its 2021-22 season on Saturday at a typically unorthodox venue: the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. There, a brass quartet will make their debut with composer Marcus Maroney’s “Interwoven,” a piece specially crafted to capitalize on the unique acoustics of the underground reservoir.
Just steps from the cistern are the first examples of an innovative program that has since spread across the city. Embedded in dozens of strategic locations around the park – and stretching along the bayou to Hidalgo Park, deep in the East End – are QR interfaces that connect, via smartphone, selections of the vast library of the local chamber orchestra to anyone who can walk.
Known collectively 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 funny, others more thoughtful. At the Waugh Drive bridge, where a colony of bats lives, there is a link to “Flying Sirto” by Turkish-American composer Erberk Eryilmaz, which “sounds like a bat”, quips Alecia Lawyer, founder, artistic director and principal oboist of ROCO.
But next to the huge word “Observe,” part of sculptor Anthony Thompson Shumate’s Monumental Moments series, is a QR link to “Darker America” by 20th-century African-American composer William Grant Still, a knock thumbs up “to get people thinking and observing what’s going on in our world,” says Lawyer. Others are just as evocative: “Varklarte Nacht” (transfigured night) by Arnold Schoenberg at the Houston Police Officers Memorial, for example.
When: Performances at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on May 7
Or: Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, 105b Sabine
Details: Standby only; 713-665-2700; roco.org
The project dates from “realizing everyone was trapped” by the pandemic, Lawyer says. With ROCO unable to perform in front of a live audience, his team began to think of ways to better utilize the wealth of recordings – over 90 hours of music – that the orchestra had accumulated over its nearly 17 seasons. . ROCO records all of its concerts, archives them in a “listening room” on its website, and spends a good portion of its budget to cover the publishing rights necessary to keep them online.
Once a digital marketing novelty that was all but abandoned before the pandemic, square-shaped avatars have suddenly become invaluable for fields such as real estate, used car sales and restaurants, where QR codes have replaced restaurant take-out menus virtually overnight. The lawyer thought ROCO might be able to get them working, maybe somewhere out there, and reached out to a Buffalo Bayou Partnership contact. Its first QR kiosks went live along park trails in October 2020.
“I always look 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 the ROCO’s place of residence, the Church of St. John the Divine in River Oaks. Codes aren’t always as site-specific as they are at Buffalo Bayou Park: Visitors to Memorial Park have a choice of three playlists organized by mood: Bold, Soothing, and Cheerful. The attorney says the staff at the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center are particularly good at promoting their QRs, which pair music with five different types of nature hikes.
QRs are simply linked to a SoundCloud file in ROCO’s Listening Room. Once operational at a given location, ROCO staff members periodically visit sites to check for missing and damaged codes; The lawyer says the program has grown so much that an employee’s duties now largely consist of taking care of it alone.
“There is no end to this, and what I love is freeing this up for other people’s creativity and ideas, letting other people have a say in how it manifests,” 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 made available as community parks. Soon Baylor College of Medicine, Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, Heritage Society of Sam Houston Park – as part of Lawyer’s larger goal of ensuring ROCO provides “the soundtrack of Houston”.
“I guess what’s fun is (how) Houston can use us to show what Houston can produce, like entrepreneurship 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 very different way. It’s exciting for me too.
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.