Born in Fort Worth 42 years ago, Justin Sherburn may be based out of Austin now, but he still has fond memories of the city where he grew up. “I remember going to the Hop and the Aardvark and the Caravan of Dreams and hearing groups like Tabula Rasa and Little Sifter and Brave Combo,” he said. His work with the indie-rock band Okkervil River and his own ambient-classical group Montopolis Music keeps him in Central Texas, but every once in a while he makes it back, as he did last month to perform live the score for Yakona, a nature documentary about the ecology of the San Marcos River. “It was fantastic,” he said. “The Modern has such a beautiful auditorium, and I got to play on Van Cliburn’s piano.”
A graduate of Arlington Heights High School, Sherburn moved to Austin when he was 19 and caught on with the punk band 8½ Souvenirs. Session work in the state capital’s vibrant music scene had him playing alongside legends ranging from Willie Nelson to Wilco and on screen with The Late Show With David Letterman and other late-night TV shows. Last year, he won the Austin Critic’s Table Excellence in Composition Award for his work with Brent Baldwin and the Convergence vocal ensemble.
He also found work as the resident composer for Austin’s Troublepuppet Theater Company, but he drifted into the city’s tradition of music groups playing live music to accompany screenings of silent films. “Mostly bands would play old jazz,” he said. He wanted a more modern instrumental sound with no vocals. “I thought playing post-rock would be more interesting than treating the movie as a period piece.” In that spirit, he once played a 1970s punk-rock score over Buntaro Futagawa’s Orochi, a 1925 film that’s one of Japan’s earliest samurai films.
Yakona marks his first score for an entirely new film, as he met the makers when they were having trouble scoring their film. “As a nature documentary, the movie needed more grandeur and respect for the land,” said Sherburn. To pay tribute to the Native American tribes living in the San Marcos area, Sherburn brought in musicians from those tribes to play traditional instruments for the recorded score. Traveling with those musicians for live performances has been unfeasible, however, so the live score omits the indigenous elements and allows for much greater freedom. “You need to engage the audience when you’re playing live,” he said. “It’s almost like the difference between acting for the camera and acting on a stage.”
Currently, Sherburn’s focus is on a January performance in Austin called The Time Machine, a science-fiction inspired work for analog synthesizers. He has also developed a multimedia presentation about Enchanted Rock, with a modern classical piece accompanying a series of photos of the pink granite monolith that has taken on spiritual significance. He hopes to bring that to Fort Worth next spring and perhaps take care of other business while he’s here. “They have some fantastic omelettes at the Jazz Café.”