Ice House

Houston's Oil Boom and Bust Inspired a Choral Piece

Called dreams of the new world, the interview-based composition examines the winners (and losers) of 1970s oil-boom Houston, along with other stories from America's Sunbelt.

By Morgan Kinney May 29, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Ellen Reid's new choral work takes on the American Dream.

When we ask composer Ellen Reid whether she believes in the American Dream, she snort-laughs for about 30 seconds, wonders aloud if we’re kidding—pauses—and offers an emphatic no. Then she says no again, this time with an audible exclamation mark.

“To me, it’s people wishing Over there it will be better, it will finally be better!” she says. “I don’t know if coping mechanism is what I would say, but it’s a deeply bred mindset. It works for some people.” This is Reid’s take after she crisscrossed America’s Sunbelt talking to oil workers and rocket scientists and descendants of one of Tennessee’s first black millionaires for her new choral work, dreams of the new world, which premiered last month at L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (and may one day come to Houston, although there are no solid plans for that yet).

Commissioned by the prestigious Los Angeles Master Chorale and the New York–based Trinity Church Wall Street, the 45-minute, interview-based composition plumbs stories from the country’s ever-shifting westward frontier, examining racial progress in turn-of-the-century Memphis, winners (and losers) of 1970s oil-boom Houston, and Mars-seeking technologists in present-day Los Angeles. 

Marching westward on fact-finding trips to each city alongside librettist Sarah LaBrie and lead researcher Sayd Randle, Reid learned firsthand how when things boom, they don’t boom for everyone—and then they inevitably bust.

That’s painfully true for the Bayou City, where the wildcatting opulence of the ’70s slammed to a halt, resulting in roughly one in eight Houstonians losing their jobs post-1986. As one Rice professor told the trio, oil was the “black blood that runs the city,” and on their days in and around Houston, Reid, LaBrie, and Randle marveled at the enduring truth of those words, zooming past the skyline that oil built, surveying fleets of docked rigs in Galveston Bay, and inspecting the belching refineries of Texas City.

Sayd Randle, Ellen Reid, and Sarah LaBrie traveled to Hou-ston to research our boom and bust. 

LaBrie, who grew up in the Third Ward and attended St. John’s, says the group’s interviews with ExxonMobil workers and professors and leasemen revealed the hidden legacy of those shortsighted boom years, something she didn’t learn much about when coming of age here in the early 2000s. “The impact of oil on Houston is easy to ignore,” she says, “but I think a lot of us are facing a similar reckoning: What is it you choose not to see? What do you do once the blinders are ripped off?”

For LaBrie, part of the answer is this piece, which attempts to cast a critical yet empathetic eye on the cyclical failures of the American Dream. John Curry, founder of metal fabricator Gulfex, memorably told Reid that the oil boom years were a time when “we got all fat and sassy,” sonically rendered in the choral work as a chugga-chugga musical montage ticking off the prizes of newly rich Houstonians—“fine dining, fishing boat, picket fence, deer lease”—before the chorus voices launch into the stratosphere (and immediately tumble back down). The artists make no outward mention of the downturn, but you can hear how times were insanely, absurdly good, until they weren’t. 

By taking the work into the present day, the artists offer a mix of hope and caution with their look at the booming L.A. aerospace industry. “There won’t be problems in our future,” goes one line, before tracing an itinerary from Earth to the craters of Mars, moons of Jupiter, and clusters of planetesimals on the edge of our solar system. Those are the new frontiers of the work’s eponymous “new world.”

LaBrie and Reid agree there could be some dangerously wishful thinking afoot here—hints of the oil boom all over again—but, for them, the lesson is to keep striving while remembering, as one scientist told them, that “human behavior follows humans.”

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” says LaBrie. “We wanted to encompass that, too. We can stand back from the perspective of decades and see mistakes, but at the time that’s impossible. One point of this project is to lead to the question of what’s happening now.”

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