An Education – Part 1: The Road (Miscellany)

There isn’t much need for me to go on tour with eighth blackbird.  Almost all of my work is done on a computer, with only occasional opportunities to engage with another human being on the phone.  In fact, now that the studio has a desktop computer with a good sized monitor, allowing my floating head to attend meetings via video chat, I could comfortably work from Mexico.  Very comfortably.  Particularly in January. Nonetheless, I’ve somehow found myself in a position where I make decisions that impact eighth blackbird’s life on the road (silly birds).  And so we, in our collective wisdom, wondered if it might not be a bad idea for me to come on the road with them.  To see firsthand the swarms of surly roadies setting up the instruments, to hear the deafening din of the roaring crowd, to assist in the last minute scramble for another score of coke to get Tim Munro through another night, to help pick out which of the eager young woman will accompany an unnamed percussionist back to the hotel, to buy off another photographer whose equipment Nick Photinos’ infamous and increasingly expensive temper has destroyed, to wake in a stranger’s hotel room with nothing but the smell of cheap beer as a blanket. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  eighth blackbird actually drinks very good beer on the road. This spring provided a perfect opportunity.  The birds were to fly out to California for a Wednesday performance of Mark DeChiazza’s production of Pierrot Lunaire, oddly paired with the tape-version of Double Sextet, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), travel a little further north for a recital the next night at California State University Northridge (CSUN), then fly to Minneapolis for a Saturday evening performance of the only moving thing, including an all live version of Double Sextet with the local new music ensemble Zeitgeist at the Walker (Walker). Three completely different programs over four days, involving six other musicians, five additional staff and over two dozen different suitcases all with unique itineraries.  Bring on the glamour. First, I had a task: chairs.  Mark’s production of Pierrot Lunaire involves the use of several chairs.  They have a specific look, size and sound. Or rather, lack of sound.  We have these chairs and intended to ship them to L.A.  I went to the UPS store, along with a whole different set of equipment to ship to Minneapolis, including 50 pounds of quinoa, the explanation of which I’ll leave to your imagination.  Just getting these oversized boxes from the studio to the store was a task worthy a Greek epic, if the hero of the epic were a 150 pound intellectual with the physical coordination of a turtle.  Luckily I was assisted by our Production Manager, Emily Upson. Who is pregnant.  Come to think of it, it was more like an English farce.  Anyhow, as it turns out, it was going to cost $150 to get the chairs to L.A.  Even more to completely guarantee they arrive on time.  And another $150 to ship them back.  For those of you struggling with the math, that’s at least $300.  For four chairs.  We took the chairs back to the studio, providing some free street theater for passersby, where a little research uncovered the exact same chairs at an Ikea near LACMA, in stock and ready for pickup.  $20 a piece.  I decided to just buy the chairs in L.A. and then donate them to LACMA.  Even wonder why a small arts organization should hire an administrator?  It’s because we’re trained to make tough executive decisions like this. Emily and Ryan Ingebritsen, our sound engineer, went out to L.A. first to begin setting up for Pierrot.  eighth blackbird is an odd duck (gaggle?) within the music world.  We’re frequently booked for chamber music series, but we’re often booked because we do much more than chamber music.  The problem is that the presenters for such series aren’t really equipped for the ‘more’.  They know eighth blackbird performs Pierrot Lunaire from memory, and they’re excited by the idea that the group moves around on stage, but when we show up with sound reinforcement, hanging light bulbs, an umbrella, dancer, etc., they can get a little nervous.  There’s an old story that the indigenous peoples literally couldn’t see the boats of the first American settlers.  Because they had no framework, no concept, for such massive ships, they would be so anomalous as to become invisible (perceptual blindness).  I’m pretty confident that specific story is bullshit, but the basic idea holds. If presenters have only ever seen chamber music groups show up with their instruments and play, no amount of advance paperwork ever really prepares them for eighth blackbird. Sending out our tech crew in advance is therefore essential for a production like Pierrot. Ryan and Emily were followed a day later by the ensemble, and then myself with Mark, dancer Elyssa Dole and special guest soprano, the incomparable Lucy Shelton. Our car ride included a very serious conversation between Mark and Lucy about the nuances of very specific hand gestures.  Mark is one of those rare directors, nay, rare people, who puts thought into every detail of a performance.  His production is so saturated with intention that he earns your trust quickly, allowing you to relax into the experience.  It’s an odd bit of alchemy.  (Read more about the production here.) LACMA, an art museum, booked eighth blackbird as part of their Art & Music Series, American Stories.  How does Pierrot Lunaire fit into American Stories?  I have no idea, but the crowd loved it, so who’s to argue with what works?  Even more exciting, some of Herr Schoenberg’s family, including his son, were present for the performance and chatted approvingly with the musicians afterwards. When traveling, the group is often responsible for booking their own lodging. For most of their 14 years on the road, this has meant a lot of cheap motels and even the occasional outbreak of bed bugs (Matt Albert recently attained an advanced degree in Priceline bidding, so the situation has improved a bit).  Other times, presenters provide lodging. This has, no kidding, sometime meant the musicians end up in the guest rooms of a friend or donor of the presenter. Lucky for us, LACMA has a relationship with the Sofitel, so we were housed in unusual comfort.  LACMA Music Director Mitch Glickman, along with a few local friends, composers and musicians, met at the hotel afterwards for drinks.  We were to leave early the next morning, so one by one the crowd thinned out until was just me, Ryan and our particularly gregarious waitress, who was campaigning to become Miss California.  This was my first encounter with a true California girl, and I have to confess that I’m always a little comforted by having my stereotypes reinforced.  When I finally left at 2:00 a.m., I turned the corner only to find Matthew Duvall still chatting away with an old friend, another in an endless parade of fascinating composers, musicians, thinkers, writers, artists and Obies I was to encounter over the next few days.  After having left my own home in Chicago about 20 hours earlier, I finally retired to my room for a four hour nap.  I think Matthew might still be in the bar talking. The next morning, Emily and Ryan flew on to Minneapolis to prep for The Only Moving Thing at the Walker, while the group and I drove up to Northridge for an acoustic performance that evening.  I was quickly learning the basic formula that has probably existed since the time of Homeric bards with only minor variations: rise early, travel, load in, rehearse, residency activity, rehearse, perform, socialize, drink, sleep, repeat.  The residency activity for CSUN was an open rehearsal and Q&A with a composition class.  eighth blackbird seems particularly well suited to engaging with students.  I don’t know if it’s because they’re still relatively young, that they’ve pioneered their own unique path, or simply their personalities, but they connect with aspiring musicians and composers in a truly remarkable way.  A few stilted, generic questions elicit disarmingly honest answers and soon it’s just a conversation between peers about what composers should expect from their musicians, and vice versa, the realities of life on the road, the mechanics of an effective rehearsal, the process of commissioning, etc. One of the advantages of late-season bookings of the acoustic program is the group’s familiarity with the rep.  By spring, they’ve performed these pieces a dozen times and perform them with greater confidence and ease.  They play, in the wonderful multiple meanings of the word. There was a good crowd that evening, and the birds soaked up the love and threw it right back.  The highlight of the acoustic program is Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile, which in addition to being fully memorized and staged, is one of the few pieces unequivocally beloved by all six musicians. Stephen was in the audience that evening, perhaps adding even further incentive to let loose.  This was also right about the time my last blog post was accumulating spirited comments and sparking several other online conversations, so Stephen and I had the chance to discuss our occasionally divergent perspectives in person.  Much like his music, Stephen is beguiling mix of academic intelligence, quirky wit and playfulness. There was another early flight the next morning, so rather than hang around Northridge, we traveled back to L.A. to stay at a hotel next to the airport.  I had been hearing stories about In-N-Out burgers, so Michael Maccaferri was kind enough to take me to one on his way to pick up a barely used iPad from a local contact (yes, that does sound sketchy).  Mythical burger, fries and shake in hand, grateful for late night HBO, I finally retired to my room for another four hour nap. On the way to the airport early the next morning, I began questioning my decision to tag along on this particular trip.  We were only halfway done and I was already growing to resent the intrusive quality of daylight.  We flew to Denver, then on to Minneapolis, then drove straight to the Walker for an interview with Fred Childs for the nationally syndicated Performance Today.  The group was exhausted and hungry and it began to show in the interview.  It wasn’t anything anyone else would notice, but like a play you’ve seen enough times to spot subtle differences in an actor’s performance, or more like a family dinner where you’re attuned to the loaded raise of an eyebrow, I could hear the the rough edges of normally smooth replies.  The group then went right into rehearsal for Double Sextet, which they were to perform live with local new music ensemble Zeitgeist.  At 9:00 that evening, they then began a tech run though of the other half of The Only Moving Thing program, singing in the dead of night (by Bang on a Can with choreography by Susan Marshall). What’s truly remarkable is that once on the stage, all those rough edges instantly disappeared.  All six of the musicians in eighth blackbird are tremendously capable people, whatever they do they do very well, so much so that I sometimes forget that they are, in fact, musicians first and foremost.  There is a strength, grace and playfulness to their collective personality on stage that is magnetic, a presence that draws you in and holds you tight.  Over the course of those few days, I witnessed one quality, which above all others I believe constitutes the essential structure of such presence: an unrelenting work ethic.  They just don’t ever stop.  No section is ever good enough.  There’s always time for one more pass.  The two expressions I may have heard most were, “Stop, I fucked up,” and “Let’s try that one more time.”  And what happens in those few rare hours when they’re not on stage rehearsing together? They go off and practice individually.  This, of course, is the great open secret to success, but to see it in action first hand . . . well, it’s inspiring, and that’s not a word I use lightly. Like Cinderella at the ball, though, even eighth blackbird gets a few hours to look pretty and kick up their glass slippers.  That night we hooked up with some old Oberlin friends, who are to be found wherever eighth blackbird goes, and some other musicians in town for the 2010 International Marimba Festival.  We drank and talked deep into the night, much of it involving Steve Reich, the one common musical factor.  I had slept about 12 hours over the last four days, but the conversation got my blood pumping, so I decided 1:00 a.m. was the perfect time to really get to know downtown Minneapolis.  And as I’ve learned, every hotel’s overnight staff knows where to find a good late night pizza joint.  I wandered off into an astonishingly active downtown where I quickly learned that Minneapolis’ denizens make up for a long winter’s worth of hiding flesh by exposing as much of it as possible in the few months of warmth.  My stomach and eyes happily sated, I returned to the hotel for another four hour nap. Technically, we had the morning off, but as it happens, our friend/mentor Tom Morris was in town, and when you have a chance to be in Tom’s presence, you take it.  Tom, Lisa, Matthew and I met for breakfast, talked big hairy audacious goals and stuffed ourselves with eggs, pancakes coffee and ideas.  Then it was back to the Walker for another full day of rehearsals. eighth blackbird performed that evening.  It went very well.  We love the Walker.  There was an after party.  There were drinks.  Then pie.  At some point we returned to the hotel.  I convinced Matt Albert to venture out into the night again for pizza and sights.  A few hours later we were on another plane, finally returning to Chicago.  I felt a year older.  Which, if my math is right (and it never is), the birds must each feel about 942. I don’t know about the others, but I like to begin and end journeys with a shower.  In my delirious state, I saw a profound encapsulation of life on the road embedded like a secret code in the shampoo bottle instructions:  “Rinse. Repeat.” Coming Next: An Education – Part 2: The Currency of Conversation (A New Music Listening Guide)

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