Blackbird Creative Lab: Loops

It’s the beginning of Day 6 here at the Lab, and the idea of loops has been on my mind. We all live our lives in a series of loops, big and small, physical and mental: daily routines, weekly routines, the physical path one takes to work or from the bedroom to the kitchen; the thought patterns that ultimately form our beliefs about the world, ourselves, and each other. Loops are comforting in their predictability, but stifling in their rigidity. They can simultaneously give us a sense of control but also make us feel like we are being controlled.

We’ve had a series of incredible guest artists and speakers at the Lab this first week: Tom Morris, Jennifer Higdon, Pamela Z, and Ned McGowan. Each of them is wildly unique, but all their stories had one similarity: they had to find a way to break through loops to become who they are, whether it was their own or someone else’s. Tom is a visionary curator and a giant in the orchestral world, but he spoke soberly about the deeply entrenched loops of programming that institutions are afraid to disrupt. Jennifer spoke about the prejudices she faced being a late starter in classical music, but also of the dangerous loop she was in for many years of working incessantly, which resulted in serious bodily injuries. Pamela Z was in a musical loop she was desperate to break away from, and it was her discovery of digital delay that released her. It’s kind of poetic that her resulting work is based on loops, which form an underpinning that affords her extreme artistic freedom.

Pamela also spoke candidly about being a woman in the very male world of electronic music, and the often subtle but painful comments she had to endure. Jordan Curcuruto, a percussion fellow, performed a piece she wrote in response to a sexist comment an instructor made while she was in marching band. I started crying at one point because it made me so angry at that instructor and so proud of her at the same time. There are so many more women in traditionally male roles these days – composition, brass, percussion – but we forget that every musical career shut out women at one time.  Even I sometimes realize that I’ve been stuck in a sexist loop of thinking when I find myself surprised at seeing a woman at a certain instrument or profession.

Musicians are always creating loops in the practice room. Whether alone or in rehearsal with Eighth Blackbird, there’s no more effective way of learning a piece than to loop. You find a problem and usually end up looping it hundreds of times, slowly expanding the loop until you have the whole piece. Ned’s seminar last night had us looping rhythms en masse with the rhythmic syllables he learned from studying Indian music: ta ki ta, ta ki ta, ta ki di mi, ta ki di mi. He put on the metronome and pointed to either tuplets or groupings which we had to switch between. This was a really hard exercise to do in a large group, because it’s so hard for the group to truly sync. Once we settled into a rhythm, the loop took on a life of its own, getting easier, more unified, and often louder until Ned would suddenly point to a different subdivision, and the group voice would fracture as people’s minds adjusted to a new reality. Had you been a random passerby, you would have thought the Lab was practicing some kind of ritualistic chant, and it began to feel that way in some regard. It was incredibly satisfying and comforting when everyone was perfectly in sync. When you heard one voice not together with the group, you couldn’t help but look in that direction. And if it was you, you couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. It made me think about how the instinct – the need – to be one with the group and not stick out is such a powerful force that can keep us imprisoned in our loops.

So when Ned divided us into groups and had us speak rhythms independently of each other, my mind nearly broke. Even though this was just an exercise, I felt a twinge of genuine fear every time I had to switch to an unfamiliar rhythm. It required such belief in your own pulse and taking the initiative to lead, as well as an ability to acknowledge and understand the opposing rhythm. Such a metaphor for the Lab, such a metaphor for life. And just when we thought we were doing so well, Ned would say, “now, with the metronome!”

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