(Thanks to Nick Zoulek for the amazing photos in the first gallery!)

We had a whirlwind of a Lab reunion this past weekend in Chicago with 15 fellows from the 2018 Lab! With three performances in as many days, as well as an artist talk and roundtable discussion on curation, I don’t think we could’ve crammed in a minute more. 

We kicked off the weekend on Friday with a show by 2017 Lab faculty Ted Hearne and Lisa Kaplan performing songs by Ted at the experimental music venue Elastic Arts. After an intense day of rehearsing, the fellows were able to kick back and enjoy the evening of song with a delicious G&T made with Alley Twenty-Six Tonic, courtesy of 2018 Lab fellow Andrea Moore’s restauranteur-husband Shannon. 

The next morning’s event was a roundtable discussion on curation with guests Susy Bielak, Kate Dumbleton, and Seth Boustead. All three have very impressive credentials and very different career trajectories, and it was enlightening, moving and inspiring to hear them tell their individual stories. Even though they all curate in different fields, common themes were eternal curiosity, persistence, and the need for humility. 

That evening the fellows gathered at Eighth Blackbird board member Tony Scott-Green’s home for an intimate VIP concert. It was a chance to perform some of the rep for the following night’s public concert at the Ace Hotel and for some of our closest friends and donors to meet the fellows. There was no piano, but that didn’t stop Hocket (Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff) from wailing on toy pianos to great effect. ~NOIS and Nick Zoulek schooled us all on the versatility and virtuosity of saxophones, playing every sax from bass to soprano. Jake Saunders and Luke Ellard wooed us with Derek Bermel’s Coming Together, and Elly Toyoda and Andrea Moore made our souls shiver with Kamala Sankaram’s Kivalina

Sunday morning we were treated to breakfast and an artist presentation by spoken word artist J. Ivy at the William Harris Lee studio downtown. After a short introduction, he seamlessly wove the narrative of his story with performances of his poetry, some with backing track. He regaled us with stories of antics with John Legend and Jay-Z, and touched our hearts with his lifelong struggle with the absence of his father and the life-changing influence of his high-school English teacher Ms. Argue. 

Then it was straight to the Ace Hotel for soundchecking and more rehearsal in preparation for the concert that evening. We had a reception at the hotel’s restaurant City Mouse, and then headed into the venue for a delightful program of Lab highlights. Composer Gemma Peacocke and video artist Xuan collaborated on a riveting pre-show installation. There was an incredible variety of music on display, from the profound to the absurd and everything in between. 

Monday morning was mercifully free to allow everyone to recover from the nonstop playing and partying. We all met at the studios of WFMT to set up mics with Mary Mazurek and prep with Kerry Frumkin for on-air interviews. Some last-minute changes and decisions were made, Chipotle burritos scarfed down, and then we went live at 8pm. I hope some of you tuned in! 

It was a fitting denouement to the weekend, and though we all said goodbyes and dispersed to the four winds for the time being, it actually feels more like a beginning. We are looking forward to more Lab events this June with both 2017 and 2018 Lab fellows here in Chicago and Detroit, and also to more inevitable news of Lab fellows creating, collaborating and shaping the future of music. Stay tuned.

Our mini-tour of the South started in San Antonio, where we played at the Temple Beth-El and stayed at the iconic El Tropicano on the Riverwalk. The weather was balmy, and our instruments went into shock from the moisture. My bow went completely slack in the case, and I had to take every opportunity to tighten it during rests. Not that we were complaining about the warmth – we did come from Chicago after all.

The San Antonio Chamber Music Society has been continuously running for 76 years, completely organized by volunteers. They divide and conquer with committees, so during the course of our performance at Temple Beth-El and outreach concert at the Morningside Retirement Community, we interacted with quite a few board members. They also have a tradition of taking the artists out to dinner after the Sunday matinee and to lunch after the outreach performance. We were able to get to know several of the dedicated board members over a delicious meal at the beautiful La Fogata (apparently the best Mexican food in San Antonio).

From there it was onto Memphis, where we taught masterclasses at the University and performed the same evening. After the concert, faculty member Elise Blatchford, a fellow Obie, introduced us to Crosstown Arts, an incredibly hip venue and community hub housed in a former Sears processing plant. The cat-themed retro bar tucked in the back of one of the floors had a special menu for artists that performed that night, offering discounts for all the house cocktails. We were able to peek into one of the smaller venues, still set up for a performance that happened earlier that night. Although we were loathe to leave after only…let’s call it one round of sazeracs, we did have to drive to Florence, Alabama first thing in the morning. So we bid goodbye to the iconic red spiral staircase, took a selfie in front of the giant mural and dragged ourselves back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

We arrived in Florence in time for an early afternoon open rehearsal, attended by music students who were quite helpful in giving us balance feedback. After setting up and soundchecking, we went back to the hotel for a quick rest before that evening’s concert. While the students in Memphis were hooting and hollering with laughter during some of our cheekier numbers, the Florence folks were dead silent and serious about listening. They didn’t seem to like it any less, though, and were not shy about coming up to the stage afterwards to ask for autographs and chat us up.

Getting home was the least pleasant part of this journey so far, as our flights back to Chicago were cancelled due to weather, leaving us scrambling to rebook from other airports. As I write this on the plane, we are 9 hours delayed from our original flights, including having driven an hour and a half to get to another airport. Our illustrious lab fellows are supposed to arrive in Chicago today for the big Lab reunion this weekend, and most of them will beat us there. So we’ll have to hit the ground running…

Hours 1-12:

Arrive in Genoa after a 2.5-hour drive from Linate airport in Milan. Miss all the scenery on the drive because of unconsciousness. Check into hotel and venture out into the sunny afternoon in search of espresso and non-caffeinated sustenance. Succeed with espresso, fail with food. Run back into hotel to get more clothes – it’s incredibly windy and cold despite the 60 degrees. Wander around, realizing everything is closed on Sunday afternoon except the 24-hr supermarket and one bar-cafe in the median of a boulevard. Head into that bar and revive with apericena: aperol spritzes, basket of crisps, foccacia, polenta and various salads. Return to supermarket to get breakfast fixings and 3am second dinner (NOT adjusting to the time zone). Drop off supermarket haul (rotisserie chicken, Pringles, amaretti), check email/FaceTime with family, and head out to Il Genovese for delicious dinner. Return to hotel and watch the Oscars with Italian dubbing and finally fall asleep at 4am after second dinner.

Hours 12-24: 

Wake up in the afternoon in time to shower and meet the van to the venue. Sigh with relief when met with carafe of espresso and plenty of sparkling water at the gorgeous venue. Run into a slight problem with our 120v globe lights and 220v European power, which immediately blows out the lights (N.B. next time must use transformer, not just adaptor). Stage crew is confident we can get new ones, but not until right before concert (everything closes from ~2:30-7pm in Italy). Rehearse, drink espresso, get dinner next door, return to check globe lights (thumbs up), play concert at 9pm. Acknowledge Fjóla Evans, who came from Amsterdam to see the Italian premiere of her piece Eroding. Go to pizzeria/karaoke bar after concert for tubs of fries and four pesto pizzas.  Spend a couple of hours chatting over wine while listening to very enthusiastic and drunk karaoke performers sing their hearts out.

Hours 24-36:

Sleep for 1.5 hours after returning from karaoke bar. Wake up in time to shower and meet van back to Linate airport. Again, miss all the scenery because of unconsciousness. Almost leave instrument in restaurant at Dublin airport during layover because of unconsciousness. Watch RBG on the airplane as well as three other movies you can’t remember, and cry during every one. 


Eighth Blackbird is honored and grateful to have been awarded a second grant for support of its Blackbird Creative Lab, a training program for musicians and composers in the first of two rounds of 2019 National Endowment for the Arts #ArtWorks awards. A total of more than $27 millions dollars in awards will reach all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico in 2019.

“Through these grants, the National Endowment for the Arts supports local economies and preserves American heritage while embracing new forms of creative expression.

‘The arts enhance our communities and our lives, and we look forward to seeing these projects take place throughout the country, giving Americans opportunities to learn, to create, to heal, and to celebrate,’ said Mary Anne Carter, acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Our $20,000 award will support The Lab’s long term goals for artistic and career development of its fellows with a series of regional showcases featuring 2017 and 2018 Lab alumni, including ongoing professional development and public performance events in Chicago in March and June. Additional summer performance opportunities alongside the ‘Birds will be announced in the coming weeks.

By some freak alignment of the stars, we were asked to be a guest on Live From Here with Chris Thile this past Saturday, which broadcast from our very own Symphony Center. We didn’t get much notice, so flights were changed, babysitters frantically booked, and lots of last-minute rehearsals added to the calendar. 

The production crew started working at the crack of dawn on Friday morning – there is SO MUCH equipment – and they were still there when we left after our sound check, which was around 10:30pm. I can’t remember the last time we had a rehearsal scheduled to start at 9:15pm, but this is the only way they can cram everyone in the day before the show. Chris Thile (AKA the musical McDreamy) met with us at the top of our rehearsal to run through a short Bach Prelude with Matthew and Nick and a Mozart duo excerpt with me. I was more than a little nervous meeting him and playing with him, because, come on, he’s famous. Like, not just musician-famous, really famous. He could so easily be a diva or a jerk, but I’m happy to report that he’s a pretty great guy.  Also, his production team and show band seem to really like him, which in my mind is the real litmus test since they’re on the road with him.

I don’t know where he gets his energy, but it is infectious. While playing through the duo with me, he kept uttering “ooh, amazing, awesome” in response to Mozart’s compositional wit as if it was the first time he had heard it, even though he probably knows it like the back of his hand. But his enthusiasm is genuine, his appreciation sincere, and it’s so refreshing to be around someone who still has child-like reactions to music when he could so easily be jaded. (And all this at the end of a gazillion-hour-day of rehearsal!)

We got more of an idea of how the show would shape up on Saturday during the afternoon rehearsal, but still had no idea of the running order. Every time we asked, we were told that they didn’t know and that “things keep changing up until the last minute”. So we watched the actors hone their very funny sketches and improv sets, heard snippets of Gaby Moreno’s incredibly versatile voice,  listened to the show band do everything from Alicia Keys to show tunes, and caught bits of Chris rehearsing his host duties, wondering how everything was going to come together. About half an hour before going live, we were handed a still-warm-from-the-printer set order with timings. I was reminded of Tina Fey saying about SNL: “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30”. This show is definitely the SNL of radio.

The live show starts with an audience warmup, where Chris goes out and takes requests. Apparently people always ask for Bach. So he launched into an astoundingly perfect, blazingly fast rendition of the Gigue from the D minor Partita. I was watching on the monitor backstage and I think I had to physically pick my jaw up off the floor when he was done. Remember when I said he was the musical McDreamy??

Because “dead air is the enemy”, we had to be waiting in the wings and walk onstage while the previous act was still on so we could be ready as soon as Chris introduced us. It’s a little less than ideal to be clutching your instrument backstage, getting cold, and then quite literally run onstage for a 3-minute piece, and then wait twenty minutes in the wings again before the next 3-minute piece. But I can’t say it wasn’t exciting. Plus, I was able to watch almost the entire show from the wings. 

I must admit that I was never the biggest fan of Prairie Home Companion. I did listen to a few shows, and enjoyed many parts of them, but there was always something I didn’t quite get about it. I think the insider jokes about being Midwestern/Minnesotan were lost on this Los Angelean. In any case, Chris Thile has really made this show his own, and IMHO it’s more widely appealing and really entertaining. He’s a great personality and is a pretty unbelievable musician. If you didn’t catch the show live, go here to listen.  And if you haven’t listened because Prairie Home Companion wasn’t exactly your thing, give Live From Here a try – you won’t regret it.

We spent the last few days in the winter wonderland that is Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana. To say it’s gorgeous there doesn’t begin to capture the natural beauty that Montanans are fortunate enough to behold every day. It had just snowed quite a bit, and the landscape looked like the most perfect Bob Ross painting – in a good way. The trees were all sugar-dusted with snow and the roofs of buildings had picture-perfect meringue coatings. It never got messy or dirty like it does in Chicago. 

We played a concert at our beloved former board member Dennis Wentz’s home in Bozeman with the stipulation that it was tight on space and we couldn’t fit our usual setup in his living room. So we programmed an evening of duos and solos and ended with Peter Garland’s And the Days Run Away, for which we sprinkled ourselves in various locations around the house. The people were lively, the food was abundant and delicious, the bartender generous,  and it was a wonderful evening for all involved.

We visited with students at Montana State University for a couple of Q&A sessions and an open rehearsal, where we slogged through a new piece on our acoustic touring program for the first time. It doesn’t get more real than that – turning on the metronome, stopping every few bars, generally messing up a lot – and I think it’s really eye-opening for students to see how the sausage is made. 

The Big Sky Resort is a generous sponsor of the series, so we were put up there, where the bellhops are dressed in chaps and cowboy hats, and very cute young children clomped around in ski boots. It was a unique setting to celebrate Nick’s birthday, which we did over cocktails at one of the resort restaurants.  We performed at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center to a sold-out hall.  They have this hilarious box that serves as the audience survey: take a penny from the tray and drop it behind the corresponding face of how you felt about the concert. I think we were about 50-50 frowney face and smiley face.  

photo: Kirby Russell ©2017

Dear Lab Community,

The two inaugural summer sessions of the Blackbird Creative Lab were some of the most inspiring weeks of music-making Eighth Blackbird has ever shared among ourselves, the extraordinary faculty, guest artists, staff and the sixty remarkable young artists who are our beloved Lab fellows. Years of research and planning as well as generous financial support were invested in launching The Lab, Eighth Blackbird’s most ambitious project to date.  We were thrilled with its success, evident in the ongoing collaboration within the Lab network – new ensembles, co-commissioned projects, recordings, festivals and performances curated to showcase each other’s work. This is a testament to the flourishing Lab culture of generosity of spirit, determination, intense creative curiosity and the desire to have meaningful human impact in the world.

Eighth Blackbird has been transformed by the experience as well. After months of artistic planning and re-examining our own artistic and organizational priorities with our board and staff as we gear up for our 25th anniversary in 2021, we have decided to focus capacity this year on long-term impact and exploring new models of sustainability for the Lab. As a result, we will not be holding a two-week intensive this June in Ojai.

Instead, we are actively supporting the work of the incredible Lab alumni by performing their music, finding new commission opportunities for them, and being involved in their creative and professional initiatives. We are also planning a number of regional Lab showcase events throughout the rest of our 2018-19 season. Thanks to fellows Tamara Kohler (’17)Allison Wright (’18) and Kaylie Melville (’17) for getting the ball rolling by spearheading a sold-out, pre-season Lab event with Matthew Duvall this past August in Melbourne, Australia! Subsequent events are planned for Winston-Salem, NC; Austin, TX; Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; and Detroit, MI. Also, the Lab reunion weekend is slated for March 15-18, 2019 in Chicago. Please join us for any or all of the weekend’s program of performances, seminars, and camaraderie.  We will be sending out details for all of these exciting events soon, and are grateful for the enthusiastic support from local Lab fellows, supporters and partners for help on the ground.

We would like to say a great big thank you to the wonderful folks at Besant Hill School, who are disappointed the Lab will not be held there this summer, but have indicated that the door is still open.  And finally, a word of deep gratitude to the founding funders of the Lab: Dan Lewis, Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art, National Endowment for the Arts: Arts Work Fund, The Colburn Foundation, Helen and Justus Schlichting, Russ Irwin, Judy Duvall, Marley Lewis and Gene Vilensky, Nancy and Joe Walker, Drs. Anne and Dennis Wentz and the many others who have contributed over the past two years. Without your support we would not have begun to realize this dream or continue to evolve. Thank you!

With Big Audacious Love,

Eighth Blackbird

Last week in Eugene was jam-packed. I mean, in four days we did a concert at a retirement center, a concert at a medical center, an NAACP event, two youth concerts for 2800 third to fifth-graders, a chamber music masterclass, a seminar for composers, a concert at a high school, a flute masterclass, AND a performance of On a Wire with the Eugene Symphony. I gotta hand it to them, when they say community engagement, they mean it. 

But it was all really delightful. I especially loved the youth concerts, because the energy and enthusiasm of kids is so infectious – you can’t help but feel the same way no matter how tired you are. We taught them the first counting sequence of one of Tom Johnson’s Counting Duets, and I challenge anyone not to smile when you hear how excited kids are to scream the number 10. And when you see those kids outside afterwards and one of them spontaneously hugs you, it’s all over. I almost took that kid home with me.

We played for a much more intimate gathering of band and choir students at a local high school, and their enthusiasm was no less intense. In fact, they had listened to our recordings and watched some videos, so the pump was primed for them to see us in person. They had all sorts of questions and were so palpably engaged in our performance. If only audience members were that psyched all the time.

Finally, on our last evening, we performed with the Eugene Symphony. But not before making at least two videos of in-the-piano demos for social media, one done by Maestro Lecce-Chong himself, who could give any E! host a run for his money. The Hult Center performance hall is enormous, with a ceiling design that makes you feel like you’re inside a woven basket. Despite the small Eugene population, the hall was pretty full. We met a lot of the audience during intermission. They’re the kind of people who aren’t shy to come up to you and just talk (I had a long-ish conversation with one woman about breastfeeding!), which is what’s so great about small towns. I also got to meet the parents of original Eighth Blackbird flutist Molly Barth, who until recently was teaching at the University of Oregon. Her parents moved to Eugene to be near her, but she has just left them to teach at Vanderbilt, which they say they’re fine with. 

Now we’re back in chilly Chicago, which greeted us with mountains of fallen leaves and some of the first snowfall of the year. I’m going to get my Amish turkey today and hopefully get rid of my rotten Halloween pumpkin as well before the extended family descends upon our home for the week. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

It’s that time of year again. You know, when you kick what’s left of your crumpled Halloween costume from the middle of your bedroom floor to a dark corner of your hallway closet and treat your sugar hangover to five concerts of electroacoustic music…

…And what a treat it was this year! I was struck by how many firsts I encountered. I can’t say whether they were actual firsts for the festival, but they were first for me in my memory of the festival for the past 7 years. I’ll just go in order of experience:

  1. Melodica trio. Chris Chandler’s cicada song featured not one but three melodicas. And they were in tune. Oh, and the piece was remarkably beautiful.
  2. Haystack. Mike Frengel brought his own haystack with him as a prop for his electric guitar piece Country Roads, which was a kind of wild one-man country jam band improv session. You gotta admire the attention to authenticity.
  3. Player piano. Okay, maybe this isn’t a first, but it’s the first time in my memory, which is admittedly fallible. Clifton Callender wrote a series of Infinite Canons for player piano which have some kind of nerdy process I won’t go into here, but suffice to say they aren’t playable by any human (or at least by any one human at a time) and are extremely delightful.
  4. Belly dancer.  Aurie Hsu and Steven Kemper developed  a wireless sensor interface for belly dance. It was as amazing as you think.
  5. Candles. I don’t know how the festival got around the building’s smoke detectors, but this piece for candles and myaku, which translates the intensity variance of light into sound waves, was mesmerizing. It was like attending a techy meditation/seance.
  6. Pamela Z. The second half of the last concert was dedicated to Pamela Z’s works, which she performed to great effect. I’ve seen almost all of them before, but never with the accompanying video. Pamela is an electrifying performer (no pun intended) and her works don’t get old. Syrinx, in which she slows down a bird song to the point where she can replicate it, then speeds up her version to mimic the original, is a favorite of mine. We are so excited to be commissioning her and premiering it in June at the LA Phil Noon to Midnight series. More on that later…

In addition to these firsts, our very own Nathalie Joachim played an excerpt from her project Fanm d’Ayiti, and Nick Photinos played works by Mark Snyder and 2018 Lab Fellow Gemma Peacocke. 

Another highlight of the festival for me was the mini synth building workshop led by Douglas Geers. I barely understand how a light switch works, so I was intrigued by the possibility of learning how to build my own square wave synthesizer in two hours. Among other things, I learned that a clarinet only sounds odd overtones, which not only explains its singular sound but also why they’re impossible to tune with. Douglas is an inordinately patient teacher armed with great instructions, slides and pictures, and a lot of infectious enthusiasm. At the end of two hours, I had an adorable mini wooden suitcase that goes beep boop to take home for my son to destroy, and a (very) rudimentary understanding of what a square wave is, how breadboards work, and (hopefully) how not to electrocute yourself. 

Last summer, soprano Justine Aronson and flutist Erika Boysen wowed everyone at the Blackbird Creative Lab with their amazing performance of Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say. Simultaneously haunting and humorous, the piece is a whirlwind of extended technique and ensemble interplay between the two performers. We’re excited to share their newly released video of the performance. 

Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say from Wayne Reich on Vimeo.

Blackbird Creative Lab Alum, Nina Shekhar was recently featured by New Sounds on their playlist, Stories of Mental Health and Rehabilitation. This playlist comes at a good time, as today is World Suicide Prevention Day. 

On Nina’s piece, host Jeff Schaefer writes “Hear Southern California via Michigander composer Nina Shekhar’s piece, “Quirkhead” for soprano and string quartet about her giving a name to her own special obsessive rituals and compulsions.”

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1‑800‑273‑TALK (8255)


We were honored to be awarded Performance of the Year for Holly Harrison’s Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup for our performance of the piece during our Musica Viva tour of Australia in 2017! Matthew had the pleasure of representing us at the eighth annual Art Music Awards in Melbourne, Australia. The following day, Matthew joined our powerhouse Creative Lab alumni down in Oz for a small reunion performance.

Thanks to APRA AMCOS for their continued support, and to Kaylie Melville, Tamara Kohler, and Allison Wright for a fun time at The Brunswick Green. 

For a full list of winners, click here

Composer and Blackbird Creative Lab alumnus Nick Benavides recently reached out to us to share an article he wrote about identity and vulnerability. In Nick’s words, “It was fun to write words for once, not notes, and explore some ways I’ve grown this year.” He writes about learning to represent his culture musically, and how his work with Gabriela Lena Frank has helped him discover himself in new ways. 

Check out the full post here. 

This year, we had the great pleasure of hosting friends from New Music USA at the Blackbird Creative Lab, our two-week tuition-free summer intensive in Ojai, CA.  It’s often hard to convey the magic that takes place at the Lab in words, so 2018 saxophone fellow Nick Zoulek was asked to showcase his experience in a photo journal. Among Nick’s many creative talents is a striking ability to take beautiful photos, and he was able to capture so much of the beauty of our time at the Besant Hill School. Head on over to New Music USA to check out Nick’s photo journal.

Photo by Nick Zoulek.

After another successful Blackbird Creative Lab, we are back home in Chicago and taking a moment to process. The second week always goes by faster than the first because of the performance prep and concerts added to the schedule. The fellows get the full Eighth Blackbird experience of adding lighting, staging with our resident choreographer Ros Warby, and in some cases video projection to their pieces. We are lucky to have an incredible staff and stage crew that makes it all happen smoothly and seamlessly behind the scenes!

~Nois performing the world premiere of Gemma Peacock’s “Dwalm” with visuals by Xuan Zhang, choreographed by Ros Warby. Photo by Kirby Russell.

In addition to concert prep, the fellows got to learn from our final three guest lecturers. On Monday, Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Skyped in to our seminar hour to talk about the difference between curating and presenting. Kristy has an incredible talent for articulating her role in the arts, and the fellows walked away with tips on how to talk with donors and presenters, the importance of relationships and flexibility, and how to curate a culture beyond the individual project.

Nico Muhly was with us the entire second week to work with composers in one-on-one sessions and lead a seminar talk. He brought such a vibrant energy, and a wealth of knowledge and experience from a life rooted in community building. Just about every composer after their lesson with him said “I’m not entirely sure I understood everything…but I’m sure that my life changed for the better,” or something to that effect. Bonus: he also performed with our final guest artist, Shara Nova.

Shara Nova and Nico Muhly performing. Photo by Lab fellow Nick Zoulek.

Shara was one of the most anticipated by the fellows (read: there was lots of fan-girling). Her own work is community driven, so she invited all of the fellows and staff to participate in a rockin performance of “Pressure” at the donor dinner. She presented a Ted Talk-style overview of her career, and explained how she grew as an artist with each new collaboration and project by staying open to learning new things and being curious.  

Donors and friends from New Music USA chat with Matthew Duvall and percussion fellow Dan Reifsteck. Photo by Kirby Russell.

We ended the week with a donor event, including guests from New Music USA’s New Music Connect group (featuring Justus Schlichting who, along with his wife Helen, has now commissioned all 12 of the composer pieces that have been premiered at The Lab). And of course two absolutely stunning final concerts, with performances we will all remember for a very long time to come.

We truly believe that this year’s Lab was another powerful experience. The two weeks were not only musically intense, but also pushed fellows to dig deep into themselves and think about why they do what they do, hopefully emerging with a clear vision for their career. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for this year’s group, and also to continue watching our 30 inaugural alums. Onward and upward!

We made it through Week 1!! Our special guests included Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon (back for her second year as a Blackbird Creative Lab faculty member), visual artist Ann Hamilton, and performance psychologist Dana Fonteneau. These artists inspired us, made us laugh, cry, explore our innermost struggles, and…make some really interesting and weird music!

J-Higs as the Fellows now call her, spent the week working with fellows in rehearsals and one-on-one sessions. She also gave a seminar that was like an inspiring college graduation speech that could go viral. Jennifer’s table at every meal was full of fellows listening to her stories and asking questions.

photo of Jennifer Higdon by Nick Zoulek

Ann Hamilton and Dana Fonteneau shared equally personal and honest stories about their career paths and artistic process, and Ann actually led us all through an experimental composition that was both cathartic and hilarious at times. Bonus: Ann’s husband Michael Mercil, who is also an amazing visual artist, was along for the trip, and shared some of his interesting collaborative work with NYC-based ensemble Tigue. We are extremely grateful to each of this amazing guests for their  time, energy, and openness throughout the week!

2018 fellows with Ann Hamilton and Michael Mercil.
Dana Fonteneau giving her Whole-Hearted Musician presentation.

Saturday’s salon concert (an open forum where fellows can share works in progress) was jam packed with exciting music! We actually kicked it off with a surprise performance of works by David Lang and Philip Glass, which was so much fun, since we do very little performing as Eighth Blackbird here at the Lab. Then piano duo HOCKET performed a work by member Thomas Kotcheff entitled “wgah’nahl fhtagn” (say that three times fast!), followed by presentations from vocalist Amy Petrongelli, saxophonist Nick Zoulek, clarinetist Luke Ellard and percussionist Dan Reifsteck, who surprised us with a lovely ballad for voice and piano. The salon then transitioned outside, where trumpeter and electronic musician Allison Wright and video projection artist Xuan Zhang had set up an electronic music jam session with video projections on the trees. It was maybe the closest that a new music festival has ever come to feeling like…an NYC nightclub in 2001? 

Fellows at the end of Saturday evening’s salon performance.

To close out Week 1, we surprised the Fellows with a disco ball party. Yes, with a real disco ball, DJ, and colored lights! Everyone, including our competitive ballroom dancing Lab Director extraordinaire Elaine Martone boogied well into the night. Photos from that evening are classified (no one needs to see Nick Photonis and Matthew Duvall’s classic dad dance moves, LOL), but we can attest to the fact that it was a super fun ending to a week full of amazing highlights.

The 2018 Blackbird Creative Lab is now in session! Our staff spent the weekend getting the gorgeous Besant Hill School campus in the center of the Ojai valley ready for us. Besant Hill is a remote boarding school surrounded by citrus orchards, vineyards, mountains, and sunshine. It is the perfect setting to feel relaxed and focused while working on new pieces, and experimenting with creativity.

On Sunday afternoon, we eagerly awaited the arrival of our second class of fellows, arriving from Hong Kong, New Zealand, Chicago, Los Angeles and everywhere in between. We couldn’t wait to get them checked in, and to get started on this adventure together

The majority of each day at the Lab is spent in 3 sessions of rehearsals. As you walk around campus, hundreds of birds chatter about the music and add their own take on certain pieces. One of their favorites is Derek Bermel’s “Coming Together” performed by clarinest Luke Ellard and cellist Jake Saunders, because there is lots of pitch bending!

Afternoons are for salons (a place for fellows to showcase works in progress), and also for guest artist and faculty workshops. So far, we’ve led our own workshop on visioning and strategic planning for artists, that was reinforced by our good friend Tom Morris, aka Artistic Director of the Ojai Music Festival, who  spoke to the fellows about vision statements and the art of curation. Our movement faculty member, Ros Warby, also gave a wonderful workshop, and reminded us that this week is all about “digging deep and bringing that depth to the surface.”

One of our favorite parts of the Lab is watching old friends come together, new friendships in the making, and seeing fellows meet the ensemble and faculty. Clarinet fellow Luke recounted a story about the first time he heard Jennifer Higdon’s “Blue Cathedral” in middle school band, and how excited he was to finally work with her in person here at the Lab.  So far, the Lab has been full of small connections like this, old and new . There is so much more community building and creative expansion in store for our next few weeks here, and we can’t wait to see it all unfold.