Last night’s performance was entitled “Reflections”, and marked the official end of the inaugural Blackbird Creative Lab. It was a hefty program, featuring the works of Lab composers Fjóla Evans, Dan Caputo, and Molly Herron, and the works of faculty and guest composers Jennifer Higdon, Ted Hearne, and Ned McGowan. The mood was more cerebral and contemplative than last night’s playful romp, but no less impactful. We heard two very different works of faculty composer Ted Hearne, By-By Huey and Warning Song. Bryan Hayslett mentioned offhandedly in one of the early rehearsals of Warning Song that he might have done the backing tracks a little differently, and I said, “Let’s make it happen.” So he spent a good chunk of the evenings at the Lab recording all new backing tracks (12 in total) that he used in the performance. (I also convinced him to use a felt pick on his cello and buy an iPad pro. I might be a bad influence.) Michiko Theurer and Nick memorized and played a few virtuosic duos  by Jörg Widmann, even incorporating a bit of waltzing – I don’t think Nick has played his cello sitting down once this whole two weeks. Nathalie played a duo with Aaron Wolf by Gabriela Frank which lamented the downfall of ancient civilizations. Jocelyn Zelasko and Justine Aronson sang a duo from Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain about listening to the rhythm of nature, and Molly Herron wrote a moving work for Invoke using footage she shot in Lebanon and the Netherlands while mentoring refugee children in composition. Fjóla’s piece Eroding was meditative and a bit sad, with the barefoot performers starting in a circle and then moving around each other to eventually end in a tight cluster encircling the cellist.

The second half opened with Dan Caputo’s Dream Mechanics, which used the snare drum as a speaker for electronics. There was also a glowing fish bowl with a projection of a fish behind the performers, and the singer, caught in a lucid dream-state, feeling her way around stage with her eyes closed. Then came Amy Beth Kirsten’s For A Dream’s Sake, showcasing Jocelyn Zelasko trapped a nightmare. Two incredibly virtuosic pieces followed: Alexandre Lunsqui’s percussion duo Materiali, which used six terracotta roof tiles among many other things, and Kristin Kuster’s sax and piano duo Jellyfish. Then Nathalie’s group came out and absolutely killed Ned McGowan’s Garden of Iniquitous Creatures. I’d like to think they were able to play it so well because Ned essentially gave them a cheat sheet with his rhythm workshop, but the truth is they’re just that good.

In the words of our illustrious Lab Director, Elaine Martone, no self-respecting music festival doesn’t have an afterparty, so we got out the disco ball, ordered some tacos and margaritas delivered, and got down to partying. The mood was a bittersweet mix of elation over the accomplishments of the past two weeks and sadness over having to part with the precious tight-knit community we built. As I circulated among the fellows, reminiscing about the highs and lows, saying some pre-emptive goodbyes, I saw Nick and Matthew standing apart from the crowd with their drinks. I walked over to tease them about not dancing and hopefully prod Nick into rapping for us. But then Matthew gave me a look that I’ve only ever seen on his face when he talks about his children, this look of glowing pride. Given the hectic schedule we all had, we haven’t really had a chance to talk about our personal experiences, but at that moment, I knew we were all feeling the same thing. We were so incredibly proud of what these fellows have achieved over these past two weeks, and we feel so lucky to have enabled it. This is an actual dream come true for us. So while the fellows were lamenting the end of the Lab and the subsequent return to reality, and I had to remind them and myself that 1) this is reality, and 2) this is only the end of the beginning.

Last night, we were milling about outside Zalk Theater waiting for the very first performance of the inaugural Blackbird Creative Lab to begin when we heard a little bell dinging in the distance. As we swiveled our heads to find the source, we saw composer Danny Clay leading some fellows up the garden path to where we were waiting. When they arrived, they began performing some of the games from his work Lab Book. Playful and at times downright hilarious, it requires the musicians (or anyone who can make noise) to play games by following rules he sets up. Think “Simon Says” and “tag”, but using musical instruments. After a round of games, the musicians started a beautiful melody and led a procession into Zalk, inviting us to take a wooden comb from a bowl on our way inside.

The program that followed was in turns delightful, sad, creepy, and exhilarating. A lot of it was a surprise to me because, while I’ve heard most of the rehearsals, I hadn’t seen any of the staging or transitions between pieces, which were all choreographed in great detail. The result was a smooth, coherent show with no awkward pauses – everyone knew what they were doing at what time – and the performers had the audience eating out of their hands. We heard two other pieces commissioned for the Lab: Molly Joyce’s Less Is More and Viet Cuong’s Electric Aroma. Molly wrote for the Passepartout Duo, who memorized her piece for the show so that the lights could be the third instrument of the piece. They also played Mayke Nas’ DiGit #2, which I can only describe as a highly theatrical rendition of pattycake. Viet’s piece ensnared me (pun intended) with his crotale-stopped-on-snare-drum effect and honking reed multiphonics. We saw our very own Nick stand on a table with his cello to lead another round of Danny Clay’s games, the last one in which we were encouraged to use our combs to contribute cricket noises as the performers led the audience back outside for intermission. Justine Aronson and Erika Boysen performed Kate Soper’s Only the Words Mean What They Say fully memorized and staged to devastating effect – I am still haunted by the way they embodied the internal and external of a character simultaneously. Kate Outterbridge and Robert Fleitz bared their souls in Richard Reed Parry’s Heart and Breath, and Phoebe Wu and Jordan Curcuruto donned red and blue wigs to tease us with Jessie Marino’s Rot Blau. There was more laughter than I’ve ever heard at any concert, which in and of itself was wonderful.

Spirits were flying high as we gathered after the show on the dining commons veranda, also known as The Nest, or The Serial Bar (both puns apt and intended), depending on whom you ask. It was amazing to finally see all our work come together in a show, but also a bit intimidating, if I’m to be honest. How are we supposed to top that tonight??

 

To celebrate the summer solstice, composer Fjóla Evans organized a performance of her piece in the yurt (yes, there’s a real yurt on campus), summoning us with a morning email that she signed, “Yours in drone, Fjóla.” So, after an exhausting day filled with rehearsals and a seminar led by Ted about his work and about the commissioning process, I overcame my fear of the yurt – accounts of decapitated rabbits and black widow spiders come to mind – and walked gingerly down the path with the aid of my phone’s flashlight. At the entrance, Danny Clay greeted us with a bag of wooden combs. I didn’t quite catch the instructions if they were ever given, but it became clear that the combs were for making cricket sounds. We settled into the dark yurt, illuminated only by a single flashlight aimed at the ceiling in the center, and the droning started amongst random human crickets. At first I was uncomfortable in the pitch black, worrying about whether there was a spider crawling up my pants leg, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw people lying comfortably on their backs, fiddling with combs, some just sitting serenely, not using their combs at all, and I began to let myself sync up with the energy of the space and the people within. There was something ritualistic and pagan about it, but it was also a welcome cleansing experience and not the creepy séance it could have been. I didn’t even notice that the drones had dissipated until it was already over, much like how I never notice that the days are shortening until we are well into fall.

Last night we invited some very special friends and supporters of the Lab to a dinner and performance event. Because it was originally planned to coincide with Steve Reich’s visit, we had an entire program of his music ready. But since we wanted to share both the music and the beautiful setting, we organized a musical tour of sorts, kicked off with a Skype session with Steve (surprise!). Even though we had it up and running for 15 minutes before the fellows and guests filed in, the minute Steve began to talk, the connection garbled his words into a Charlie Brown’s mom-like noise (surprise, surprise!!). Our staff quickly conferred, and found a solution using the video from Skype and the microphone from a good ol’ cell phone (everyone at the festival has my number now because I had to shout it to Steve over Skype). Worked like a charm, and we were all finally able to clearly hear Steve’s charm as he answered questions from the fellows. Then we proceeded up to the hilltop where we heard Kaylie Melville and Evan Saddler perform Nagoya Marimbas against the transcendent backdrop of mountains and golden meadows. Then we descended to the amphitheater, where Four Organs was waiting for us, and then to the Zalk Theater for some thank yous, a champagne toast and a rousing performance of Double Sextet. In many ways, it felt like a summer solstice of the Lab. True, we still have the weekend of performances ahead of us, but now the days are definitely getting shorter as we near the end of our two weeks together. The fruit of our labor will be shown in the next two days, but there have been so many seeds planted that need much longer than two weeks to germinate. To that end, we are planning a Lab alumni performance event in Chicago in January 2018! Details to follow soon…

Meanwhile, if you’re in the LA or Ojai area, please come and see the fantastic work the fellows have been doing over the past two weeks! Tickets here.

Over the past several days, Ned McGowan has been leading the Lab through the rhythm course he usually takes a whole year to teach. He’s quite the taskmaster, being the only guest to give us homework so far (due tomorrow, though I probably won’t be done in time).  Monday night we had the grand culmination of the course, for which he taught us an entire piece. We divided into two large groups and learned the whole thing over an hour, adding group movements like stomping and clapping and shouted syllables, which created their own (very loud) phasing rhythms between the two groups.  And just when we thought that this was the point, Ned suddenly whipped out his flute and started improvising over our rhythmic framework. Then Jeff Stern ran up to the drum set and took a solo, followed by Jordan Curcuruto, Nick Montopoli, Dylan Ward, and our very own Matthew Duvall. And all the while the group kept time in an energetic whisper. It was pretty magical. .

Cory Hills also paid us a visit. He is a percussive storyteller and one of Eighth Blackbird’s first Chicago Artist Workshop participants. He spoke about the children’s industry, charmed us with a few stories from his children’s programs, and took us through a tricky group rhythm exercise of his own, which had us moving through the group with the objective of messing each other up. Everyone instinctively used volume as a means to that end, so our ears were all ringing when that was over.

Last night, we had a follow up session to the first night’s seminar on core ideology, but since the fellows have been reading each other’s statements, commenting, and reflecting for the past week and a half, this time we broke up into groups and got down to it right away. We had such heady discussions over the difference between values, goals and purpose that we ran right into dinner. So we all opted to get food and continue the discussion in the dining commons. It’s a tortuous process, trying to distill and articulate your very identity into a few words. But when you’re with a trustworthy and safe group of people, the hive mind is a wonderful thing. Ted Hearne, who arrived last Sunday and has been making the rounds with the composers and their pieces, joined us at our table and talked a little bit about his journey to discovering his goals. We were still at it by dinner’s end, but by then people had rehearsals to attend. As I got up, I could see other groups reluctantly breaking up at their tables, knowing we don’t have much time to indulge in this process anymore while we’re here. But it looks like we have gotten their wheels turning, and that first step is often the hardest.

 

 

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!”

It’s the beginning of day 4 here at the Lab, but it feels like week 4 because so much has been going on. Every day has been so jam-packed with rehearsals, salons, seminars, and conversation that by 3pm I already feel like I’m ready for bed. But I dig deep because I know the next 7 hours are gonna be full of stuff I don’t want to miss.

Our director, Mark DeChiazza, led us through an eye-opening workshop where we composed with our bodies in successively larger and larger groups. We then performed for each other – to a lot of tittering – but it really drove home the power of small details, like body position, eye focus, and intention. An observer involuntarily draws conclusions about what they see by piecing together all the small details and interpreting them, and ultimately comes up with their own narrative, but only if you leave the visual space for that to happen. Mark’s one big instruction of the night was: no pantomiming. And we found that the more abstract the movement, the richer and more diverse the narrative became.

Last night we had our first salon, where Matt Keown and Jeff Stern performed a percussion duo, Jordan Curcuruto performed a percussion piece involving an invented language, and Invoke performed standards of their rep, showing off their banjo/mandolin skills as well as their barbershop chops. Watching these young artists perform was equal parts inspiring and humbling. They can all run circles around me, and yet I’m here mentoring them. It’s quite a responsibility.

The evening closed with a talk by Jennifer Higdon, who regaled us with hilarious stories from her life. As well as Eighth Blackbird knows her, there were still stories I hadn’t heard. She weaved in many life lessons, which were valuable not only for the composers, but for anyone seeking a career as an artist. (Seek advice from those you trust, your personal relationships are going to be crucial to your career.) We also heard live performances of her piece Dash, and the “Listen” duet from her opera Cold Mountain. She is the embodiment of hard work, of perseverance in the face of adversity, and also of generosity and stewardship. It’s hard not to like her – she’s so funny and warm – and impossible not to admire her.

Every minute up until the fellows arrived, it still felt like it wasn’t really happening. I mean, we were here and ready, they were on their way, the excitement and anticipation was building to a fever pitch, but we were still standing on an empty campus. It wasn’t until the fellows started trickling into the amphitheater for orientation that things got real.

Seeing all these people whose faces and work we’ve been looking at for months felt like seeing old friends. There were hugs all around and animated chit chat while everyone got settled. After orientation, which included a tour of the campus as well as important warnings (coyotes! rattlesnakes! hornet’s nests!), we all sat down to a very lovely dinner al fresco, courtesy of Chef Juana. There was a tense moment when Jennifer Higdon and I started to serve ourselves food and then got sternly rebuked by the kitchen staff, who insisted on serving us, but the fabulous food made up for that. I sat with the Passepartout Duo (Nicoletta Favari and Christopher Salvito), and the percussionists Evan Saddler, Jeff Stern, and Jordan Curcuruto. It seems that percussionists not only have strength in numbers here, they all like to hang out together, too.

After the first few bites, Jeff turned to me and asked, “So is this representative of all the meals here? Because I could get used to this.” I honestly didn’t know the answer, because that was also the first meal I had on campus. So I told him not to get his hopes up too high, and especially not to expect Matthew to always be walking around with a bottle of red in one hand and a bottle of white in the other asking us which we preferred.

We let the fellows rest and settle in for the rest of the evening, and the next day we got right to work rehearsing. There’s nothing like the sound of thirty musicians rehearsing away all at once. For me, it brings back so much nostalgia and a feeling of home-ness. This is what my spiritual home should sound like: a glorious cacophony of people all pouring their hearts into their passions, together.

In the evening, the ensemble gave a short history of Eighth Blackbird during the hour before dinner. After dinner, we laid bare our core values and core purpose as well as our Big Hairy Audacious Goals (B.H.A.G.s), then gave them some paper and tasked them with searching for their own. As we walked around, we heard some fellows doing deep soul-searching and some fellows genuinely struggling with how to articulate what they thought they understood so well about themselves. One group had already gone through this process a few years ago, but decided to scrap everything they had and start anew. Some people had several pages full of brainstormed ideas. Some had blank pages.

These sheets will be put up for the Blackbird Creative Lab community to view, but I will not be posting photos or telling you what they wrote, nor will you be seeing anything on social media. We want our fellows to feel comfortable being honest with themselves and with each other, and it’s a very vulnerable process to go through. Our hope is that our little community will collectively help each and every one of these fellows walk away with a clearer understanding of not only who they are as artists, but who they want to become. I think it’s safe to say we got off to a very good start.

We made it to Ojai, finally! As you can see, the views are not too shabby. We’ve been running around like chickens without heads trying to get everything ready before the fellows arrive today. There are just so many errands, decisions, last-minute crises – I can’t wait for the fellows to just get here already so we can be done getting ready and just start already.

Since there’s no food on campus until dinner tonight, we’ve had to go into Ojai for every meal. The town is abuzz with activity because of the Ojai Music Festival. Everywhere you look there are Birkenstock-clad people either carrying instruments or lawn chairs. Matthew and I quickly found a favorite restaurant, Food Harmonics, that serves up incredibly delicious vegan, vegetarian, paleo, and gluten-free meals (it is California, after all). Sounds gross, but I assure you it’s not. If I only ate there, and only had the bison burger salad bowl the entire two weeks, I would still not be sick of it. The host is super-friendly, knows all the ingredients in all of their dishes, and genuinely seems to like working there. Plus, I spotted a supermodel (Shalom Harlow, if you’re wondering), although no one believes me.

Coffee, on the other hand, was quite a different experience. Matthew was smart enough to buy some bottled cold brew for himself, but I had to venture back into town this morning at 7am to get my fix. I Yelped a coffee shop with great reviews and headed there, bleary-eyed and unshowered to feed my addiction. I walked in, noted the hipster decor, but had no inkling of what I was about to experience. I love coffee, but I don’t love caffeine. I can handle a bit, but a whole cup of coffee will make me shake and feel like the world is going to crash down around me. And since I like to sip on coffee for most of the day, I usually order a half decaf – either I ask for a mix of decaf and regular shots in an Americano, or I just ask for half decaf and half regular drip. So I went up to the counter and asked for just that, and the young barista looked at me with scorn and sincere pity.

He said, “We can’t do that.”

I said, “Oh, you don’t have brewed decaf?”

“No, we do. We just can’t mix it with regular.”

“I don’t understand. Can’t you just pour me a half cup of decaf and fill the rest with regular?”

Nooooooooo. You see, they don’t mix. They’re totally different types of beans and special roasts, and it just wouldn’t be a half-caff anyway. The two just wouldn’t blend and it would taste horrible.”

(He demonstrated the not-mixing by interlocking his fingers with palpable condescension, which I pretended not to notice.)

“Okay, well how many shots do you put in your Americano?”

“Two.”

“So, can you make me one with one decaf shot and one regular?”

(Mock sorrow with extreme head tilt)

“Oh, noooooooo. We can’t do that either. For the same reason.”

At this point, I sort of looked around at the empty shop, wondering if there was a camera, because I was sure I was being punked. There was a guy waiting in line behind me, and while he wasn’t acting impatient, he also was making a point not to look at me. It became clear to me that I was not being punked, and further more, I was realizing that this video, which I thought was a parody, might actually be a documentary.

I’m ashamed to say I was too embarrassed to push the point, and I really wanted coffee, so I walked out of there with a regular Americano, head down, and Septa Unella’s voice ringing in my ears. And, I will admit, it was pretty good. Of course, as soon as I was driving back, I chided myself for letting some teenage hipster coffee snob get the better of me. I could out-snob him any day, he just caught me off-guard. I think I’ll go back there and order a grande half-caff soy mint mocha frappuccino with extra whip and three pumps of syrup, in a venti cup, and watch his head explode.

Aspirational packing. I will never come close, and I’m okay with that.

It’s time to pack for Ojai!

People always say to me,  “You must be an expert packer because you travel so much!”

And I usually just laugh. Because, yes, I do travel a lot, but somehow that fact has only created more anxiety around the whole business of packing. I still seem to have trouble anticipating with any kind of accuracy what I will want versus need to wear, and I almost always leave something essential at home. To combat this, I have amassed a stash of certain items (extra contacts, tiny tubes of toothpaste and several travel toothbrushes, laundry detergent, nutrition bars, feminine products) that permanently live in the dark, seldom-explored crevices of my suitcase. I dip into this stash occasionally, like when I recently forgot to pack any contacts, or the time I forgot to pack underwear and had to wash mine in the sink every night, but mostly I pretend this stash doesn’t exist and pack anew for every trip. But since I really know it’s there, this also means I have to take the same suitcase for pretty much every trip, whether it’s for three days or three weeks. I only take a different one if it’s an overnight trip, because you can live without most things for one night.

You’d think I have a tried and true packing list by now. Because that would make sense after forgetting to pack contacts and underwear, right? But I don’t. I know I should. The truth is, though it has happened, I still don’t believe that I will forget things like contacts and underwear. It’s the unusual items unique to that trip that I think I need to remember.

So let’s get back to Ojai. I’ve never been there, but I’m from Southern California and I kind of have a good idea of what to expect. My weather app tells me it will be sunny: the lows will be in the 50s and the highs will range from 70s to 90s. Light jacket, layers, sunscreen, sunglasses, check.

I’ll be performing. This fact usually necessitates its own packing list. The switch to iPads has all but eliminated my anxiety over forgetting to bring the right music, but created a new anxiety about remembering to bring the appropriate chargers. Violin, iPad, pedal, charger, extra charger, extra strings, practice mute, dressy clothes and shoes, check.

Besant Hill School has a dreamy aquatic center. Swimsuits, goggles, earplugs, flip flops, sun hat, extra towel, check.

Gravel and dirt roads on campus. Sensible footwear, clothing that’s okay to get dirty, check.

Dorm living. Shower slippers, bathrobe, shampoo and soap, check.

Great. I gather all these things and start stuffing my suitcase, only to find that it’s not going to fit. Not even close. So I take everything out and roll items tightly like I’ve seen in those articles about packing, trying to get my suitcase to look like the picture. Still doesn’t fit. So then I start whittling down, frustrated that I wasted all that time trying to get things to fit. This is usually when I make poor decisions, keeping something I’m attached to emotionally and leaving something more useful.  You know, like opting to keep three swimsuits but taking out all my socks. My bedroom looks like a war zone at this point.

Eventually, I just have to zip up the suitcase and accept the fact that I’m a terrible packer and will always be. I tell myself it’s only two weeks, and even though it’s in the middle of nowhere, I won’t be alone and can always ask Nathalie for lotion if I’ve forgotten it. I know Michael will have his Aeropress. Matthew will have snacks. And most importantly, Annie will have alcohol.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We just got back from a wonderful couple of days in New York (the state), where we visited Cornell and Syracuse University. Cornell is special to me because my little sister went to law school there. If you have ever known anyone that was in law school, you know that for three years, that person was basically in a black hole. She didn’t come home for holidays, she didn’t answer the phone, she didn’t reply to texts. All I know is that she came out of there with two desires: to live in a place that was flat, and to own a Subaru Forester. She has both those things now, and after our visit to Ithaca, I think I understand why. I decided to go for a little walk our first morning there to get coffee and explore a bit. The landscape is rugged but stunningly beautiful. I wandered around a bit and then decided to go up Buffalo Street  – and I do mean up. It was a sunny and not-too-warm day, but I soon found myself wondering if I was going to have a heart attack, not from exertion but from fear that if I tried to stand up straight, I would fall over backwards and roll down the hill to my death. When I told my sister this, she scoffed and said, “try doing that in snow and ice.” It all makes sense to me now.

We performed in Barnes Hall, which is a lovely brick and stained-glass venue that looked perfect for Shakespearean plays. How serendipitous that we had so much spoken text in our program with Composition as Explanation and Counting Duets. We did have a couple of compulsive texters in the front row (why are they always in the front row??) that I didn’t see but were right in Nick’s line of vision, so you can bet we heard him kvetch about that for several hours afterwards. But there was also a young couple in the front row dressed to the nines that were absolutely rapt the entire time, so it all evened out.

The next night we headed to Syracuse University, where we split up for some master classes with string players, a quartet, and a couple flutists. We heard the theme music to a Japanese shogun drama, as well as a really lovely string quartet movement by a student composer.  Then some of us decided to go back to the hotel to rest a bit before the show, and I decided to drive the half-mile or so because my glutes were so sore from Buffalo Street the day before. Big mistake. When I tried to drive back, what should have been a two-minute trip turned into a fifteen-minute curse-fest, as Google continually led me into dead-ends and told me to turn the wrong way down one-way streets. Steering with one hand and watching the blue arrow spinning uncontrollably in wild circles, I really started to panic that I might never find my way out of the forestry school (only Google knows how I got there, and she’s not telling). Finally, I threw the phone on the floor and looked for the high points, remembering that Hendricks Chapel was on a hill. I did eventually bushwhack my way back in time for the show, no thanks to Google. (I hereby warn you that Google is wholly unreliable on college campuses, which are in my experience designed to either trap visitors or scare them away. Navigate at your own risk.)

We played the show to a small but enthusiastic audience in Hendricks Chapel, which is a remarkable all-faith, including no-faith, spiritual and ethical center of the university. It’s the only place of worship I’ve encountered that has foot-washing stations in the public restrooms, which I thought was nothing short of amazing. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth a visit…if you can find it.

Last night we hosted a little – or at least we thought it would be little – private event for our closest friends and fans. We ended up with over 40 people in attendance, but somehow it still felt intimate. The night was dedicated to non-Eighth Blackbird projects near and dear to our hearts, and we heard some performances of works from those projects. Matthew played a Burtner piece that will be featured on his solo MCA show in a couple weeks, Lisa played Vicky/Vicki by Andy Akiho, which she has been performing on other programs, and Nick played Angelica Negron’s Panorama, which he recorded for his solo album coming out on New Amsterdam very soon. Nathalie, Michael and I performed a movement of David Lang’s Composition as Explanation, and we capped off the evening with a performance of an old favorite, Doublespeak, by Nico Muhly.

We also had some other exciting news for our guests. They received a sneak peek of the 30 fellows, formally announced today, that are coming to the Lab! Nathalie put together a wonderful compilation of the fellows’ reacting to the news of their acceptance, which, after overcoming some technical glitches, we were able to show to our delighted guests. (Why is it that when you test something it works fine, and later, when you need it to work for real, it never does? Is there some kind of scientific law governing this phenomenon?)

We also gave our guests a little preview of what’s on the menu for our first ever online auction. We have some pretty great packages to see The National, Pitchfork Festival, and yours truly in LA and Chicago, some unique artisan items, the signed first page of the score to Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak, and so much more! Get excited, tell your friends, and CLICK HERE to head to the auction site.

Painful as it was to leave Melbourne, we quickly set our sights on our impending visit to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, buying tickets online as soon as we landed in Brisbane. We shoved our luggage into our rooms and ran back downstairs to catch an Uber to the sanctuary. It was already past 2pm and koala cuddling ended at 4:30, so there wasn’t a moment to lose. I have never seen Nathalie so excited about anything. I mean, she was close to tears as we entered the car park. So when they told us that koala cuddling tickets (an extra $18 fee) were sold out, I was genuinely expecting Nathalie to chuck a wobbly at the employee. We would be allowed to pet them, but not allowed to hold them.  Apparently too many tourists had already come through and manhandled the poor koalas, who were all humaned out. You’ve never seen such disappointment. I wanted to cry just looking at Nathalie’s face.

We slowly came to terms with our disappointment as we meandered through the sanctuary. All the wonderful and unexpected creatures helped. We were first greeted by a bearded dragon, which we soon realized had compadres lurking in every corner. There were also wild turkeys running about. Our spirits lifted by these encounters, we made a beeline for the koalas. There was a mom and joey enclosure, a bachelor pad enclosure, a kindy koala enclosure, and the cuddling station. Adam made a valiant effort at talking them into letting us hold Buckley, the koala of the day, but Buckley’s handler wasn’t having it. We were allowed up only one at a time to pet Buckley – and only on the lower back portion, please – and his handler kept us to about 30 seconds each. I’ll be honest: I was only there because I have a young son and I have to be able to tell him I pet a koala in Australia. But as soon as I touched Buckley’s soft dense fur, I was charmed. And I’ll be damned if my heart didn’t melt instantly at the sight of koala moms cuddling with their joeys. And Nathalie? I think her voice went up at least two octaves.

After some quality time with the koalas, we moved onto dingoes, tasmanian devils, platypuses, kookaburras, snakes, monitor lizards and emus, among others. Then it was time for a refreshment in the cafe, where we were tortured by a wall of celebrities holding koalas. Nathalie immediately found Janet Jackson, and Adam immediately found Grover (yes, from Sesame Street). John Paul II and the Queen Mother also got koala cuddles. If only we were famous.

After studying other visitors in the kangaroo enclosure feeding the roos out of hand and surviving, we each bought packets of kangaroo food and tried our hand as well. Aside from the unavoidable roo poo, it was an exhilarating experience to walk amongst the kangaroos and feed them right out of your hand. They were extremely docile, but we still kept a safe distance from the moms carrying joeys. For the most part they were pretty small, except for one which was as big as a pony and was patrolling the enclosure from the outside, probably for obvious reasons. We basically closed out the sanctuary hanging out with the kangaroos as the caretakers made noises about locking us in. We made one last pass through the koalas and then had to say goodbye. They escaped our grasp this time, but mark me well: if we are ever back, they will not escape a second time.

 

If cities are like celebrities, Sydney is Beyonce. She’s the Queen Bey, enough said. Constantly in the public eye, she’s impeccable in performance, everyone loves her, everyone wants to see her, everyone wants to take pictures of her.

What about Bey’s little sister Solange? If you don’t know who Solange is, that’s because she’s been flying under the radar this whole time. Solange might once have only been known as Beyonce’s little sister, but the younger, hipper Knowles is now quietly emerging as a performer and creative force in her own right after years churning out hits behind the scenes as a songwriter.

Melbourne is Sydney’s Solange. We love and adore Sydney, but we really wanna hang out and be friends with Melbourne.

Melbourne doesn’t have a flashy harbor with a world-famous opera house and bridge. But it does have a river lined with hipster bars and daring architecture. Beards are oiled and coiffed, hemlines are asymmetrical, socks are colorful and quirky. Sydney is up to its eyeballs in luxury name brands, but Melbourne is where you’ll see someone walking down the street wearing something you’ve never seen before and you can’t help but do a double take because they look so effortlessly cool. Fitzroy, I’m talking to you.

We  logged over 15,000 steps exploring Fitzroy. Almost every window display drew us in, and I spent more money on Gertrude Street than I did on food in two weeks. I have no regrets. My sisters are gonna love their gifts, and they’ll be the only ones on their continent with them. (If you’re in the neighborhood, do not miss Design Dispensary, which has an uber-cool selection of curated items from all over the world.) We quenched our significant thirst with a cocktail on the rooftop of Naked for Satan, where we took in 360 degree views of Melbourne. Nathalie had the tasting menu at Saint Crispin one night, and we had dinner at Taxi Kitchen another. It was Matthew’s birthday on our last night in Melbourne, so we gathered at Gin Palace for some Negronis and their famous chicken sandwiches.

I do want to devote some space here to talk about the plumbing fixtures we encountered in Melbourne. Apparently no design element in Melbourne is safe from experimentation. I can’t tell you how many public restrooms I walked into where I didn’t know how to use the faucet. I stood supplicating in front of one faucet, waving my hands in every way I could think of to activate the sensor before realizing that the decorative metal “accent” on the tiled wall was actually the faucet lever. At Gin Palace, water came out of a giant pipe in the ceiling. And then there was the sink-toilet combo. I’ve never seen a sink on top of toilet before. The sensor faucet wasn’t rocket science to operate, but after washing my hands and flushing, the faucet wouldn’t stop running. Thinking I broke it, I backed out of the restroom slowly, wondering if I should confess to the staff. But then Michael, who knows all things, explained to me that the faucet water was filling the toilet tank. Duh.

All I want to do is head back to Fitzroy to storm all the stores that were closed on Sunday and drink every cocktail at the Everleigh and discover more weird faucets. But we leave for Brisbane today, which is sad for my inner shopping addict but probably very good for my wounded wallet. All is not downhill from here, though, because a koala sanctuary awaits us in Brisbane, as well as a reunion with our former flutist Tim Munro’s beloved mum. Stay tuned.

So it’s been almost two weeks since we’ve landed on this big island and we have been steadily picking up and incorporating the lingo. You know, to blend in. The accent is a bit hard to mimic, and words like “no” (which sounds to our American ears like “nawyeurooahooo”) really betray us. But in writing, we’re indistinguishable from native Aussies. Behold:

A great day in an Australian city such as Sydney always begins with a delicious brekkie, and we enjoy some smashed avo toast with poached eggs on top. Usually the sun is bright and reliable in the summer, but we happen upon the one day in Sydney when the harbor is obscured by clouds and a Seattle-like mist enrobes the city. Good thing our hotel is prepared with heaps of brollies. We grab a few and venture out to explore options for a quick cuppa. I’m partial to a long black myself, but flat whites and iced coffees are also very popular.

A trip to the dunny is usually necessary after too much coffee, and the boys look for a place to go for a slash. While the rest of us wait, we check out the tradies, one of whom is a ranga, and debate the appropriateness of their attire. I mean, no hard hats and above-the-knee shorts? Comfy, but definitely against protocol in the states.

No roos to be found in the city, unless kanga bangas at the Coles counts, but Sydney proper doesn’t concern itself with appeasing tourists’ appetites for exotic animals. There are fast ferries to Manly beaches and famous bridges and opera houses to gawk at, the Museum of Contemporary Art and The Rocks Market to visit, window shopping at the QVB, and, of course, concerts for us to play at the City Recital Hall.

Before we know it, it’s time for our arvo coffee, and perhaps a bikkie or two to accompany it. We discuss evening food options. There’s soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, Aussie burgers at Burger Project, or schnitties and meat pies at the local pub, an embarrassment of choices. Might as well start with cocktails at Opera Bar, where we can further discuss food and gawk at a bona fide reality TV star. After dinner, there will be a requisite trip to the nearest IGA to buy a box of Golden Gaytime. We barely step outside before devouring the whole box standing on the sidewalk next to the didgeridoo busker.

Driving in Australia, or should I say, being a passenger in a car in Australia, is utterly terrifying. Everything about it is wrong. As soon as the car pulls into traffic I’m convinced we will plow head-on into every car. Right turns in particular are heart-stopping. I try not to look but I get motion sickness easily so I have to look out the window. Just as I am getting accustomed to going the wrong way around in roundabouts, the car chucks a yewy and I think I might vomit.

Flying, on the other hand, is a real pleasure in Australia. I can walk on the plane with a full bottle of water brought from the hotel and no one blinks an eye. There’s always food included, even on measly hour-long flights. They board planes simultaneously from front and back*, and luggage comes out by the time you walk to the baggage claim. Watch out for those carousels, though. They spin so fast the bags literally come flying off the belt with the centrifugal force. Retrieving bags from our first domestic flight is reminiscent of the famous chocolates scene from I Love Lucy, only with more yelling and running as we chase our bags down the belt, shielding ourselves from the ones flying off it. Totes awkies.

Australian airlines don’t like cellos, however. Or, more likely, they just don’t like Nick. Our tour manager Michelle has hosted many groups with cellists and swears it has never been a problem. But Nick gets booted off our first flight from Perth to Canberra and has skirmishes with airline agents on every subsequent flight. Basically, Michelle has to crack the shits at someone every time we approach the counter. But once on the plane, everything’s grand.

After a long day, it’s time to relax in our rooms. We stay at a couple different Crowne Plaza hotels, some of which are attached to a casino. Though we are tempted to try our hand at the pokies, we all resist (as far as I know). The beaches are irresistible, however, and Adam is absolutely determined to introduce his toes to every beach he possibly can, no matter what time of day. Good on him. He needs a new cozzie, so Michelle points out a couple of stores where he might find some cute budgie smugglers. I promise him not to post any photos. At least not here…

*I’ve been told this is a Virgin Airlines thing, not an Australian thing.

Glossary:

Arvo = afternoon

Avo = avocado

Bikkie = biscuit

Brekkie = breakfast

Brollies = umbrellas

Budgie smuggler = Speedo

Chuck a yewy = make a U-turn

Cozzie = swimsuit

Crack the shits = get mad, throw a tantrum

Cuppa = cup of coffee or tea

Dunny = toilet

Flat White = basically milk with coffee flavor

Golden Gaytime = an ice cream bar with biscuit crumbles and chocolate coating

Good on him, also, good on ya = good for him, good for you

Iced Coffee = don’t be fooled, this is a milky, sugary treat

Kanga Banga = kangaroo sausage (see picture)

Long Black = espresso with water, but NOT an Americano

Pokies = slot machines

Ranga = redhead, as in “orangutan”

Roos = kangaroos

Schnitties = schnitzel

Totes awkies = totally awkward

Tradies = tradesmen

 

We just arrived in Perth yesterday, but have been looking forward to seeing quokkas on Rottnest Island for weeks. It’s the only excursion we actually planned and booked ahead of time for our one free day here. (Let me just apologize in advance for the next few posts, which will be replete with pictures of the gorgeous summer we are enjoying down under while our families freeze at home in Chicago. I promise you, we will be working hard as well.)

Wait, what’s a quokka, you ask?

I’m still not sure. It’s a marsupial with the tail of a rat, the body of a miniature kangaroo, and a face that’s cute as all get out. The only place on earth where they live is on Rottnest Island, except for the quokka who recently escaped to Perth on a garbage truck. That little quokka is now in a zoo. They kind of remind me of the Rats of Nimh (this is a deep cut, but we’re best friends forever if you know the reference). See?

The Rats of Nimh were really quokkas

They only live on Rottnest Island, which is accessible by a 45-minute ferry ride. Once on the island, there are no vehicles allowed, so you can rent a bike, book a Segway tour or hoof it to explore, all without worrying about death from cars. We opted to rent bikes, much to my horror because not only was I wearing a dress, but I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I rode a bike. Well, there was that one time a couple years ago on Governor’s Island when I acquiesced to a tandem bike with my husband, but we all know that doesn’t count. The only thing I feared more than the bike was being left behind by everyone, so I took the plunge.

And guess what? It was just like riding a bike. Sort of.  I did need a lot of personal space to feel comfortable, and there were buses and service vehicles that occasionally passed us, which nearly gave me a heart attack. And a mean lady yelled at me (it wasn’t my fault, I swear). We rode until we found a little beach access area, and several quokkas came out of the bushes to greet us. They’re extremely friendly and unafraid of humans, so if we wanted to pet one we could have. In fact, I had to back up to avoid a quokka who was maybe getting a bit too friendly. There are warnings everywhere not to touch or feed them, but the rumor that they carry salmonella was quite enough for me, thank you.

After getting our fill of quokkas, Nathalie and I headed down to the picturesque beach, where she snorkeled a bit and I baked on the beach, having not brought my swimsuit (did I mention it’s really hot here??).  At one point, Nathalie motioned to me from in the water to look at something. When I looked over, I saw a GIANT bird looking for lunch in the water. I missed it at first because I assumed it was a dinghy or some weird inflatable water toy, it was so big. We caught a picture of another one on our way back to the ferry (in the gallery above). If you know what it is, please tweet us!

 

We had so much fun last week in North Carolina! Well, full disclosure: we did start out the week in VA with a performance and recording session at Old Dominion University, which was lots of fun. But I also got a speeding ticket, which was not fun (thanks, Sergeant Peacock, you got me fair and square).

Young composers rarely get to have wizened old fogies like us read their music (for better or worse), let alone get a recording out of it, so this was a unique and hopefully valuable encounter. We gave some feedback and opinions about compositional choices, which is always a learning experience – both in what you hear and how you choose to internalize it. The student composers were awesome, and even humored us when we waxed philosophical about what 2/4 time signature really means. I always worry that we’re being too harsh, but then I remember that we’re not doing anyone any favors by sugar-coating what we say.

Then we headed to Winston-Salem. We made a stop at The Pit BBQ in Durham on our way to the hotel, and enjoyed some pretty fantastic ribs, chopped pork and sides. I don’t remember anything else from that night because I slipped into a deep coma soon after we got back in the car.

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity at UNC Greensboro, UNCSA, and a performance at Wake Forest University. We taught some masterclasses, held a few informal lectures and Q&A sessions with students, and were generally impressed and charmed by everyone we met. As it turns out, Nick’s wife Yasuko attended UNCSA as a youngster, but I don’t think she would recognize the school now. The addition of the “U” means university curriculum in addition to a complex of fancy new buildings. We were green with envy over their library, which has sweeping views of Winston-Salem.

After our performance, which was one of the best-attended this season, we headed to a beautiful reception in the home of Ralph Womble, who is a board member of Helen Simoneau Danse, who recently commissioned Nathalie. We ran into a few old friends and unexpected connections. We met the parents of a Chicago colleague, and I ran into best friends of a former colleague from my previous position with the Washington National Opera. Thanks, Ralph, for hosting such a lovely event!

Then it was back to Chicago for almost two days until we headed out to Richmond, where I’m writing this now. Next week to Chattanooga and then…down under for a month!

 

 

The last two nights we played fun, albeit somewhat sinister, concerts at Steppenwolf’s new 1700 Theater. We were joined by the awesome Richie Reed Parry, who wrote Strange Sun Rise, November 2016 for us. He came in the day before, we hashed through the score, he made changes, we played the first concert, he made more changes, we played the second concert. And still more changes will be made before we perform it again.  

Richie regaled us and the audience with the story behind the piece: inspired by Brian Eno’s iconic Music for Airports, it took a turn for the darker side when the election happened. A quiet, beautifully serene landscape just before sunrise morphed into a mashup of images from the openings of Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey with the faces of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Il as the only sources of light. Kinda funny, but also kinda not. 

In the tradition of Richie’s heart and breath pieces, Strange Sun Rise also has everyone playing either to their heartbeats or breaths. We all suited up with our stethoscopes, which required an insane amount of medical tape for the boys (but hey, free chest wax!) and a really good bra for the girls. It’s much less comfortable and much less audible than you might think it would be. One doesn’t hear one’s heartbeat so much as feel it through the vise-like earpiece, which seems like a torture device after a few minutes. But out of this pain is born great beauty. Each time we performed it, I was surprised and sad that it ended so soon. We heard from some audience members that they felt similarly, and could have listened to the piece indefinitely.

Aside from our ears being attacked by stethoscopes, there was another unfortunate casualty. Right before the second performance, Nathalie was putting her piccolo together while chatting with me and Lisa in the dressing room when we heard a thud. Her piccolo had slipped through her fingers and fallen on the floor. It seemed fine to the eye, but when she tried playing it, something was obviously wrong. Michael was called over to help diagnose the problem, but they decided it wasn’t fixable, at least by them. So, Nathalie played the whole concert on flute.  (Not that anyone could tell…)

The piccolo incident couldn’t have happened at a better time (except for never), because that was our last show of 2016. Nathalie’s taking the picc to the flute doctor today, and all will be well. We’re still rehearsing and working away, preparing for a recording the very first week of 2017, but we’ll be hunkered down in our studio until then. 

We wish all of you a wonderful holiday season and a very happy new year!

cubs-win

The Cubs are the World Series Champions. Just let that sink in for a second.

I only watch baseball because my husband is a fan. This usually means that I’m sitting on the couch reading the New York Times or playing  Candy Crush (yes, I’m still playing that) while he paces and yells at the TV. But last night I was glued to the TV, twisting my hotel sheets into a knot of agony, looking at my phone only to furiously text with my husband about the game. I thought I was going to die, like, seven times. 

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-8-26-26-am

Because how could you NOT care about this game, Cubs fan or not? When the Cubs were down 3-1 in the series, I thought all was lost. My husband put my son to sleep in a baseball onesie the night of Game 5, and that’s when they made a comeback. And if there’s any way to beat a curse, it’s with superstition. So you’d better be sure we stuffed him into that same unwashed onesie the next game night, which they won, and, of course, the final game night. They didn’t win easily, despite apparently taking control of the game early, but win they did. You’re welcome, Cubs fans. (That onesie is getting mounted into a shadow-box frame when I get home. Unwashed.)

So now our beloved hometown, lovable losers for over 100 years, will have to adjust to being the winners. I hope no one dies from the shock. We’re in Richmond until Sunday, so we’ll probably miss the victory parade, but I’m sure the celebration will continue for weeks on end. And the story, as far as my future Cubs fan son is concerned, will be that he’s the reason they won.