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.