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??

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our last concert of the season was at Duke University, and I’ve been looking forward to it for months. We were last there in 2013, but I still remembered the amazing southern hospitality like it was yesterday. And this time was no different. All of us spent an inordinate amount of time just discovering all that the table had to offer. It was actually hard to tear ourselves away from the food to go do our sound check. Every time we had thirty seconds of break, someone would disappear and come back with crumbs all over their shirt. Gourmet chocolate, toffee, locally made cheeses, fresh and dried fruit, nuts, food bars we’ve never seen before, not to mention the craft beer and bottle of Laphroaig (okay, that’s on Will’s rider, but still) – I mean, it gives smorgasbord a whole new definition. And for those of you who are looking at the pictures and shrugging your shoulders, you have to understand, this stuff means a lot to touring musicians who have to eat crap on the road all the time and are at the mercy of presenters the day of a show when we’re spending all day tech-ing.

Baldwin Auditorium is no slouch, either. They had just finished renovations when we played there in 2013, and it’s still impressive. The hall is absolutely beautiful in its new state, with gorgeous acoustics and a fancy plenum underneath the perforated stage. I caught our presenter on his hands and knees in the green room inspecting some possibly loose baseboard, and it reminded me that last time we were here I saw him fretting over some other small imperfection that only he can see. I guess when it’s your home, every detail matters. We decided at the last minute to work up a couple more of Will’s songs as encores (it’s never too late) and we found ourselves wishing we had done that from the beginning. It really rounded out the evening and our season in a lovely way.

We’re done touring for the time being, but still working like mad behind the scenes as we prepare for the inaugural Blackbird Creative Lab in T minus 4 weeks and 4 days!

Nope, I didn’t spell it wrong. We just spent a couple days in Portland and got to observe what legalized marijuana does to a city. You can walk into a dispensary and buy edibles, vape pens, joints, what have you, just like you’re going into a liquor store and picking up a six-pack. You tell the budtender what kind of high you’re looking for and she makes recommendations. Like, it’s totally normal. There’s no looking over your shoulder or meeting a shady dude in a dark alley  or quickly putting out joints and holding your breath when you see a cop – not that I’ve ever done any of that, of course. As a visitor, all this makes you giddy, like the first time I walked into a casino and pulled a slot machine lever. But after about ten minutes of wrapping my brain around it, it ceased to be a thing and just became the new normal.

The day of our performance happened to be an unusually beautiful day, and we had a nice view of a park across the street from our green room windows. It was filled with Portlandians lying in the sun, having their dinner, taking a stroll after work, and, as Nick discovered, smoking pot. He decided to enjoy the weather after dinner; he wandered out and sat in the park to talk on the phone, and when he came back, he said he thought he might be high from all the second-hand smoke. So there’s that.

When we got to Seattle and found out it’s basically the same deal there, it was just shrugs all around. But now that I’m writing this from Durham, NC, far away from the potopia that is the Pacific Northwest, it all feels like a distant dream…

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.

 

 

There are tons of talented, driven people doing really interesting things right here in our own (big) backyard of Chicago, but not all of them have the resources we do to realize their art. We wanted to help, so we recently started a new initiative that we’re calling the Chicago Artists Workshop. We didn’t have to look hard to find three very different but equally cool artists to kick off this program: Cory Hills, Deidre Huckabay, and Parlour Tapes+. They all have different needs but basically we were ready to provide them with promotional, logistical, and production support; including use of the ensemble’s rehearsal space, access to a wide array of instruments and audio/video equipment, and use of the organization’s marketing infrastructure. Plus, it was cool to enter our Studio B space and see a shelf full of Deidre’s stuffed animals.

We had a flurry of activity during the first week of April.  Since Cory is great at working with kids, we helped him set up a performance at Chiaravalle Montessori School, which happens to be across the street from Matthew’s house and where he sends his own children. He also performed at Narloch Piano Studio and Ravinia School.

Both Cory and Deidre had a great performance at Comfort Station – check out the pictures in the gallery to see the stuffed animals in action! It was wonderful to see the fruit of their hard work and to know that we had some hand in helping them. Stay tuned for more news about the Chicago Artists Workshop and for the announcement of next year’s artists.

We are thrilled to announce the 30 fellows that have been selected for the inaugural year of the Blackbird Creative Lab, our new tuition-free summer training program. The Lab’s mission is to inspire the next generation of performers and composers to share in the ensemble’s vision: to champion a distinctive, dynamic and engaging performance aesthetic. Click here to learn more about The Lab and the uniquely talented group of artists that will take part in this wonderful new initiative!

> Read the NewMusicBox feature

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.

 

Do you feel like a winner?

We hope so, because Eighth Blackbird’s very own online auction site is up…

…and lemme tell you, ebay’s got nothin’ on us! We have curated a very exclusive collection of experiences and one-of-a-kind items just for you.

Pitchfork, Eaux Claires, The National? We got it.

Shows in Chicago, LA, Portland? You’re going.

Signed manuscript? Find it here.

Check it out – we guarantee there’s something for everyone. We advise you to bid early and bid hard, because you only have until April 30 to get in on the action. And if you don’t wanna play the nail-biting last-minute game, you can always click that beautiful Buy It Now button. Ah, instant gratification!

Wait, what’s that you say? You already have enough travel, culture, and tchotchkes?  You can still donate at any time! Remember, all the auction and donation proceeds go toward Eighth Blackbird’s commissioning and educational efforts, including the inaugural Blackbird Creative Lab happening June 2017. Thanks in advance – we are so grateful to you because none of the work we do is possible without you.

Now go bid!

Only a short week after getting back from Australia and reuniting with our home city and our home people, we found ourselves in Ann Arbor reuniting with our Reich dream team, last together at Notre Dame at the end of September. This time the program included Sextet, with Matthew and Lisa joining newly Grammy-awarded Third Coast Percussion in a scintillating rendition.

It was all live-streamed on UMS’s website – check out the screen shots from our fans above. There was also a live interview backstage during intermission, during which I basically walked right through and in front of the cameras (sorry about that dufus move, UMS, and whoever was watching online at the time).

But I’m sure that was quickly forgotten as we embarked on the journey that is Music for 18 Musicians, a piece that is equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, heart-pounding and meditative. It was on the very first program I ever played as a member of Eighth Blackbird, also with Third Coast Percussion, at Millennium Park for an audience of, oh, only about 9,500 people.  It was quite a frightening and very public way for me to start my tenure. And while not Millennium Park, Hill Auditorium is no slouch either. I was shocked when I heard that it seats 3500, because it looks much more intimate from the stage. Willie, the Front-of-House Coordinator, told us that they call it the Big House of the Arts (after the Michigan stadium, of course). And with about 2100 in attendance, it seemed a Big House indeed.

 

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.