The first week of October, Eighth Blackbird goes into the studio at the Logan Center in Chicago’s Hyde Park to record singing in the dead of night by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. The album will be released on longtime Eighth Blackbird label partners, Chicago-based Cedille Records, in late spring of 2020. The live version staged by Susan Marshall we be remounted and presented during the 2020-21 season.

David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe © Peter Serling

Founding Eighth Blackbird violinist Matt Albert returns to play violin and Bang on a Can All Star Ken Thomson joins the ensemble on clarinet for the project. Five-time Grammy award-winning Elaine Martone is the producer and Cedille’s Bill Mayone, the engineer.

The title, a reference to the Beatles’ Blackbird, is also inspired by Wolfe’s sonic portrait of insomnia. In 2008, The New York Times’ Allan Kozinn called the piece “energetic and occasionally spooky while the Guardian’s thought parts of it “scary and mesmerizing”.

Nick Photinos, Ken Thomson and Nathalie Joachim pc: Deirdre Harrison

singing in the dead of night  marked the first collaboration between maverick composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe (Bang on a Can) and seminal New York choreographer Susan Marshall. This 60-minute, fully-staged theatrical production had the ensemble jamming ‘round the piano, guitar and accordion in hand; ritualistically and tragicomically dropping metal objects onto an amplified floor; and sweeping through an amplified table filled with sand. Inspired by the ensemble’s distinctive predilection for memorization and the embodiment of their music through movement, singing in the dead of night was a continuous weave of music and motion. More about the 2008 production here!

Matt Albert, Matthew Duvall, Lisa Kaplan and Nick Photinos 2007
Nick Photinos, Lisa Kaplan 2007

singing in the dead of night was commissioned by eighth blackbird through the generous support of the Jebediah Foundation, Frederica and James R. Rosenfield (specifically towards work of David Lang), San Francisco Performances, and the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan.

Fanm d’Ayiti, released 8/31/2019 on New Amsterdam Records

Congratulations to Eighth Blackbird’s flutist Nathalie Joachim for the release of her debut album with Spektral Quartet, Fanm d’Ayiti! She composes, she sings, and still plays a mean flute-this woman does it all and we are so proud of her. She and our fellow Chicago chamber music buddies in Spektral gave a fabulous record release concert at the Black Ensemble Theater on September 13. If you are in NYC, catch the east coast release on October 26 at Merkin Concert Hall.

Fanm d’Ayiti features the powerful Haitian female voices from yesterday and today, including the recorded voices of Joachim’s grandmother, the girls choir of Joachim’s family’s home farming village of Dantan, and conversations with Emerante de Pradines, a prized voice of Haiti’s Golden Age; Milena Sandler, daughter of the late, famed chanteuse Toto Bissainthe; and celebrated vodou songstress Carole Demesmin. I feel lucky to be joining my voice with theirs, and bringing listeners a sonic portfolio of my originals and arrangements of historic Haitian songs, woven together in a musical celebration of activism and hope.” ~Nathalie

Read more about the album in this stellar review from David Hadju at The Nation, and this one from Megan Inhen on I Care If You Listen. And catch the show on tour this season!

Roy DeCarava, Man in Window, 1978

September 10 Eighth Blackbird had the pleasure and honor of kicking off its season with a free, public a concert on all three floors of Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography in a program responding to the provocative exhibit Go Down Moses, curated from the museum’s permanent collection by Teju Cole.

Matthew Duvall, who curated the program said this:

Teju Cole’s enveloping introspection, Go Down Moses, is a carefully
considered “program”. We often reserve that description for musical events, for a collection of compositions that carries one through time in a succession of experiences, aiming to culminate in some sort of visceral conclusion, perhaps abstract, but emotionally impactful nonetheless. Teju Cole has curated this exhibit in the way a musician sculpts a program. Starting with previously disparate pieces in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the photographs are composed by Cole into a clear structure. It is a trajectory from absence to presence, from stasis to chaos, from repose to terror. The arc is exponential, not linear, and builds with a pressure that leaves the exhausted observer to contemplate the unanswerable questions of how, and why.

Our program…

Louis Andriessen: Workers Union (1975)
Ana Roxanne: Slowness (2019) commentary by Dr. John “Planetwalker” Francis
Workers Union (continuing)
Peacocke*: Amygdala (2015) *Blackbird Creative Lab Alumna
Workers Union (continuing)
J.S. Bach, Partita in A minor for solo flute, BWV 1013: III. Sarabande (~1723)
Workers Union (completion)
Ayana Woods: Patience (2016)

…seeks to support both the literal and figurative accumulation of content.
Workers Union is the connective tissue, beginning as an estranged whisper
and concluding as something quite the opposite. The remaining repertoire is an offering specific to each gallery, mirroring the shifting perspective of the human condition. Beginning with the faceless vacuum of anatomic fields and endless highways, the performance has already started.

Nick Photinos, Zach Good, Nathalie Joachim and Matthew Duvall, MoCP, 9/10/2019

The first week of performances in Eighth Blackbird’s 2019-20 Season included two projects spearheaded by its Blackbird Creative Lab alumni.

Matthew Duvall and Jocelyn Zelasko, Strange Beautiful Music, 9/12/2019

On September, percussionist Matthew Duvall joined composer and Eighth Blackbird collaborator Matthew Burtner for opening night of New Music Detroit’s 2019 Strange Beautiful Music Festival, curated by Lab alum, soprano Jocelyn Zelasko. Saxophonist, composer and Blackbird Creative Lab alum, Nick Zoulek, who recently relocated to Chicago, also performed on the program. Over the weekend, Jocelyn performed pieces by Lab alumna Nina Shekhar and Zoulek’s upcoming release Enter Branch. New Music USA was in town for the festival, including its new CEO Vanessa Reed and new board member Chere Lott, who generously served on Eighth Blackbird’s board for several years.

Nick Zoulek and Matthew Duvall, Strange Beautiful Music , 9/12/2019

The same weekend, pianist Lisa Kaplan and cellist Nick Photinos joined Blackbird Lab alumna, soprano Andrea Edith Moore, to record her debut album, Family Secrets: Kith and Kin in North Carolina. The 2017-18 Lab program director, five-time Grammy award-winning producer Elaine Martone joined the group as the album’s producer.

Nick Photinos, Andrea Edith Moore, Lisa Kaplan and Elaine Martone
with Family Secrets: Kith and Kin collaborators, 9/14/2019

Eighth Blackbird  joined Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the National’s Bryce Dessner to create and record When We Are Inhuman, which will be released on Friday, August 30 via 37d03d. Lisa Kaplan, Eighth Blackbird’s pianist has written gorgeous new arrangements of several Will Oldham songs which feature the sextet. The album also includes movements from Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades and a live performance of Julius Eastman’s “Stay on It”, an iconic piece of 21st Century American music included in Eighth Blackbird’s current touring program.

Beast for Thee

New Partner

One with the Birds

August 13, 2019

Dear Eighth Blackbird Extended Family,

We write to share news of additional transitions within Eighth Blackbird before making a public general announcement and before our full, dynamic 2019-20 season begins. Though saying goodbye is bittersweet indeed, we hope to share our excitement about two founding members who will be returning, as well as for two more fellow Oberlin graduates who will play in Eighth Blackbird for the first time this season. 

Eighth Blackbird’s founding clarinetist and co-artistic director, Michael Maccaferri, has accepted a new role in the Information Technology sector and departs from Eighth Blackbird this week. His future colleagues and clients are lucky to have him on their team and we wish him the very best in this new phase of his professional life.

Michael shared earlier this summer, “I am inordinately proud of the accomplishments and impact that Eighth Blackbird has made over the last 20 plus years. If it were all to end tomorrow, I know that through our hard work and creative dedication we have been fortunate to touch the hearts and minds of thousands of listeners and learners.”

We are thrilled to announce that Chicago-based clarinetist, Zachary Good, will join the ensemble for the majority of the season as well as for its ongoing residency at the University of Richmond. A fellow Oberlin Conservatory alumnus, Zach has performed with Eighth Blackbird, International Contemporary Ensemble, Third Coast Percussion, Lyric Opera Unlimited, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Manual Cinema, Ensemble Dal Niente, and the New World Symphony. As a fellow of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, he established the annual New Music Workshop. Zach is a founder/co-artistic director of the interdisciplinary group Mocrep.

Bang on a Can All Stars clarinetist Ken Thomson and Eighth Blackbird’s founding violinist Matt Albert, join the ensemble for its upcoming recording of Singing in the Dead of Night, written for Eighth Blackbird by Michael Gordon/David Lang/Julia Wolfe.  The recording will be produced by GRAMMY award-winning producer Elaine Martone and released on Cedille Records in spring, 2020. Dr. David Brooke Wetzel, who teaches computer science and clarinet at Loyola University in Chicago, will play clarinet when the ‘Birds perform a new work by composer, sound artist and eco-acoustician Matthew Burtner at the Coastal Futures Festival, UVA.

Eighth Blackbird’s founding flutist Molly Barth will return to play the balance of the season after Nathalie Joachim completes her tenure with the ensemble in December. Five of the six original ‘Birds, along with Zach Good on clarinet, will perform Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire this March at the Oregon Music Festival.

And finally, in addition to Matt Albert, who will play on a number of concerts this season, Blackbird Creative Lab 2018 alumna, Elly Toyoda, from Osaka, Japan, joins the ensemble on violin in Oklahoma, Gettysburg College and at the National Gallery in Washington DC. Elly and Zach were contemporaries at Oberlin Conservatory, so a second generation of baby ‘Birds takes flight along many of its founders this season!  Both are now doctoral candidates; Zach at Northwestern and Elly at Rutgers. Read more about all of Eighth Blackbird’s 2019-20 collaborators and other guest artists here.

As always, Eighth Blackbird remains committed to its mission and its audience, and welcomes any questions or concerns you may have.  And thank you for the kind, wise and supportive support so many of you have already shared during such a pivotal time for this extraordinary and growing flock of artists.

On behalf of the Eighth Blackbird family,

Deirdre Harrison
Eighth Blackbird, COO

“One with the Birds”, the second single from our forthcoming collaborative album When We Are Inhuman, is now streaming on all music platforms!

“I think of Will’s songs as the closest thing we have now to classic, traditional folk music,” says Bryce Dessner.  “I imagine people will still be singing them in 300 years.” 

On August 30, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Dessner and renowned contemporary classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird will release a new collaborative album, When We Are Inhuman (37d03d), featuring a live performance of Julius Eastman’s “Stay on It,” four new Eighth Blackbird arrangements for Will Oldham, and a continuation of Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades series for Eighth Blackbird.

The new version of “One with the Birds”, arranged by Eighth Blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan, “is very different from the original,” she describes.  “We used the birdcalls of all the different birds named in the song, and the extended piano intro was inspired by my friend Thomas Bartlett whom I had seen perform with The Gloaming just before making this arrangement.”

This group of friends first collaborated at Dessner’s 2018 MusicNOW festival in Cincinnati, where Oldham compared working with Eighth Blackbird to becoming acquainted with a “haunted house,” continually returning to the same spot and observing how his fear was interlaced with a charged energy.  The new version of “One with the Birds” pushes Oldham’s voice to new heights, and its shimmering introduction is a window into Oldham’s bleak, poignant sound world.

When We Are Inhuman will be out August 30 (37d03d / Secretly Canadian) and available for preorder here.

If the Blackbird Creative Lab taught me anything (and it certainly taught me A LOT of things), it’s that a true connection and a sense of community are born out of committing to vulnerability and exploration. 

Last weekend, Eighth Blackbird invited two Lab alumni ensembles, ~Nois (’18) and Juxtatonal (’17), to come together to present concerts with them for the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks initiative. The CPD presents over 2,000 events throughout the city with the goal of bringing communities together around shared artistic experiences. When collaboratively programming for these concerts, we started with that as a guiding principle. Both afternoon concerts were offered in venues where none of us had ever performed before — the Hamilton Park Cultural Center in Englewood on Chicago’s south side, and the historic landmark Garfield Park Conservatory on the west side. If we want to connect to new audiences, we ourselves have to open up to them. We must be vulnerable. If we want to create community with our audience, then there must be a sense of community amongst the players — and our programming reflected this.


For our performance at the Hamilton Park Cultural Center, ~Nois, a Chicago-based saxophone quartet, opened the show with Dwalm by Gemma Peacocke, herself an alumna of the ’18 Lab. Dwalm was written for ~Nois at the Lab and its open-heartedness immediately made it a standard for our 2018-19 season. Juxtatonal, a Detroit-based voice and cello duo, took the stage next performing Sarah Hersh’s In Praise of Continuous New Dreams of NYC and #nofilter by Michelle McQuade. The electricity between Jocelyn and Bryan as they perform is truly inspiring to see and hear. They play so naturally together, it’s hard to believe that they only came together at the 2017 Lab. 

For the rest of the concert, Eighth Blackbird invited frequent collaborator, local composer and bassist Matt Ulery and his jazz trio to join them to play a set of Matt’s pieces as a nonet. ~Nois and Juxtatonal joined for new arrangements of the final two tunes — making our ensemble 15 strong (if anyone knows what a group of 15 musicians is called, please drop us a line! A fifteen-tet? A doquintet?? A five-and-dime-tet???). We had never played together before, but by opening ourselves up to each other, we made some beautiful music, that also provided a portal into new music through jazz idioms, in a neighborhood that hosts its own jazz festival and boasts an afterschool youth jazz program led by former AACM cahir, Ernest Dawkins.  Some of the group joined Ernest and other elders from the Live the Spirit Residency following the concert for a two hour summer solstice drum circle filled with local residents aged 2 to seniors.

The following day at the Garfield Park Conservatory, the biggest questions were posed by the space — what to do about all of the plants?! Instead of trying to find nice palm trees to sit under for the whole show, we decided to have the performance progress throughout the rooms dedicated to different floral environments, like a relay race. Lisa Kaplan kicked off the show in the Aroid Room, tucked among the ferns, playing toy piano pieces by John Cage. Then in an adjacent, larger, dry space with nesting birds who sang along, Juxtatonal and Eighth Blackbrd’s violinist, Yvonne Lam played a beautiful work by Sarah Kirkland Snider called Chrysalis. Yvonne was Juxtatonal’s coach at the Lab, so it was beautiful to see mentor and mentees performing together. Cellist Nick Photinos then gave a wonderful performance of Nathalie Joachim’s Dam Mwen Yo before percussionist Matthew Duvall launched into Matthew Burtner’s Broken Drum, drawing the by-now substantial crowd into the expanse of the Palm Court, where an old agave had literally grown through the glass ceiling a few days earlier. The juxtaposition of the industrial sounds of a brake drum amidst irrepressible nature was particularly striking. Juxtatonal then performed Griffin Candey’s Not So Far as in the Forest which appropriately took place on the “Jungle Path.” ~Nois wrapped up this set on the steps of the Fern Room with Emma O’Halloran’s vibrant Night Music, which was inspired by her time spent living in Miami. The humidity of the Conservatory certainly gave the piece an extra layer of realism. 

To conclude the concert, the three ensembles as a full company performed Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation in the Fern Room which features a winding path with mossy walls of plants around a rock pond full of koi. A simple piece, the performers either play or sing any note from their imagination or match the pitch of someone else. We invited the audience to join us with their voices for this performance and to walk around the path with us, which they did enthusiastically. It was an absolute joy to pass by strangers who were singing along with me. All of us together created a beautiful sonority that mingled with the tranquil, central sound of a small gushing fountain. I was incredibly moved by the image of a man and a woman embracing and singing together — that will stay with me for a long time. During the Oliveros, Matthew was simultaneously performing James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion on a tam-tam. The piece is a simple wave of sound from the softest soft to the loudest loud and back again. Matthew told me afterwards that during the piece, a turtle popped its head out of the water and stared at the tam-tam the whole time, soaking in the vibrations. His Latin teacher from Oberlin also stopped with his son to say hello.

The performance of the Oliveros in particular reminded me why I continue to make music — to connect with people. Too often music is presented with a barrier between the performers and the audience members. Venues, performance times, ticket prices, and social elements like dress and perceptions about genre can be barriers. What I loved about attending the Blackbird Creative Lab was that all the fellows shared a desire to chip away, erode or break down those walls and Eighth Blackbird encouraged and helped us find our own ways to do so. It is thrilling that just a year after our two week summer intensive Lab at Ojai, we find ourselves more fully ourselves and playing side by side with some of our chamber music mentors. All art is communal and if we open ourselves up and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we can truly connect with others. Let’s all be more like the people embracing and singing during the Oliveros — the world needs more of that.

News of two upcoming transitions within Eighth Blackbird.

Yvonne Lam

Our violinist Yvonne Lam has accepted a faculty position at Michigan State University College of Music, as Assistant Professor of Violin, and will be departing from Eighth Blackbird in July. We are happy that this position will allow Yvonne’s gifts as an educator to flourish, and brings her young family closer to grandparents.

Nathalie Joachim

In addition, our flutist Nathalie Joachim will be concluding her tenure at the end of the calendar year. Nathalie’s trajectory as an instrumentalist, vocalist, composer and change agent has been exciting and beautiful. She will be committing to her full-time role as Co-Artistic Director of flute duo Flutronix; Director of Contemporary Chamber Music at the Perlman Music Program; and mentor in National Sawdust’s new BluePrint Fellowship Program in collaboration with The Juilliard School. The upcoming release on New Amsterdam Records and tour of her evening length work Fanm d’Ayiti with Spektral Quartet begins this summer; and she is busy composing a number of upcoming commissions for artists including Seth Parker Woods, Duo Noire and Lorelei Ensemble. Eighth Blackbird will keep you posted about our flutist for concerts in Spring 2020.

We invite you to join us and show some love to Yvonne and Nathalie at two special performances later this year. The Chicago premiere of Watch Over Us, a new work for violin and electronics written by Nathalie for Yvonne, is at Gallagher Way’s Sundown Sessions on August 27, and the Chicago premiere of Nathalie’s evening-length piece, Fanm d’Ayiti, at the Black Ensemble Theater on September 13.

Matt Albert

We are thrilled that Eighth Blackbird’s founding violinist, Matt Albert, Assistant Professor and Chair of Chamber Music at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, will return to play with the ensemble for the majority of the 2019-20 season, as well as on the recording of Singing in the Dead of Night, written for Eighth Blackbird by Michael Gordon/ David Lang/ Julia Wolfe, to be released on Cedille Records.

As always, Eighth Blackbird remains committed to its mission and supporters, and welcomes any questions or concerns you may have. We ask for your continued support and enthusiasm as we begin the arc towards the ensemble’s 25th Anniversary in 2021, celebrating our history and our future, and we hope you will help us welcome two new ensemble members in 2020.

On behalf of Eighth Blackbird,
Deirdre Harrison
Chief Operating Officer

Last week we went straight from our Richmond Playbook performance to Lansing, where we embarked on a whirlwind three days of residency activity and a performance at Michigan State University. 

Spring weather greeted us on the first day, where we kicked off our visit with a presentation for the woodwind convocation. Matthew was busy rehearsing with the percussion ensemble, and Lisa’s flight got terribly delayed, so we ended up playing a few solos and duets before fielding questions from the students. We’ve had a few travel mishaps this season, so we’ve gotten quite good at regrouping quickly (pun intended).

After the convocation, we divided and conquered not one, not two, but three sax quartet coachings at once! The saxophone department is really top notch, and we were all blown away by the level of playing. I heard one sax quartet play a wonderful composition by their baritone player, who arranged it for sax quartet when he couldn’t get a string quartet to play it (whomp, whomp). When Lisa finally arrived, she, Nick and Nathalie gave a talk on composition, and Michael ended his night with yet another sax quartet coaching. 

The next day, we got up bright and early to play for about a hundred 7th graders at Chippewa Middle School, where the orchestra program is bigger than the band (about the only time I’ve ever heard of that happening). They were attentive and rowdy, your typical 7th-grade kids, and we gave them a good taste of some classic Eighth Blackbird fare. Then it was a piano chamber music masterclass, a woodwind masterclass, a radio interview, a composition reading, a clarinet masterclass, and a percussion ensemble concert. Trust me, there was wine at the end of that day.

The final day was our performance day, so we kept it light with just an  interview with me and Nathalie in the middle of the day. We were the inaugural visiting artist of their new Entrepreneurial Artist Series (not sure if I got that name right), generously supported by the Michigan State University Federal Credit Union, so the university wanted us to talk a bit on-camera about what being an entrepreneur means and the importance of arts education. We performed in Fairchild, which is actually a double hall, which I’ve never seen before. On one end, it’s a 400-seat hall, and on the other, 3500 seats, with a shared stage in-between. We performed in the smaller hall, of course, but it was well-attended: Lab alums Nina Shekhar, Nick Zoulek and Jocelyn Zelasko and our beloved Matt Albert were among the illustrious (at least to us) audience. 

Next we’re off to UNCSA to do a residency that was originally scheduled in February but canceled due to the polar vortex. Hopefully the spring weather will hold up…

Last Sunday in Richmond, we scared little children and stalked strangers.

Or so it seemed until they realized what was really happening. We were actually performing The Richmond Playbook by Danny Clay, who had visited campus with us three times to prepare a large group of music students for this happening, which occurred both in Camp Concert Hall and out on the green in front. Danny composed a series of games derived from the ones he workshopped at the 2017 Lab to be performed at Richmond and uniquely shaped by the students. 

Here’s some examples of us rehearsing a couple of the games:

Each of the games is written as a set of instructions, and to the extent any pitch is required, Danny gave a set of pitches to choose from. He envisioned the performance starting inside, with Eighth Blackbird playing an initial game from the audience that brought us on stage. Then we played games with the students, who were sprinkled throughout the audience and on stage. And then we led everyone outside, audience included, where we played yet another set of games without intentional and sometimes unintentional audience. We followed children around, playing pitches to their footsteps, which frightened many of them until they realized they were the ones actually in control. We stalked unwitting adults in the same way, some of whom enjoyed the attention, and others not so much. At the end, Danny summoned us to gather around the central fountain and converge on a single E-flat, and he signaled the end of the performance with the ding of a red bell. 

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect – 75 degrees and partly sunny – and it was such a fun way to engage musically with an audience. Having a simple set of instructions or parameters is actually quite freeing, because then you have just enough structure to improvise within. I saw everyone having a blast, laughing out loud, enjoying the absurdist nature of what they were doing but also appreciating the quite profound effect it had as a whole.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hours 1-12:

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

Hours 12-24: 

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

Hours 24-36:

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

Last week was spent in the snowy Midwest, performing our acoustic show in St. Louis and then Music for 18 Musicians at the Krannert Center in Urbana. We also visited Jefferson College to speak to the students there. After our performance at the Krannert, we read some composer pieces while Matthew and Peter from Third Coast Percussion gave a percussion masterclass before driving home. 

The Desmond Lee Concert Hall at Washington University is a gorgeous former synagogue with thunderous acoustics. We were having trouble hearing each other, but wondered how much it might change once people filled the seats. That’s when we were told not to be disappointed if no one showed up, because snow  was forecast for that evening. Apparently no one in St. Louis leaves their homes during any kind of precipitation. And, truth be told, the drivers we encountered in St. Louis are pretty terrible. So we were just hoping that there would be more people in the audience than on stage, and were pleasantly surprised when probably around 100 die-hard music fans showed up. 

We headed out early the next morning towards Urbana. I was in the car with Nathalie, so we made a pit stop for lunch at Li’l Porgy’s Bar-B-Q in Champaign, highly recommended by Brian Cole, the Dean of UNCSA.  We were skeptical about BBQ in Champaign, IL, but were fortunately proved wrong. First good sign was that it was an easily missed shack by the side of the road. Second good sign was the smell of smoke as soon as you got out of the car. Third good sign was that it was de-licious. A full rack, rib tips, beans, potato salad, and cole slaw later, we were wondering whether it was an irresponsible decision to have that meal 6 hours before a performance. Both of us were falling asleep during rehearsal and groaning about our tummies.

But we pulled it together because we’re professionals, and embarked upon another performance of Music for 18 Musicians with Third Coast Percussion, Quince, and friends. It’s always magical to perform the piece – for me especially because I get to end the piece with a solo fade. That night I was really feeling it, taking my time fading out and anticipating the wave of silence that usually overwhelms the hall, but as I faded, instead of deafening silence I heard a deafening “snorrrrrrrrrre” followed by a harshly whispered, “WAKE HIM UP!” Which is a perfectly legitimate response, but the timing either could have been better or couldn’t have been better, depending on the effect you were going for. 

We stuck to Burger King for the ride home, where we’ll be rehearsing for a week (at home, not at Burger King) before going to Genoa for pesto, foccacia and salami! (And a concert next Monday)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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