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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For a full list of winners, click here

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

Check out the full post here. 

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

Photo by Nick Zoulek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo of Jennifer Higdon by Nick Zoulek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last week Eighth Blackbird and its supporters celebrated the ensemble’s 21st Anniversary at the gorgeous Ivy Room in Chicago with its biannual Blackbird Benefit and Bash. Indefatigable co-chairs, board members Kate Bensen and Tony Scott-Green, the benefit committee, ensemble and staff worked all year to produce one of the most memorable and successful fundraising the organization has ever hosted.

Courtesy of benefit sponsor and board member Tremaine Atkinson, the evening kicked off with two signature cocktails designed collaboratively by cellist Nick Photinos and CH Distillery mixologist Patrick Gill: Blackbird Must Be Flying and Beauty of Inflections. Recipes below!* Chicago-based 2018 Blackbird Creative Lab fellows, saxophone quartet ~Nois, performed a lively work written by 2018 composer fellow Liza Sobel, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern  Bienen School of Music.

Emcee extraordinaire, Dr. Richard Hess, the Dolly, Ralph and Julia Cohen Chair of Dramatic Performance at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, and an early influencer for Eighth Blackbird, reminisced on the sextet’s auspicious beginnings. Richard’s early advocacy and wisdom helped shape the group’s core values, now built into the Blackbird Creative Lab and which continue to drive the vision for Eighth Blackbird’s future as cultural provocateurs.

The sextet’s concert featured favorites from the past, and a glimpse into the future including Robert Honstein’s Conduit from our album Hand Eye and Lobster Tails and Turtle Soup, by Australian composer and percussionist Holly Harrison.* An excerpt from David Lang’s new composition as explanation, an ongoing collaboration which will be fully staged in 2019-20, rounded out the program.

Following a scrumptious dinner, our larger than life live auctioneer Jim Miller led an electrifying paddle raise and auction, featuring house concerts by 8BB members, getaways, and signed scores, poems and artwork from recent collaborators.

With a final reflection from Richard Hess on Eighth Blackbird’s coming of age as artistic mentors, guests were invited to play individual handmade scores on cigar box players, producing a magical, tinkling soundscape throughout the hall. The punchole scores were components of “magic boxes” curated and designed by 2017 Creative Lab composer fellow Danny Clay to thank and inspire our guests in their own creative lives.  Each box included dream commissions and big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs) from 2017 and fellows, compositional games, and personal tattoos, compiled with the help of 2017 and 2018 fellows and Danny’s 5th grade music students in San Francisco.

It is hard to believe that Eighth Blackbird came into being 21 years ago. With the continued support of our board and staff, and our extraordinarily open and encouraging community, we are poised for the next era of music making and mentoring. We raise a glass (of the incredible CH Distillery signature dessert cocktail, Lucid Inescapable Rhythms!), to you!  Thank you. Here’s to many, many years to come.

Click here to see CH’s specialty cocktail recipes.

Check out our gallery of 2018 Blackbird Benefit and Bash photos below. All photos by Philamonjaro.

We ended our whirlwind tour with almost a week in Cincinnati participating in the Music Now/National Homecoming festival. We played five performances of a repertory concert with the ballet, and a concert at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with Will Oldham and Bryce Dessner as our guests. 

We were treated to some beautiful spring weather, which I took advantage of to explore Over-the-Rhine. Besides the many many hip places to eat and drink, there are numerous boutiques, both for men and women, and I somehow found my wallet a lot lighter after a few days of walking around (Continuum, The Most Beautiful Thing in the World Is, and MiCA 12/V, I’m talking to you). 

The National Homecoming venue was at Smale Park, on the banks of the Ohio River right under the Roebling Bridge. We played indoors at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center a short walk away, so I didn’t get to experience any of the awesome acts gracing that stage except for the sound checks that echoed in the morning air on my way to rehearsal. Our ballet performance were at the Aronoff Center, in the heart of downtown, and the tech rehearsals and performances kept us either coming or going from there most of the day.

It took some adjusting to fit ourselves into the pit. We ended up with Matthew set up on the wrong side of the ensemble, but with audio monitors and a TV monitor for us it all worked out okay. It’s not unusual for us to play the same program five times in a row, but it is unusual for us to play it in the same place five times in a row. The pit became a sort of de facto office for that week – it was luxurious to leave our stuff set up and just come for the performance without building in setup time or dragging instruments around. The one frustrating part – and this was also the case for me when I played opera and ballet at the Kennedy Center – was that we were never really able to see the dancing. Even with the monitor, you can’t really look unless you’re not playing, which we were pretty much all of the time. Luckily there’s some archival footage we can dig into later.

The audience apparently really loved the program. Every night people stopped us as we walked back to the hotel and commented on how much they loved the music and the choreography. One of the donors who was responsible for supporting the program, Mark Schlachter, even created two sculptures inspired by Eighth Blackbird (see picture above). He gifted the smaller one to us, so we’re anxiously awaiting its arrival in the mail. 

All in all, it was a pretty great way to end our four-city tour, and the season in general. We returned home to 70-degree weather in Chicago and blooms on the trees. It’s been quite a journey this season, from Milan to Budapest to Cincinnati, and it certainly feels like we’ve packed a lot into a short time. We head to Des Moines this weekend to perform at Drake University for our official last concert of the season, then we have our benefit bash, and then it’s preparation for the second Blackbird Creative Lab, which promises to be just as exciting (if not more!) as the inaugural one.


As I write this in the Denver Airport, I’m looking out at the gray, snowy landscape. The weather took a turn for the worse today, but when we arrived it was gorgeous and the Rockies were in full view. Michael and Nathalie took a super early flight in the hopes of gaining a few more hours to acclimate to the altitude, but ended up getting so delayed we almost arrived at the same time. The altitude is no joke to us sea-levelers, and the second day felt worse than the first.

We only had time to check in and freshen up before heading  to the Clyfford Still Museum for a special double header performance for the patrons of the Friends of Chamber Music Denver. I hadn’t heard of Clyfford Still before we organized this performance, but he was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and arguably just as well known back in the 50’s before he decided he wanted out of the commercial art world and stopped exhibiting his work publicly. After his death, he stipulated that his works be shown as a whole body of work, isolated from the work of other artists, which is how he believed all artists should show their work.

The museum building is mostly concrete, but somehow manages to feel warm and organic, much like Still’s work. We played a program of Lang, Feldman, Cage and Honstein to complement the works and highlight the style of the period as well as his contemporaries in the music world. Patrons were free to wander about while we played or sit and listen – we situated ourselves in different galleries for the duos and solos, and came together in the main one for the sextet works. In case people were talking or wandering elsewhere at the time, we played through the program twice.

After that, we were treated a hot pot dinner. I was a little skeptical, having only ever had hot pot at my relatives’ houses and never at a restaurant. Pot jokes aside, if you haven’t had Chinese hot pot, go to The Bronze Empire and give it a try. It’s best enjoyed with a crowd, as it’s somewhat communal in nature, and the food is unbelievably fresh and flavorful. If you’re squeamish about sharing, don’t worry – everyone gets their own personal pot of simmering broth, so it can accommodate all palates and even vegetarians.

The next day was performance day. We gave a talk to the music students at the University of Denver in the afternoon, and then gave our last Hand Eye performance of the season. I’m pretty sure the audience liked it, but you never know whether people stand up immediately because they really liked it or because they can’t wait to get home. I’m guessing it’s probably 50/50.

This morning we visited the Denver School of the Arts, an arts magnet for grades 6-12. We played a little bit to introduce ourselves and then heard three chamber groups perform. I was certainly not expecting to hear Beatles, but we were treated to a pretty great string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby. These kids were so talented and easily at the level of some universities we’ve encountered. I’m always buoyed by hearing young people perform at such a high level, and so happy that there’s a public school that nurtures them.

It’s been a few days since we left California, but I’m still dreaming about the sun. Since my whole family is in the Bay Area, I was able to sneak off the day we arrived and have a nice visit with them before heading up to Sonoma State University, where we did three seminars and a masterclass with business, leadership, and music students as well as a performance of Hand Eye. A tip for those unfamiliar with the toll system: you can pay online for both past and future tolls (we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge), but you only have 40 hours after you cross to pay. And don’t try to be cute by borrowing someone’s Fastrak – it’s linked to the owner’s license plate and they will catch you.

The Green Music Center is a thing of beauty. Modeled on Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, it’s an embarrassment of blond beauty; almost everything is constructed of European steamed beech wood, and the back wall opens up to reveal lawn seating in the summer. The surroundings are lush and green everywhere you look, and I can’t help feeling jealous of the students. The only downfall was that all that greenery inspired an outbreak of hives on my arms and legs that flared up right before we walked on stage. Luckily, I find that if my mind is elsewhere, I can largely ignore the itching.

I still had a few welts left when we arrived in LA at the Ace Hotel, where we were staying and playing. It’s an unusual luxury to be staying in the same building as your venue. Where the Green Music Center is minimalist and monotoned, the Theatre at Ace Hotel is eclectic and astonishingly over-the-top ornate. Built in the 20’s by United Artists as a movie house, it changed hands several times, even serving as the broadcast home for a televangelist, before the Ace acquired it and restored it a few years ago. I grew up in West Los Angeles, and in those days, one didn’t venture into downtown LA during non-business hours. Now, it seems a dramatic transformation has taken place, with the arrival of the Ace Hotel, tons of swanky new residential buildings, and the true marker of gentrification, a Whole Foods.

Even though we had a grueling rehearsal schedule with Will the day of performance, we all made sure to get outside and enjoy the sun. The sun in LA is special. I notice it every time I go back. Sure, the perfect 80-degree weather helps, but there’s just something brighter and livelier about the sunlight there. Having spent so many years in northern latitudes and on the east coast, I now find it almost (pleasantly) blinding. It reminds me of my childhood, of lazy days spent at Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach, of endless watermelon in the summer. Oh, how I took that all for granted…

We mingled at a pre-concert reception, where we were greeted by a lot of familiar faces. Several of our Lab people, alumni as well as faculty (last year’s composition faculty Ted Hearne, fellows Dan Caputo, Benjamin Mitchell, Kate Outerbridge, Jordan Curcuruto, and this year’s guest faculty and artists Ros Warby and Kristy Edmunds) and even a couple former interns and employees showed up to support us. It really makes us feel like we have extended family in Los Angeles. We’re really looking forward to being back in June 2019 for LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight series!


Last week we camped out at snowy Interlochen, where spring has not yet sprung, for a Reich Festival featuring Drumming, Sextet, and Music for 18 Musicians. Drumming was performed entirely by students (except for the vocals) who were coached throughout the year by our Matthew and Rob Dillon from Third Coast Percussion. The result was a riveting and very professional performance, which got all sorts of whoops and hollers from the audience. The next night we performed Sextet and Music for 18 Musicians with Third Coast Percussion, Quince, and a few guests, our very own Alex Monroe and Justin Peters included. These days, Reich is always a slam-dunk hit. As I was experiencing Drumming, I was struggling to imagine what a rough road it was for Steve Reich at the beginning. I find the sounds and rhythms exciting, upbeat, meditative, and not at all boring. In fact, it was over before I realized it. I felt like I could hear it all over again, right then and there. But I guess I’m biased.

I have a hard time imagining attending a school like Interlochen because so much of my education through high school was completely separated from my music life. It seems like summer camp all year round. That’s sort of a good thing, since my closest friends were made during intense summer camp experiences, but also a weird thing, because I’m not sure I’d want to be at summer camp all the time and not see my family. I wonder how my musical development would have been affected by being around like-minded and talented musicians throughout high school instead of having it be this thing I did outside of school. There’s no question that it nurtures extraordinary talent and excellence, and I think for Matthew, who is an alum, Interlochen holds a very special place in his heart.

We returned to this lovely school a couple weeks ago to do a workshop and composer reading and were just as impressed with the students as before, if not more. It was uncharacteristically cold for March, which is to say it was very pleasant for a Chicagoan, but the trees were already in full bloom. We did our goals and visioning workshop in the beautiful new library, challenging the students to come up with their core values and purpose in 90 minutes. Some of them had obviously given it much thought already. Others, maybe not so much. One pianist told me that her real passion in life was forensic medicine. You don’t hear that too often from music students – usually it’s the other way around. After all, no one really chooses to be a struggling musician if it’s not your calling, right? Whether that was an actual discovery or just a confession, I’m not sure, but you better believe I encouraged her to pursue what she loves, or at least find a way to incorporate it into her career.

We did some masterclasses for chamber groups, one of which is starting to establish itself and experimenting with commissions by fellow students and group improv. Then we did a recording session of seven composer pieces, all in one afternoon. All delightful pieces and so different – a lot of talent on display and a pleasure to provide something that helps them in a tangible way! Above is the picture of exhausted us with who we hope are happy composers. Perhaps next time we’ll break it up over a couple of days…

Last week we traveled to Denison University, a lovely college on a hill, to do some residency work and perform a concert. Granville, Ohio is a quaint town, its population and economy much bolstered by the university. We stayed at the Granville Inn, a beautiful restored historical estate – we’re thankful they didn’t put us at the notoriously haunted Buxton Inn across the street! We also patronized Goumas Confections, a family-run shop that apparently has feuding brothers with competing locations a block away (exciting family drama). After our concert, we ran into the fabulous ETHEL, who are in residence at Denison University and doing many mind-blowing interdepartmental projects there.

Next we headed to Wilmington, the capital of the First State, and also the credit card capital of the world, according to our driver. There we parked ourselves in the Delaware Art Museum for two shows – one a sort-of pop-up series of performances during the preview showing of their new exhibit on Wyeth and Ruskin. It’s a beautifully serene room, airy and resplendent with gorgeously detailed works. We responded to the exhibit with some Peter Garland, John Cage, Angelica Negron, and Richard Reed Parry while museum members perused the works and occasionally paused to listen to us intently. The next night we gave a bonafide performance in the main atrium space, performing David Lang, John Luther Adams, and some selections from Hand Eye. They brought in some fancy lighting and white folding chairs – I think it’s about as close to a wedding set up that Eighth Blackbird will ever play.

Now we’re in Richmond, about to perform Olagón for the third time. Of course, there’s a snow storm and no one can make it in today for rehearsals…