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.