Eighth Blackbird visited Sweden recently, a destination new to us, people who are excited about traveling to new places. We arrived as guests but unexpectedly found new selves there. As we navigated planes, trains, and vans that were entirely too small for the six of us, the trip coalesced into equal parts conclusion and beginning.

I knew Stockholm was near the water, but I had no idea that it comes from the water. I was reminded of Joseph Brodsky’s “Watermark”, a chapter in which he goes on about why Venice is so wonderful in the winter. I haven’t been to Venice in the winter, but now that I’ve been to Stockholm in the winter, I think I have a better understanding. More an emotion than an explanation. I felt it while walking the waterfront and standing on bridges watching cold turbulence straddle the foundations of the islanded Parliament House. It gave context for the week to come.

Our itinerary took us to five cities Tuesday through Saturday. Beginning with Stockholm, we then visited Östersund, Västerås, Katrineholm, and Skinnskatteberg. Forgive any erroneous diacritical marks; I promise I’m trying. In each city, we were met by a local producer who was just the first in a delightfully repetitive sequence of hosts and folks at each venue who warmly welcomed us. Sounds of Stockholm knew they were sending us into communities with audiences varied in size and experience. There was a wide range of reactions and conversation. But above all we felt welcomed. By god this country is beautiful! The water permeates everything. it’s in the soil and the air and you can feel it in your lungs.

These were good concerts. Really good. And yes we performed well, but there was something more. There’s been a lot going on this fall, but this trip somehow allowed us to leave many concerns aside for these few days and really enjoy the visceral interaction of making music in real time. We got psych’d when something amazing happened and we laughed when mistakes happened. There was flow.

As has been well publicized by now, Eighth Blackbird is in the midst of a dramatic transition. The details of all that can be read elsewhere, but what I’m thinking about here is the personal relationships. This isn’t the material combed over by marketing consultants. It is the thing felt between people who have so richly informed each others’ lives. As the group changes, the individuals are also changing. Our connections are shifting. In this land of waterways and islands, we found what was solidly established to be fluid and amorphous.

Nathalie will be leaving us in a few weeks. Nick has announced his plans to depart at the end of the season. Yvonne and Michael departed over the summer. While we’re so grateful to have Matt and Zach with us this season, Nick, Nathalie, Lisa, and I are the last of the ensemble which represented Eighth Blackbird when Eighth Blackbird was represented only by the sextet. That iteration of the ensemble is performing its last concerts, and a repositioned ensemble is forming. Some will move on. Some will stay to create something that is both old and new. Endings and beginnings. And it is so wonderful to be able to say that we feel joyous during this process. The music is more powerful than ever.

And so it happened that during my visit to the ABBA museum I found this text posted near the exit:

“After 10 fantastic years together they mutually came to the decision to take a break. Why? Those who work creatively in music, art, film, literature or theatre understand that it takes curiosity and an urge to express oneself to develop as an artist. When the sense of fun isn’t there anymore and when ideas don’t come as easily as before, then it’s time to try new things to regain the excitement in creating.”

Now, one thing that does not apply to my experience is the notion that there’s been a loss in the sense of fun. Quite the opposite. When decisions were made, and a course forward determined, it was as though a weight lifted on the ensemble. Rather than the constant wondering, “What should we do? What should ‘I’ do?,” we felt a clarified sense of direction heading into the fall that has been rejuvenating. Freeing. One of the best things I can say about this trip was that we had FUN together, and it felt wonderful. Meeting new hosts in each city, exploring food, staying up late in hotel salons marveling at what seems to be a Swedish compulsion with wallpaper. The companionship felt secure and comforting. We’d been liberated to simply enjoy ourselves.

But this other part about ideas no longer coming as easily, and a time for trying new things to regain the excitement of creating, rings true. We are all creatives who crave the deep satisfaction of discovery. Those who have come to be members of Eighth Blackbird all share this need, and serving it is the best thing we can do for ourselves. It is the thing that best equips us to contribute to those around us. We are all excited about traveling to new places.

Speaking of ringing, I’ll leave you with an actual Brodsky quote because I happened to make a recording of the bells of the Stockholm Cathedral and, well, this sets it up nicely.

“The whole city, especially at night, resembles a gigantic orchestra, with a restless chorus of waves, with the falsetto of a star in the winter sky.”
― Joseph Brodsky, “Watermark”

Sweden was the gentle star in our winter sky, just when we needed a coordinate point to orient ourselves toward the future.

—Matthew Duvall

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