In Conversation: Eighth Blackbird

In Conversation: Eighth Blackbird

The Blackbird's cellist, Nicholas Photinos on the business of chamber music. 

Nicholas Photinos
Chicago, United States

In Conversation: Eighth Blackbird

The Blackbird's cellist, Nicholas Photinos on the business of chamber music. 

What is it about new music, and the celebration of living composers, that inspires you personally and as a sextet?

So many things, among them: the joy of creating something new; to be unburdened by past interpretation; and to be free to express music of our time, that often incorporates and is informed by so much of today’s vast musical language and expression.

For young people interested in becoming involved in chamber music, how would you recommend they get started?

For me, nothing is as fun as making music with other people. My earliest experiences took the form of group Suzuki lessons, but when I was only a little bit older, maybe 7-8, this meant playing simple pieces with my Mom or other kids my age. I fear this might be unusual, as I know a number of musicians who didn’t play chamber music until high school - I even went to college with a pianist who hadn’t played chamber music until she got there, which blows my mind. So to get started - first of all, don’t be afraid, no matter what level you are there’s someone else at the same level, though if you’re smart you’ll try to play with people that are better than you so you can learn quicker. And then just go at it - start with simple things, listen to recordings to get an idea of how it goes; you can even practice with recordings before you rehearse with people.

When curating programs, what are you looking for in the compositions you perform, or the composers you commission?

We play works in a number of different styles, and we talk a lot in the group about having a “voice.” It’s not even that something has to be completely “new”-sounding or incorporate some novel sound or technique, but rather that they sound authentically like them, and like no one else, in the language that they use. When curating concerts, we think in terms of balance - what’s a beginning piece? What’s an ending piece? Maybe we don’t want these two pieces on the same program because they sound the same or leave you feeling the same.

Is keeping “classical” music relevant something you are interested in, or is that simply a byproduct of the work you do?

Classical music will always be relevant insofar as it’s about the human experience. It’s like Shakespeare, it’s just waiting for you to crack it open. But it’ll still be there in a hundred years, a thousand years. We do enjoy the relevancy of the classical music being written today in that it can take its influence from any music from any time and especially our own, including pop, rock, jazz, rap, whatever, but that was true of other eras as well: look at Turkish marches in Beethoven’s music. But we’re not striving necessarily to keep it relevant.

This year, you will launch The Blackbird Creative Lab for emerging artists, as part of the ensemble’s educational output. What crucial things do you hope to pass on to the young musicians involved, and all developing performers you work with?

A big part of why we wanted to start our own initiative like this is to impart so many of the things that we didn’t learn when we started out. Some of this is performance-based, like involving memorisation, choreography, stage movement, lighting, and set design. And some of this is production-based, like how to manage project development, budgets, fundraising, contracts, and many other administrative tasks that are so crucial to making our art happen. This is what we hope to develop in the Lab, as well as through lectures and workshops through our residencies at schools.

•Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets • Yvonne Lam, violin & viola • Lisa Kaplan, piano • Nathalie Joachim, flutes • Matthew Duvall, percussion • Nicholas Photinos, cello •

•Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets • Yvonne Lam, violin & viola • Lisa Kaplan, piano • Nathalie Joachim, flutes • Matthew Duvall, percussion • Nicholas Photinos, cello •

You work on movement and choreography with young ensembles – why is the way performers move on stage so important for their communication?

Besides the fact that much of what an audience hears is through their eyes, whether they realise it or not, is the fact that so much is communicated between musicians through movement. In coachings, we often say that the music begins from the moment you first walk on stage, and especially from the first cue you give, which sets the entire tone of what you are about to say musically. With more specific movement and choreography, we try to give new tools for the musicians to communicate the music better, which can often be achieved through such simple means as two people that have a melody together to stand next to each other, or for someone that doesn’t play for a while to recede to upstage. This visual communication of the music is the basis for most of our music, and is especially important for new music, when the audience is usually hearing something for the first time: that extra visual aid will help them get so much more out of the piece.

Can you tell us a little bit about how the rehearsal process for a new commission works for Eighth Blackbird? What happens between receiving the piece and putting it on a stage?

Before we rehearse, we study and cue our parts extensively, so that we know who to listen for at any given moment, how to come in after a long pause, and how the piece is going to fit together. When we do begin rehearsal, it is usually slow at first, often with metronome so we can figure out how it sounds together correctly, then we gradually remove that crutch. By this point, hopefully we are gaining a better understanding of the structure and pacing of the piece, and begin to fine-tune build-ups, dynamics, balances, and smaller details that help shape the piece. We then almost always do a “pre-premiere” of the piece, sometimes just inviting a few people into our studio to run the piece and get some feedback. This usually involves the composer.

Being part of an ensemble takes more than just musical skill and theoretical knowledge. What have you learned regarding the business side of running a successful chamber group?

Too many individual skills to list here, but one of the biggest takeaways was don’t reinvent the wheel. Almost everything you can think of that needs to be done has been done by someone, somewhere, and can be retrofitted to suit your situation. Contracts, grant writing, budgets, donor letters, marketing pieces - find people that have done these things and borrow, retool, and deploy this administrative work to fit your project, and save the creativity for the artistic product.

During your Australian tour, you will be performing a brand-new composition by Sydney composer Holly Harrison. Can you share a little about the piece?

Holly’s piece, Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup, takes its title from chapters 9 and 10 of Alice in Wonderland. I think the written directions in the piece say it all - frenetic, wild, mischievous, heavy, even sleazy is written at one point of the piece. The piece has a lot of mean funk and groove, yet doesn’t take itself too seriously either.

Can you share something you wish you’d known when you started Eighth Blackbird?

I’m tempted to say that I wish I’d known that it would all work out in the end, but then would we have worked as hard? Would we have earned it? I think any mistakes we made, we made for good reasons, and we learned more from living that mistake than if we had known about them beforehand.