Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Million Dollar Moments

This one has been a long time coming...

Million Dollar Moments

About 5 years ago the first Frank Ticheli Composition Contest was held, and being the band-nerd I thought this very exciting, and diligently kept checking the website to hear details of who had won. Nothing appeared for months and I had just about given up checking when one day the winners appeared. What immediately grabbed my eye was ‘Jodie Blackshaw, Australia for her piece Whirlwind’. I thought “Who is this Australian female composer and why have I never heard of her?”. That year, 2006 I had planned to attend my first Midwest Clinic in Chicago and was very excited that the winning works would be premiered. Not understanding the concept of every composer you have ever heard of wandering around a hotel for a week, I had not conceived of the fact I might be able to meet her.

Towards the end of the draining flight from Melbourne to LA my friend and I heard this person talking a few rows behind us, obviously to a stranger:

“What are you coming to the States for?”

“Well actually I’m going to a conference in Chicago.”

“Oh really, what kind of conference?”

“A music conference. I’m a composer and I’m having a piece of mine premiered there”.

Well, I nearly fell off my seat with excitement (as much as one can in Economy). I waited eagerly until we were disembarking and the woman appeared next to me and I assaulted her with:

“You’re Jodie Blackshaw!”

The look on her face said: “Who are you and why do you know my name?”

We introduced ourselves and crossed paths in the bar briefly later in the week. Six months later I happily programmed Whirlwind with my university group.

We then lost contact for several years. With the advent of Facebook we reconnected in that ‘I’ve-met-you-before-I-will-friend-request-you’ way.

Fast forward to January 2010 and I was searching for a piece for my amazing high school band to perform. My whole teaching with them for the previous 12 months had been working towards making them more independent, confident, individual and expressive musicians. I was looking for a piece to perform in Term 3 – a time of high-stakes performances at festivals and competitions (even though I fervently de-emphasised that aspect of it).

When I took over the band I had initially encountered difficulties with discipline and expectations. The ensemble was used to a very strict modicum of operation and at one point actually asked me to yell at them. I opted instead to talk to them about million dollar moments – those times when everything comes together in amazing synergy and you are swept up by the music and carried to a different place. All our expectations and rehearsing were framed around striving for a million dollar moment. Together, discussing this with the students we created a vision for the band, which was “Priceless musical moments, every time we play”. We stuck it to the wall above the podium in the rehearsal room.

The potential for creating priceless emotional experiences, along with all the other concepts I wanted to foster in their playing made the search for ‘The Piece’ very difficult. Certain criteria befitting the performance of a major work at these festivals also had to be taken into consideration – a work must be of advanced difficulty and lasting 15-20 minutes long.

Then a friend who had been to the 2009 Midwest Clinic lent me the most recent MBM times magazine. In it was a review of Soulström, a new piece by the Jodie Blackshaw I’d met years before. The analysis and review was written by none other than one of my first conducting teachers, Dr. Alan Lourens. As I read the article I became more and more intrigued by this piece and immediately sent Jodie a Facebook message along the lines of: “What is this new piece of yours and why have you never told me about it?!” She dutifully sent me a score and a recording from the world premiere from April 2009. I had never heard anything like this piece in my life. It just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

It was such a leap out of the students and my comfort zone! Firstly there was the emotional content of the work – dealing with the loss of her father and her journey through depression, before finding hope. Then there were the musical challenges. The first 2/3 of the work are extremely exposed and soloistic and demand supreme control, shape and emotional contribution from individuals. The final few minutes is an absolute tour de force – walls of cascading semi-quavers and brass parts marked ‘Huge’ – just about a technical Mt. Everest.

In talking to Jodie more about the work she said that the students in Texas had found preparing the work very cathartic and that it had given them a space to express hitherto untapped emotions through the music. I explained to her that the 2009 Victorian bushfires had deeply touched our school and community – students in the band had lost loved ones, homes, places. I had (mostly sub-counsciously) been searching for something to help them through this too. Perhaps Soulström could provide an outlet for their grief?

I committed to performing the work and was told by Jodie it would be the Australian Premiere – whoah! Big expectations! During the rehearsal process we used a variety of activities to bring out the message in the music (ultimately one of hope), such as interpretive gesture, acting the music, composition and did lots of work on phrasing.

It was probably the hardest piece I’ve ever had to rehearse. There are extended solos, sparse sections where few people play that must be intricately put together but in a way that gives the soloists freedom, and large chunks where there is no percussion. Two lengthy aleatoric sections were so much about listening, and performing a concept, a feeling, than anything that could be described technically (or verbally!).

Before the Australian premiere we Skype-d Jodie (from NSW) into a rehearsal and the students got the chance to ask questions and meet the composer. The night before, during a practice-Skype Jodie had given me fantastic new insights into the piece. It was an exciting time.

The Australian premiere was at the Melbourne School Bands Festival, in front of the normal audience of less than 100 people. It went off extraordinarily well – it was emotionally draining, but uplifting for everyone.

Several hours later, when I finally checked my phone I found this message:

“To Ingrid and band. Words cannot describe the pride and overwhelming beauty I am feeling right now. Not only did you perform with every ounce of effort capable, you gave me and the audience your soul. You played so well. I am coming to Melbourne to meet you all and hear this piece live! With all my heart, well done. Jodie Blackshaw”

Words could not describe MY elation at this message – that our learning was having the impact I wanted on both the audience and the students. Now we had to gear up for the ‘BIG’ performance – the Royal South Street Society competition in Ballarat one month later.

Though I wouldn’t have thought it possible we came a long way in that month. The time flew and soon it was Thursday and I was waiting to pick Jodie up from the train station. We hit it off right away and spent all night talking, despite the 7:30am rehearsal the next morning.

We began that rehearsal playing the piece through, despite some missing players due to another Eisteddfod performance. It was a totally different experience performing the work in our cramped little rehearsal room with the composer sitting a metre away – altogether on a different emotional plane. After we finished, Jodie wiped away tears as I held them back.

The students relished the opportunity to meet and hear from the composer. It had created this new buzz in the rehearsal room. The few small details we worked on under Jodie’s guidance completely transformed the piece!

Later in the day, Jodie told me that her sister was coming from country Victoria to hear the performance with her family – she had never heard the work, which was of course also about her beloved dad. She mentioned that she had a brother in Melbourne, but hadn’t told him she was coming as it was such a quick trip. That night as we ate dinner in Ballarat after a long bus trip Jodie got an SMS – her brother was driving up to hear the performance as well!

We talked all night long after listening to stage bands play that night. At about 3am, still wide awake, I was discussing what I would say in my ‘pep talk’ before we went onstage the next evening. I explained to Jodie that last year I had read a quote from Martha Graham that I had read in “The Art of Possibility” by Ben Zander.

“There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open." - Martha Graham

I explained that I wanted to read the same quote again, one year on, as it now had a completely different meaning for the students given the journey they’d taken preparing this piece.

Jodie then floored me, recalling that the exact quote had been stuck on her wall while she was composing Soulström and was written in her composition notebook from the time as well. How much more could this be meant to be?

Fast forward to the next day, when, having lunch I received an excited text from Jodie – her mother had secretly flown from Griffith, country NSW to be at the performance. The rest of the family had known, but kept it from Jodie until the last minute. A whole family had been brought together by this piece!

As we warmed up in the rehearsal room prior to our performance the atmosphere was tense and emotional. Word had gotten around the band that Jodie’s entire family was there, and that her brother and sister had not heard the piece about their father before. It felt like our responsibility to this family was almost overwhelming.

Jodie told the students a story, one she had recounted to me days before, but which I wasn’t sure the students could handle at this moment.

Years before, I had been quite lost – I had given up being a music teacher and composer and had been working in a nursery for some time. I enjoyed that but I wasn’t sure what direction I should take. I wished I could have asked my father.

One day a friend told me: Whenever I need to ask the Universe for confirmation of something I ask for a sign, and it usually takes the form of a bird, but you have to ask for a very specific bird, something that doesn’t come along every day.

Asking for confirmation that I was on the right path, I asked for a red-breasted bird, and I asked to be shown this sign so clearly, that there would be no doubt as to what it was.

Several days later I was on the phone to David, my husband, and he was telling me about this Composition competition, the Ticheli competition. And he was encouraging me to enter it. There, on the phone, sitting in my kitchen overlooking the backyard we had a big tree. And I looked over at the tree and it was FULL, FULL of these red-breasted birds. And David just said “I think you’d better go outside and talk to your dad”.

A collective intake of breath. Silence. Some of the band members already had tears running down their cheeks. One student, shaken, said “I can’t play”.

I read the Martha Graham quote. We talked about the atmosphere we wanted to create during the performance – that we wanted to lift up the entire concert hall and take it on a journey it to another world for 15 minutes. And that, (to compensate for the dry acoustic) rather than drawing the audience IN to our interpretation, we had to project it so strongly that they were simply compelled to feel what we were.

Almost broken, we moved to wait backstage and soon became charged with nervous energy.

The curtain came up, the program note was read:

Tonight you will hear the second Australian performance of Soulstrom by Australian composer Jodie Blackshaw.

She writes:

Soulstrom was originally a work of music theatre based around the tale of a solitary individual in the centre of a storm. The work originally featured a narrator who told the dramatic story of a freak alien storm that used the energy of people to fuel its fury - which you will hear in the music. In the centre of the storm, a lone person was searching for their lost love, and locked inside the storm’s fury was the key to freedom: the beauty and grace of love itself.

About halfway through the composition it became apparent that this original story was indeed an allegory pertaining to my very own struggle with depression and grief over the loss of my beloved father in 1997. In the story the lost love was revealed as my lost life and the storm, the epitome of the depths of my depression. In realization of this the work transformed and the narrator’s role is now completely non-existent.

Beginning with resignation and a still misty morning, the lost soul recalls painful memories which slowly enter consciousness. Gradually the memories build and layer upon one another to the point of becoming unbearable before a brief glimpse of hope – a glowing happy memory recalled.

But hope is soon lost and the individual sinks back into depression. Fighting overwhelming anger, resentment and rage the individual finally defiantly breaks the hold of the grief to emerge strong, jubilant and free.

The compositional process became a passionate, cathartic experience and what began as a piece based around a storm, a desperate person and the search for lost love became so much more. I hope it will touch hearts and help others find freedom.

Soulstrom by Jodie Blackshaw.

Together, with one deep breath, we dove into what was to become the most extraordinary music we had made together. Eerily these lonesome lines introduced a hopeless, lost, meandering soul – one resigned to depression.

Painful, turbulent memories coalesced into a chaotic clamour…but the release was empty.

Strands of reminiscing, moments were recalled with building anguish – until one happy memory – a lone major chord – emerged…but the reprieve was only temporary.

Despair turned to anger and ugliness – so BRASH! Before being choked – only to leave desolation.

The double bass cried eerily as a siren began to wail distantly. Twisting, turning, the emotions began churning, slowly at first, then rushing, cascading.

Suddenly, full of rage! The tension unbearable, the soul ripped itself defiantly out of the storm – TRIUMPHANT! Jubilation….HOPE!

The final note was released, the sound evaporated. My hands shook. Around me – 50 young people, united, weeping uncontrollably. Sobbing, heaving with the relief of it all, the release, the arrival at the end of a three-month journey. A completely different group of people to the ones who took that first breath fifteen minutes earlier.

Changed forever by a piece of music.

That was our million-dollar-moment…well, our first one…

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing story! Thankyou for sharing. I have tears in my eyes right now!