Big Ears Festival: eighth blackbird and Bonnie “Prince” Billy

The composer David Rakowski recently tweeted, “The problem with having genres is that people claim to bend them all the time. Can we create delightful arabesques with them instead?” On Night 2 of the 2016 Big Ears Festival, new music sextet eighth blackbird, which has directed the Ojai Music Festival and been in residence at the Curtis School of Music, got up on stage of the Tennessee Theater and played as the backing band for Bonnie “Prince” Billy. If the players weren’t having the time of their lives, they were doing an Oscar-worthy job of faking it. Delightful is a good word to describe it.

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Big Ears Festival: Steven Schick w/Knoxville Symphony Orchestra

Light, subtle harp arpeggios gently penetrated the surface. Sound, in massive, mostly diatonic chords, swelled and receded. The waves never broke, just washed over our heads, endless. True wildness, and humans’ submission to it, has seldom been illustrated in music so well. From ocean we came, and if things keep warming the way they are, to ocean we shall return.

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Five Questions to Leah Barclay


It has become increasingly clear that we rapidly need new ways to communicate the current state of our environment. Fortunately most of the world now agrees climate change is one of the most critical issues we are facing. Yet there has been limited success in inspiring people to make significant changes. The Paris Agreement achieved at COP21 was just the first step in what needs to be a global cultural shift in how people think and act. In our visually dominant society, listening to the state of the environment can reconnect us with nature. Sound can transport us to a place and time and elicit an empathetic response that can be extremely powerful in climate action. We need to inspire people to change deeply ingrained unsustainable lifestyles and make conscious choices. Positive and motivating experiences are much more productive than overwhelming and depressing climate graphs. While I am not suggesting my music has this capacity, I have no doubt music and creativity has incredible agency in social change.

My practice has evolved from writing music inspired by the environment to developing large-scale participatory projects where my compositions are a catalyst for people to engage with conservation in new ways. What began as an exploration of the value of sound in climate change has evolved into a web of projects harnessing music and acoustic ecology to raise cultural and environmental awareness. At the core of these projects is community engagement and accessibility. My compositions have become part of a multi-layered process designed to inspire others to engage in practices of listening, field recording and composition.

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Five Questions to Evan Ziporyn

When I heard that Evan Ziporyn had last-minute thrown together an orchestra to play Philip Glass’s David Bowie symphonies as a tribute to the late great, I just had to pick his brain. Luckily, I Care If You Listen was interested in that too…



It was one of the above-mentioned conversations, with Richard Guerin, who runs Philip Glass’ record label.  He said “I wish someone would program these Symphonies – it’s at least something classical musicians could do.”   I just blurted out, “OK, but I want to conduct” – and then immediately began emailing.  I felt strongly that it should be a benefit for cancer research, that this would give us all a chance to do something positive with these feelings, channel the grief into something of value, even if only on a small scale.

You normally can’t put something like this together in that amount of time, but for me it was about doing something while in the midst of these feelings – the larger gestures can come later.  But to be honest I assumed some kind of roadblock would appear – no hall availability, not being able to get the music in time, or not enough musicians having time or being available.  But between Richard, the MIT Concert Office, and the overwhelmingly positive response from Boston-area musicians, it all fell into place.  I started by contacting the best musicians I know, people I had worked with or simply knew about, they started telling their friends, and pretty soon we had to start turning players away.  So the orchestra is mainly made up of really first-rate free lance musicians, many of the same people you’d hear at a BMOP concert, kick-ass conservatory students (of which Boston has plenty), etc.  It’s all very moving actually – not only because of Bowie or cancer research, but because it feels genuinely collective and empowering – something we are all doing together.

Don’t get me wrong, this is only possible because MIT – a large and supportive institution – is watching my back, in an amazing way.  But everyone got on board – not just the musicians, but also Campus Activities, copy services, the MIT Police, the parking office, you name it…so I’m grateful for that too.

All that aside, just a simple matter of learning two giant scores in a couple of days, scheduling rehearsals, and now playing the music…business as usual!

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