The Blackbird Creative Lab: A Photo Journal
Saxophonist Nick Zoulek, one of this year’s Blackbird Creative Lab fellows, also took his camera along to document his experiences and was kind enough to open his photo journal up for us.
I travelled from Ohio to Ojai to arrive at the Blackbird Creative Lab, an education and mentorship program for composers and performers established by the ensemble Eighth Blackbird. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Just looking at the two names—Ohio and Ojai. They seem pretty similar, don’t they? The Lab couldn’t cause that big of a difference in my life, right?
The Blackbird Creative Lab is held at the Besant Hill School, nestled in the mountains of Ojai. My current home in Ohio is surrounded by a landscape of cornfields, flat as far as the eye can see. The different terrain of Ojai was striking.
I am certain that I speak for all members of The Lab when I say that the experience in Ojai connected me with a fount of empowerment, bravery, camaraderie, and creativity.
Every morning at the Blackbird Creative Lab, I took in a breath of inspiration as I opened the door to a dramatic, gorgeous landscape, with hills that morphed and grew with the changing sunlight. Starting the day in this manner led to an open mind that was ready for saturation. The Blackbird Lab quenched this thirst each day.
Cue the mountain montage!
Communication was key throughout the two-week residency. We opened up our hearts and minds through rehearsals, performances, the hang, learning from each other in one of the most open environments that I’ve ever experienced.
Guest artists spoke with the community each night, but not in a stuffy lecture format. The salon talks were bona fide times of connection, leading all of us on a rollercoaster of deep inspiration.
Fellows rehearsed with members of Eighth Blackbird, working on compositions by other fellows, faculty, and composers who resonate with the contemporary music world. These pieces were performed in a marathon of concerts in the final three days.
What did I garner from this experience? I don’t have the words to describe the magic created at the Lab (thankfully, pictures are worth a thousand). But, I’m going to try to respond as sincerely as possible. First, I was imbued with a renewed sense of artistic direction. The community built around the Blackbird Creative Lab is intensely passionate about their artistry. Their passion is highly contagious, fueled by the Blackbird’s core values of unquestioned quality, pervasive innovation, intense work ethic, genuine informality, and bold openness.
We all garnered tools that can “feed our flame,” as faculty member Jennifer Higdon put it. The community built at the Lab nurtured the potential of each and every member and encouraged us to be the most authentic versions of ourselves.
There was music that I needed to hear, from musicians who I needed to meet. There were messages that I needed to hear. Sage advice came from all members of the community, and there were particular conversations with Nico Muhly, Shara Nova, Jennifer Higdon, and Lisa Kaplan that I will treasure. But of course, these conversations were just threads of a larger tapestry woven by the entire Blackbird Creative Lab.
Now that I’ve returned from Ojai to Ohio, I can confirm that my life has been positively transformed. I feel like I am part of something larger than myself because of this experience.
The Lab galvanized my artistry. As an example of this, I spent a few weeks tracking new compositions for my upcoming multimedia project, Enter Branch, just before heading to the Lab. This is a project that is about connection and that brings together musicians and artists from communities I hold dear. As I recorded, there were elements of the compositions that still seemed vulnerable, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. The Lab drove home a mantra that I’ve lived with for years, but had forgotten recently: If you don’t feel vulnerable when you’re sharing your art, then you might not be connecting in an authentic manner.
So as the sun sets on this iteration of the Blackbird Creative Lab…
I’d like to leave with a few shots of the magic in action. In the final performance of the festival, we staged a production of works by Cage, Wubbels, and Eastman. Throughout the course of the Lab, we had in-depth discussions on how to honor this situation. In the end, every single member of that ensemble poured their hearts into the performance. At one point, members were performing variations of Cage’s 0’00”, carrying out a disciplined action. For my disciplined action, I took pictures of members of the ensemble, on the stage, performing live as we shared this experience with the audience. Here are those shots. My love and thanks to everyone involved with the Eight Blackbird Creative Lab. Stay on it!