The Auckland Live International Cabaret Season opens on 28 September, with nine very different works. Renee Liang interviews composer and performer Claire Cowan about her creation the Blackbird Ensemble and their latest work Dreams.
Why do you write music?
I’ve wanted to compose since I was a kid. I love the expression and the emotion you can bring to something - be it a play, a film, a dance...or just a listening experience. I like that sense of control!
What does your writing space look like?
I have a tiny house, so I either write at my piano in my room, or at my computer in the lounge (which is also the kitchen!) There’s a big wooden desk with nice studio monitors, and a second screen for film scoring. There’s artworks and Blackbird Ensemble memorabilia - the original artwork for Dreams by Walkerillo is framed right next to my computer. There’s usually a few instruments lying around, my guitars, banjo, and cello for starters. Then there’s some breakfast dishes... I often eat at my desk!
You are incredibly versatile having composed for theatre, film, classical ensembles, and pop crossovers. Is being versatile part of reality for a full time composer?
It certainly helps, to be able to find enough music writing work to stretch across genres and networks. But also I really enjoy the diversity, and the range of people I get to meet and work with. If I just did one thing I’d get bored probably!
What do you enjoy about performing?
Working with other musicians! It’s a lonely job being a composer and I relish the opportunities to have fun and jam with my colleagues. It’s also a buzz to be able to share what we’ve created with our audiences.
You have a great reputation for working with artists from other genres - theatre, dance and visual. Do you have a specific approach, or is it more instinctual?
Each genre has its own specific fun things to play with, and expectations from its practitioners. I need to follow some of these expectations, but always, I try to understand what we’re saying with the piece, and how music can strengthen that... when it comes to initial musical sketches I definitely just use my intuition after learning as much as I can about the scene/situation it’s accompanying. It’s always a joy when a collaborator lets me run free with my intuition, and trusts that I’ll do what I do best without too much interference!
How did you form the Blackbird Ensemble and what are your plans for it?
Blackbird was formed in 2010, our first concert was produced by me and a pianist friend. We both liked the music of Arvo Pärt, and at that stage he was rarely performed - so we decided to put some mates together to do a concert of his work. But the important thing was, it needed to be in a space which was accessible for people who wouldn’t normally come to a classical gig. I wanted to attract a new audience, a younger crowd - so we did it at a bar. We lit the entire venue with candles, we made the audience walk up a dimly lit staircase and entered the concert space through iron gates while we played Spiegel im Spiegel. It was magical. And, it was a sell out too. So - Blackbird Ensemble was formed. It’s been my vehicle for realizing my craziest musical dreams since, and pushing my agenda around ‘classical’ performance.
Tell me about Dreams.
Dreams is our latest show featuring nine of our most talented performers. It features music inspired by dreams, nightmares, lullabies, and the rituals of the bedroom. The show is an intimate, emotional and playful journey through music from artists such as Dirty Three, Gillian Welch, Beth Orton, Radiohead, Piazolla, Stravinsky, Nina Simone, The Cure... it’s a beautiful mash up of colliding musical genres. It’s the first show where we’ve memorized the score and are free to roam around and interact with each other. It’s also the first show we’ve worked with a director to help shape the movement and feel of the show. We all get to wear our pyjamas and take naps during the show so it’s basically my idea of musical heaven.
Do you have plans to tour internationally?
We would love that! It’s difficult to get the Blackbird beast off the ground though...with so many people and instruments we’re a somewhat costly band to tour. But we’d do it at the drop of a hat if we found an opportunity!
What are the next pieces you're working on?
The Afterlife is our show in long-term development at this stage. It’s our most ambitious show yet, with physical theatre elements and improvisation. It involves 10 ‘dead’ musicians, existing in a sort of ‘in between’ space, where each must come to terms with their own regrets, or let go of their life’s ‘baggage.’ It’s been fascinating territory to explore. We’re also working on a couple of other very exciting shows which we can’t reveal just yet... but soon!
- Blackbird Ensemble Dreams is on 30 September, as part of the Auckland Live International Cabaret Season 28 September – 2 October.