I cried until snot dripped out of my nose. Until I couldn’t see the road from my bicycle seat. Until I distracted passing drivers with my sobs. Three years ago, biking home after telling my colleagues in Eighth Blackbird that I was leaving the group, my whole body heaved with grief, like I’d ended a marriage. And in some senses, I had.
As I rode, I thought of my nine years in the band. Brilliant, frustrating, transformative years. I had learned about flute technique, and chamber music playing, and the ability to get up on stage in almost any context. My heroes had become my colleagues, my collaborators.
So why had I left?
As a teenager, I was sliced in half. On one side, my artist-type brimmed with energy, conducting Stravinsky on sidewalks, writing operas in high school math, singing in choir with a mouth as wide as a honeydew melon. On the other, my ladder-climber was driven to win, smashing a table after a disappointing grade, turning red with frustration, green with envy.
These two sides navigated an uneasy truce until I breathed a whiff of success in college. Art became inseparable from achievement, and everything, from artistic passions to a put-on-hold personal life, was tied to being recognized as a flute player. So when I aged out of awards and scholarships, and dive-bombed my twelfth orchestra audition, I thought myself a failure. My love for music, for the arts, shrank.
After several years in the professional doldrums, a light flickered in the distance. Tipped off by an old friend, I flew across the world to audition for my dream job. In Eighth Blackbird, I found consummate skill wedded to a passion for communication, for innovation.
Joining the band reawakened my artist-child. I stayed up late dreaming of collaborations, began composing again, walking the streets conducting Stravinsky.
…I no longer felt compelled or challenged by my artistic work.
But my ladder-climber was fed, too. Here was instant success, notoriety, Twitter followers, famous collaborators, bigger audiences. Now, any season we didn’t play at Carnegie Hall felt like a failure. Negative reviews stung like needles, and when a “rival” ensemble won an award, I darkened with bitterness. Why didn’t everyone want to book us, listen to us, pay us, love us?
One day I awoke and realized several things. First, that I desired good reviews more than artistic communication. Second, that I hadn’t practiced the flute, for pleasure or for profit, in more than a year. Third, I no longer felt compelled or challenged by my artistic work. Fourth, I no longer fought, but rather complained.
Some of my spark had extinguished. It was time to leave.
Recently, my father read and recommended to me a biography of Randolph Stow, an Australian poet, novelist and critic. Stow achieved early success, but thereafter lived a reclusive life, producing the occasional novel, doing odd jobs and writing reviews.
Reading about Stow’s quiet, humble life, I sensed an unpleasant reaction in myself. This incredible talent, I thought, content to work as a laborer? Ugh, what a waste. A writer whose name could have been in lights, happy to take the occasional gig reading poetry? Clearly not someone we should care about.
Now, three years after that sob-wracked bicycle fit, it dawns on me that I quit my dream job, left beloved friends and colleagues, in order to understand an artist like Stow – who shed his ladder-climber skin to create work from urge, from need.
But don’t misunderstand me. I’ve been doing battle in the rough-and-tumble freelance world, one day scribbling program notes, the next backing Pete Townshend’s “Quadrophenia,” the next subbing in Imani Winds. A musician for hire, nervous about the next paycheck, anxious about a new professional situation, but challenged and delighted by each twist and turn.
…one impulse crowds others out: the impulse to create work that speaks my own particular language.
But one impulse crowds others out: the impulse to create work that speaks my own particular language. Work that knocks classical music’s globe slightly askew, putting the audience front and center. Work that forces musicians to communicate in new ways, physically freeing and emotionally empowering listeners, engaging with contemporary issues. Work that triggers many creative muscles.
John Luther Adams administered my first bracing shot in the arm. In 2012, Eighth Blackbird co-presented the composer’s immersive “Inuksuit,” a work that is part musical performance, part installation, part ecosystem. Afterwards, audience members and performers thrummed with energy, and I have chased the wildness of JLA’s untamed landscapes ever since.
This month, a project I’ve been working on for two years bears fruit. A large crowd gathers in Millennium Park for David Lang’s “crowd out.” One thousand people from across Chicago join in song and speech. One thousand people express joys, hopes and fears, sharing feelings often kept private. “I feel like rushing into tears,” we all sing. “I am always alone!” we all shout.
Slated for 2019, “The Last Message Received” is my latest collaboration with a kindred spirit, the composer Christopher Cerrone. Taking its name from a website that anonymously posts the last communication between loved ones, “Last Message” scatters players throughout a large space, relaying to each other thoughts in sound. A flute sends a mournful message. But who should reply? And what if they remain silent?
Three forthcoming projects spin in the hallucinatory fog of early development, where my mind dances barefoot through rain storms, singing at the top of its lungs.
In one, an unprepared audience creates a piece of music from scratch, guided only by the power of suggestion. Drawing on the work of the New York theater company 600 HIGHWAYMEN, a small group of musicians forge an unexpected alliance with strangers. A hum emerges, a single note. Another note joins. Another. Somebody stands. What next?
In another, girls tell their stories through song, through dance. I will collaborate with my successor Nathalie Joachim (the current flutist of Eighth Blackbird), working alongside the staff and students of Global Girls, a Chicago-based organization that celebrates the voices and stories of young women of color.
In another, a list spreads word of new and underrepresented voices far and wide. Inspired by the small but mighty theater organization The Kilroys, who compose an annual list of the best new plays by underrepresented playwrights, the list would survey professional musicians, seeking high quality compositions in all manner of genres by women and composers of color.
And yet I do miss Eighth Blackbird. I miss my friends. I miss the magical shared language of a tiny nod or a sharp sniff. I miss the electricity that charged the air of a hall. I miss the inviolable communal spirit onstage, the sense that, if we all stayed there together, everything just might be all right.
But absence is not the same as regret, and I am fulfilled and happy in my new professional life. Of the many gifts Eighth Blackbird gave me, perhaps the greatest was the confidence to follow my instincts – to know when it was right to leave the job of my dreams.