Dissolving Walls: Claire Cowan of Blackbird Ensemble
Dreams takes place under the glow of a dozen lanterns, each disguised to form a sky of drifting clouds. On a stage crammed with beds and tousled sheets, members of The Blackbird Ensemble move as though they’re half-asleep, yawning widely as they stumble towards their instruments. They begin by playing soft lullabies to a curious audience - many of whom will have been drawn to The Basement by Claire Cowan’s classically-inspired re-arrangements of Nick Cave, Radiohead and Fleet Foxes, played alongside Stravinsky and Piazzolla. As the ensemble awakens, it’s as though their intent is to stage the gentlest kind of musical revolution. I doubt Cowan would see it in such dramatic terms. Perhaps it is something simpler: she’s just finding and filling the gaps in people’s lives where a little more music could fit.
If Cowan finds something uninspiring – a university course or an entire music scene - she won’t disengage, or go through the motions while her mind wanders. She just quietly gets to work pragmatically making sure each of her experiences is as full as possible. She has composed countless scores for film and theatre, but during a quiet moment four years ago, Cowan realised that no one was playing the work of the Estonian composer Avo Parte. She and a friend took it upon themselves to change that and The Blackbird Ensemble was born.
“The Tabula Rasa that we performed was these two dueling violins, one plays extremely high and one extremely low,” she explains after a three-hour rehearsal for Dreams. “[Avo Parte] is a really amazing composer. I was like, ‘Nobody’s playing this work, we need to play it’ so we got a bunch of people together and rehearsed it.”
Since then, Blackbird has performed a host of dazzling shows,. With each one, the ensemble has lit a new path for audiences likely to have been surviving on a more pop-based diet. Last year, Night Sky drew on the inspiration the stars had to offer while The Wilderness wandered deep into a lush forest. Cowan’s talent lies not only in her exquisite compositions, but the lengths she goes to create rich, theatrical experiences for her audience. Dreams featured one of her original songs, blended into an hour-long set and staged to represent the faceted experience of a night in bed. In New Zealand at least, the Ensemble is one of a kind and Cowan’s ingenuity is paying off with sold out seasons and the word ‘magic’ finding its way in to almost every review.
“I’m learning. In the first show I did everything. I did all the hair and makeup, I did all the production side and it was crazy. I had no time to mentally prepare before I went on because I was still painting people’s faces. It’s great - I like to learn something with every new show.”
Claire also started the Blackbird Ensemble as a way to turn the disparate circles of people who lurk at Wine Cellar gigs and those who frequent classical music concerts into one cosy Venn diagram. She’s constantly looking for new ways to break down the barriers between audiences and musicians, attracting those intrigued by classical music but intimidated by its rigid rituals or ostentatious reputation.
“Generally people who come to our shows don’t go to classical concerts and so it’s the only way they get this fix. This show’s quite heavy on the pop and jazz genres and that’s also a really easy way to market. So we’re still innovative in the way we do it - we still have classical instruments in there, we compose transitions, we get quite experimental in ways that cover bands would never think to.”
To dissolve a wall means to remind people of their shared humanity, and in this case of their shared enjoyment of music. Having worked with all of New Zealand’s major orchestras, Cowan has long been aware of how divisions between an orchestra and an audience can be quite literal.
“I really love theatre and I really love physical theatre. A lot of classical musicians hide behind their instruments. I sort of wonder what their private lives are like and what would happen if I took away the music stand or the instrument, what they’d do with their bodies. I think classical musicians, any musicians who perform music, are doing only a small percentage of what they’re capable of doing as an entertainer. Adding in these theatrical elements like taking on a character or even a facial expression adds a whole other layer of meaning and creates a more powerful experience, or at least a more interesting one, for the audience.”
Dreams couldn’t be further from the trope of red-faced tuba players with furrowed brows choked by tuxedos and ties. Rather, the cast are in their pyjamas. Lead vocalist Mikey Brown wears a singlet, while singer and guitarist Jessie Cassin descends from a glittering ladder draped in a creamy, silky nightgown. These costumes remind us that no one is above mundane, daily rituals and this creates a kind of relatability with the audience, bridging the gap between their talent and our awe. If they spend their nights in the same way we do, maybe they like music in the same way; maybe our reasons for liking music are good enough, clever enough, or maybe they don’t need to be good or clever at all. This is the cumulative effect of a Blackbird show: it will leave your head brimming, and - if a song strikes the right note - your heart, too.
Throughout the show, the performers sway and smile, clambering in and out of their beds, focusing on the music at hand. While the performance is purposeful it never feels forced. In some moments their vulnerability is palpable and there were times, when the singers didn’t have lyrics to play into, when the stage suddenly felt wide open. Almost all the musicians take turns picking up each other’s instruments, and one of the more unexpected moments comes when Kevin Keys discards his trombone to leer at us from a ladder as he sings The Cure’s 'Lullaby'. It makes for a pretty wonderful nightmare.
The theatrics also work to highlight the music’s invisibility: you're tempted to look for traces of it in the air, to glean how something so intangible can hold so much nostalgia and joy. Cowan is more likely to ask: How can I make it hold a little more? It’s not hard to see how, as a concept, dreams would provide plenty of inspiration, especially for someone so keen to create and explore common ground and intimacy in ways that unnerve and surprise. “When you sleep, all sorts of confusing stuff happens seemingly for no reason. We’re playing with that weird stuff and internal headspaces. There’s one of the songs where Mikey’s singing is quite straightforward, it’s a beautiful Iron and Wine song, and the band around him suddenly changes keys and goes really atonal and he’s just trying to sing through it. You know how in dreams sometimes you can’t walk or you can’t run? It’s kind of like that. Then suddenly it all snaps back and he can sing the chorus to a proper harmony.”
The Blackbird Ensemble operates as a collective, with a rotating cast of musicians diving in and out depending on where they are and what other projects they’re working on. While the cast can get as large as 25, Dreams’ nine performers sit somewhere between being a large band and a small orchestra. “We wanted to do something that was easier to organise. It’s such a short turnaround. It’s still difficult, but nine people are a lot easier to deal with than 25. Getting musicians to reply to emails is really hard!”
“It’s easier to play without music when you’ve learnt it as a band, which doesn’t happen in any group bigger than this really. It’s too difficult. Or everyone’s just talking to everyone in the rehearsal and it won’t work. Before I was the director and the conductor: ‘I’m going to tell you when to play and when to stop’. With this, we all cue each other; we’re all listening to each other. Anything could happen.”
Dreams also marks the first time they've brought in someone else to direct. The strength of Renee Lyons' direction is clearer in some songs than others, a highlight being a cabaret-style performance of Amy Winehouse’s 'In My Bed': Cassin belts out the song while lounging on a double bed, the band grouped tight around her, creatively using the small space afforded by The Basement.
Having a director also means Cowan can focus more on the music, though much of it has been in gestation for months. “I always have all these playlists on my computer – I think I’ve got Blackbird shows for the next few years planned out, there’s so many songs in similar themes that I really like and dreams is one.”
“A lot of the songs are directly inspired by dreams that the writer has said that they had. I love doing that, learning about all sorts of random artists and getting people to suggest things to me as well, I discover lots of new artists that I like and lots of facts that you never knew about quite famous songs.”
Cowan is undeniably present throughout the entire process as she constructs and performs each detail of her work but her mind is always several steps ahead, already devising her next endeavor. “I am working on a new show, The Afterlife. I’m writing an all-original score, which is just instrumental, no voice no words and every instrument is also a character. [Dreams] is kind of a halfway mark, I’m just tentatively going into that territory.”
This year she’s the composer in residence with Wellington Orchestra and is currently working on some arrangements for Julia Deans and Anika Moa. “They’re doing an orchestral gig so I take their songs and write them out for an orchestra.” Cowan is also creating six hour-long scores for the TV series Hillary, which is due to air next year. To say she was busy would be a gross understatement. “It’s basically, ‘Get on the treadmill and don’t get off’. “
But for now Blackbird’s audiences, old and new, have Dreams to linger over. “I hope the audience is happy at the end of the show and that they got good value. Something they didn’t expect. If they’re surprised in a good way then I’ll be happy,” Claire says as we wrap up our chat.
“I hope that they just feel something.”