The Interdisciplinary Feedback Loop


If you’ve been checking the Chicago Q Ensemble facebook page in the last week, you may have noticed some odd pictures. Ellen, standing on a giant box, violin under her chin, with crazy pink lights behind her. Aimee, playing while kneeling on the floor with her music stand pushed down as far as it will go. You’ve probably been thinking to yourself, “Those Q ladies have really gone off the deep end. Can’t they just have a normal rehearsal?” Well yes, we’ve been doing that too—matching bowstrokes, working with the metronome, yadda yadda yadda. But what we’re really excited about, the thing that has us sending emails back and forth with the subject line “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh”, the thing that has us free-writing about prayer, and the thing that has actually been shaping many of our musical decisions is our explorations into true interdisciplinary collaboration.


Before I get into what exactly that means and what exactly we’ve been up to in those cryptic pictures, allow me to deviate for a moment to describe a completely unrelated experience I had last week. For the second time this year, I had the pleasure of performing the complete D minor Bach Suite along with the dancers of Core Project Chicago. Some of the dance movements were choreographed, some were improvised (and by the way, I mean dance movements in both senses of the term: 1) the actual movements the dancers made, and 2) the 5 movements within the suite that refer to specific dances from Bach’s era). What was really exciting about collaborating with the Core Project artists was that their dancing actually influenced, inspired, and enhanced the way I played Bach. Suddenly, music that I’ve been playing decades took on new meaning. I found that I was playing phrases in ways I had never considered before and taking slightly different tempos that seemed to go better with the dancing. At times I even felt like I was somehow improvising, even though I was reading the same notes on the page that I’ve always read. And I couldn’t help but think that the dancers were having a similar experience—that maybe, probably, their movements were influenced by whatever nuances I was inserting into the Bach. Between what was coming out of my cello and the gestures of the dancers, we had established a feedback loop of imagination and inspiration. Together, we were feeding off of each other’s ideas and artistry in a beautiful new way. It doesn’t really get any better than that, right?

A few days after my Bach collaboration, I found myself back in a black box theater with Chicago Q and our staging collaborator, Deirdre. Still under the spell of inspiration from working with dancers, I realized that what Q has been doing as we’ve explored staging the music of Andrew Norman is exactly the same thing that I had done with Bach. Replace one art form for another—theater for dance—and between Deirdre and the three of us, we have created the same type of imagination-inspiration feedback loop. While the three of us approach the piece from a musical perspective, Deirdre approaches it from a theatrical perspective, and when those two very different forces come together, we end up with something much bigger, much richer than either of us could have imagined alone.


You know what? I’m not going to explain those pictures after all. I think I’ll just keep letting you wonder. And in order to fully grasp what we’ve been up to, you’ll just have to come to our November 24th show at Constellation. In the meantime, though, I can’t wait for our next session with Deirdre, when everything I think I know about our art form gets thrown upside down as we explore it through a crazy, collaborative, imaginative new lens.


On Inspiration

I recently had two insightful conversations with a couple of friends about performing.  In one conversation, we were discussing the fact that, usually, in performance, we don’t necessarily play every single note in tune, we might have memory slips, and we may not even hit all the right notes (gasp!), but there’s something about our playing that audiences seem to relate to and are touched by.  Another professional musician might hear us and judge our playing as imperfect and in need of more practice, which we couldn’t deny, but there is a certain expressive quality that we bring to performance that trumps any technical imperfection in the eyes of most audiences.  It’s confusing sometimes, because while we might feel that we didn’t play very well technically, the reaction from our listeners is often the opposite.

In the other conversation, a friend was telling me about her boyfriend, another musician (not classical), who doesn’t practice nearly as many hours a day as she does, yet he is able to bring to his performances an indescribable musicality that wins his audiences over.  She was jokingly lamenting the unfairness of the situation–he should have to work harder for his success!

In many fields, but especially music, the one theory that gets a lot of attention is the 10,000-hour rule.  It basically states that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice or study to achieve an expert level of performance.  And we musicians take this to heart, because to a certain extent, it’s absolutely true.  Those 10,000 hours, or 10 years, or even 20 years, or MORE, are what it takes to have a solid enough technical foundation to make it in the professional realm.  But there is an aspect of music-making that the 10,000 hour rule does not necessarily take into account: Inspiration, spontaneity, creativity.

If you haven’t already seen this, it’s an incredible talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity and genius.  In her talk, she cites ancient Greek and Roman beliefs on how “creativity” did not used to be seen as something that a person was capable of possessing and bringing forth whenever they wanted to, it was more like a passing spirit that may or may not come by at the right time.  Of course, this theory is hard to sum up in one sentence, so it might sound a little wacky (just watch the video!), but it strikes a deep chord for me.

For me, inspiration and creativity come directly from the pull of the audience’s energy during a performance.  When I play Kol Nidre at my synagogue during Yom Kippur each year, I feel an incredible positivity coming from the audience because the 1,000 people who are listening are hearing the music as a prayer.  Their energy draws me in and allows me to tap into a creativity that I could never find in a practice room.  When I performed new music with Chicago Q Ensemble at the Thirsty Ear Festival a few weeks ago, the audience in the crowded bar pulled me into their casual yet excited energy and inspired me to play differently than I would have in a different setting.  When am I NOT inspired?  Well, one place would definitely be during an audition–when there is a complete lack of energy coming from the curtain hanging in front of the blind committee.

Performing at the Thirsty Ear Festival, which was live-broadcasted by WFMT

A few years ago, I performed a short Schubert quartet with Joel Smirnoff (the former first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet).  I’ll never forget him mentioning offhand in a rehearsal that we should expect to be on our toes in the performance because the energy of the audience would affect the spontaneity of our playing.

This idea that the audience themselves play a role in the creativity of a performance is, in itself, inspirational to me.  In a time when audiences are finding less and less to relate to and taking less and less interest in classical music, it seems to me that this is a key way to engage people.  Instead of dumbing down our performances or just limiting our repertoire to the major war horses or (God forbid) POPS, what if musicians were able to find a way to connect with our audiences by creating a unique energy that excites them, which in turn would enhance the performance itself?  Or why don’t we concern ourselves less with the pedantic technique of our own playing and focus more on what the audience is actually listening to…the music?

I’m sure by this point I’ve long completed my 10,000 hours of practice.  I’ll never stop working on my scales, etudes, and general technique to keep myself in shape.  But having good technique isn’t exactly the reason I got into this business.  The reason this career satisfies me is the thrill I get when that rush of inspiration seizes me in performance.  It’s the relationships I build with my audiences and fellow musicians, and the way those relationships change after a spontaneously inspirational moment.  It’s the fact that I am unable to replicate a performance because each audience and each setting feeds me with a unique energy that I latch onto and become inspired by in order to perform my best.

Lost in Translation

Reposting a blog I wrote the other day for the Chicago Q Ensemble blog…


Lost in Translation

If any of you devoted readers out there keep up with our blog pretty regularly, you may remember this blog post from way back in March, when I was pointing out the differences between artists who get to create new works from scratch and artists whose job it is to merely interpret someone else’s masterpiece. As performing musicians, we are generally always on the interpretive side, and I occasionally get grumbly about the fact that I’m not as much a part of the initial creative process as I’d like to be. (for more on that, refer to that older post…)

Well, Q was invited to perform at an award ceremony for the Goethe Institute of Chicago that took place this week, and the experience made me think about my role as an interpretive artist quite differently. Let me explain. The award that was given out was the prestigious Wolff Prize for translation of a book from German into English, and the winner was writer Burton Pike for his translation of Gerhard Meier’s “Isle of the Dead.” As the members of the jury were describing the masterful qualities of Mr. Pike’s translation that led them to choose him as the winner, two seemingly obvious, yet suddenly enlightening thoughts occurred to me.

1) A musician’s work is exactly the same as that of a translator. We don’t write the original work ourselves, but it is our responsibility to put that original work into a form that our audience can understand. Just as a translator might take a passage in German and spin it eloquently into English, it is our job to translate musical notation on the written page into the sounds that audience members will understand, relate to, and recognize as music.



2) Translating, both in language and in music, is truly a great art. Just read these words that were part of the jury’s statement. If you’re like me, you might wonder if this was a translator’s award ceremony or if it you’re actually reading a concert review!

“Pike’s deft rendering of the rhythm of Meier’s undulating sentences, in which leitmotifs constantly reappear in slightly altered form, keeps the reader enthralled to the end. He has beautifully preserved the deceptive simplicity of a text that gradually reveals itself to be profoundly elegiac.”

After hearing those words, it suddenly made so much sense to me why the Goethe Institute wanted to have a string quartet performing at the beginning and the end of the ceremony. Our playing signified the parallels between literature, music, and really all art forms (think about the actor’s role in a play or the job of an art historian!). In the same way that Mr. Pike exquisitely translated Meier’s writing, we poured as much nuance and creativity into our translations of Shostakovich and Haydn as the composers did when they wrote the original works. Through our playing, we are able to create new art from the art that is already there. Funny that it took a translation award ceremony to get me to appreciate that so fully.

In just a few days, Q is heading off to St. Louis where we will take part in the Gesher Music Festival of Emerging Artists. I was looking forward to this before, but I now have a renewed sense of excitement and inspiration to bring works of music to life in a way that can only be achieved by a great translator. Auf wiedersehen!

*For those who are interested, the award ceremony was recorded for the Goethe Institute’s archives and will eventually be available on WBEZ’s Chicago Amplified.*