February 5, 2013

ICE Talk: Rebekah Heller and Carla Kihlstedt

ICE had the immense pleasure of collaborating with superstar, genre-defying songstress, composer, and violinist Carla Kihlstedt for the past several months.  We presented her new song cycle, written for ICE, at Merkin Hall on January 26 as part of the Ecstatic Music Festival.  I’m thrilled to be playing it again in Chicago on the MCA stage on February 16th.

I’ve had some time to reflect on this experience and what made it so thrilling for me as a performer and collaborator.  Here are some musings Carla and I shared about the process and the performance.

R: Carla! I’m still on a high from this performance and am trying to pin down what made it feel so particularly special.  For me, a big part of it was feeling like I was in a band. Like a real, honest-to-goodness, rock n’ roll band.  As an orchestra geek from an early age, I’ve always harbored secret (or not-so-secret) rock star aspirations.  Last Saturday felt like a true Rockstar moment and it was awesome!

As someone who’s been playing and touring with myriad bands for the past decade, did you feel that ICE was your band?


C: Firstly, Ms. Heller, you are a total rock star. If the rest of the world doesn't know it yet, it's my job to tell them. Soon we'll see little girls all across the world emulating you and rocking the bassoon. I know I would! Maybe my daughter Tallulah will be the first.

Secondly, I know I probably shouldn't correct you on this point, lest it makes me sound.... gulp... old. But i've actually been hitting the road pretty hard with my various bands (Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Tin Hat, 2 Foot Yard, Rabbit Rabbit, Causing a Tiger and occasionally Fred Frith's Cosa Brava) for almost 2 decades now. Oy!

And thirdly, I totally felt like we were a band last Saturday! The whole ICElab model of commissioning really allows for that. Being a band is a mindset, and not a specific instrumentation. This is a total dream band: awesome musicians who like each others’ ideas, are opinionated and open-minded, and love to rehearse really hard and party equally hard. And there's a bassoonist who is the greatest bass player i could ever want!

Ha! My bass moment is truly a favorite. This piece also felt so personal for all of us.  As a cycle about dreaming, most of us had dreams or parts of dreams woven into the narrative of the piece. We were also challenged to perform in ways in which we’re not necessarily super comfortable, like narration, singing, making pretty little chorales on our ridiculous sounding mouthpieces (you must come to the show if only to see/ hear this part!)

Lest I remind you that a lot of those ideas were offered up by you guys! We had these great remedial sessions early on where I got to ask all my silly questions about what you each can do on your respective instruments. You offered up the Heller Copter (an amazing and subtle sound of percussive air moving through the bassoon that starts the whole piece) and the reed idea, which sparked Claire and Josh to dismantle their instruments and thus the somber, sweet and ridiculous trio was born! And it was also you renegade wind players who came up to me after a workshop rehearsal saying, "we want to sing!"

Nathan and Bridget were also was super generous in sharing their ideas and knowledge about the worlds of percussion and harp, respectively. And when Jennifer sent me a link to a beautiful song of hers, I knew I had to sing with her somewhere in the piece!

How did this piece challenge you?

The hardest part of any big unruly project like this is patience and faith. I start with these little strands of ideas, and wisps of material. I can only hope that they will weave themselves together and find an organic logic that makes a compelling journey, but there are a lot of months before that happens when the piece looks like a room full of tiny mosaic tiles that you have to somehow make a mural out of. That's also the fun part of course, ... watching bits of ideas find each other and connect one at a time!

What were your favorite aspects?

I love that there is a little bit of everyone sewn into the fabric of the piece; even the people who don't directly have dreams that are represented. Dan, for example, gave me an amazing dream early on. I didn't use it directly, but the idea of being on stage and not being able to play, gave us the idea of detuning his guitar as he played. Everyone, whether they contributed a dream image or not, really helped define the character of the music and the band. Phyllis has such a great arsenal of playful and evocative instruments... the music boxes that we use are hers. People engaged with the idea in whatever way they were compelled to, which made it all come together really organically.

What was it like collaborating with ICE?

Awesome. Life-changing. An affirmation of everything I love about being alive and playing music.

What are you looking forward to about repeat performances of this cycle?

Oh, I'm so glad we get to do it again! I imagine that it will shift and expand in ways that only come from familiarity. I was actually stunned by how comfortable it felt on the first time out, so I'm even more excited to see how we settle in to it!