Despite the mayhem, the first 20 minutes were cool and calm.
The dress rehearsal of Ways of Looking, the new work by San Francisco electronic musician Pamela Z, began with the musical programming software on her laptop crashing. Just 30 seconds into the game on Dec. 14 at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Playhouse, everything ground to a halt.
"MAX just crashed," Z said. "I don't know why, I mean, it never happens."
Lisa Kaplan, the pianist and cofounder of Eighth Blackbird, the chamber music sextet that Z recently joined to premiere the newly commissioned work, joked, "Because we're rehearsing, that's why."
Z hopped on the phone to call tech support. Exit offstage left.
The musicians in the acclaimed Chicago sextet presented by Cal Performances in an evening of new music, stayed busy in various ways, plugging their ears in unison while percussionist Matthew Duvall energetically clashed cymbals to set safe sound levels. The cacophonous clamor set wrinkled aluminum foil on a nearby table to rustling. It wasn't trash left from lunch; the foil was a precisely prepared instrument used in the performance.
Next, monitors, mics, and headsets that posed no problem at other venues caused unexpected disruption. The word "looking" — voiced live, and an essential part of the text-saturated premier of this work with the word in its title — sounded under-amplified. Text in the mix was overwhelmed by the sextet's piano, cello, violin, clarinet, flute, drums, and other instruments. Even more worrisome, the musicians couldn't accurately hear themselves or each other.
Members of the tech crew climbed through a jungle gym of wires, music stands, mics, and instruments to adjust or replace equipment and realign the musicians so as not to disturb sight lines. Minus a conductor, for a chamber ensemble visual cues are as crucial as auditory signals.
Z returned and found her laptop mysteriously recovered from its 5-minute "virus." She was ready to roll, but concerns rose about how to launch one audio clip on her laptop from offstage without being a distraction by standing onstage when she was not actively performing. Flutist Nathalie Joachim said that Z's first suggestion, walking on and off during the piece, might be even more distracting and offered to start the clip herself. But Joachim would need to disconnect and reconnect her headset and might miss a few measures she played soon after. Eventually, Kaplan suggested the compromise that Z remain on stage but only be spotlighted when she active.
Just when it seemed all was resolved — with the computer behaving properly and the crew and musicians having problem-solved cooperatively — Duvall heaved a sigh of relief that, now over-amplified, sounded like 20 Darth Vaders. "There's absolutely no breathing allowed during the show," someone joked, causing everyone to laugh.
Humor cut the tension, and with that the ensemble embarked into the first of four movements thematically titled "Looking," "Name," "Um" and "Very." The sounds filling the theater completely altered attention. A sonic tapestry unfurled; arriving in layers upon layers, like thick-woven upholstery stacked in a warehouse. Interlaced live and recorded voice clips, a cello's gorgeous deep timbre, melancholy violin lines, gentle piano textures and the flute's up-swell pitch — all of it accented, jolted or tied to looping rhythmic repetition by percussion. The barrage of words and music flung at the ear felt like the soundtrack of real life, like being on BART, where inner thoughts, overheard comments, PA announcements, mechanical train noises, and the lyrics of a neighbor's too-loud rap bleeding through headsets create a contemporary soundtrack for travel.
Of course, in the theater, with the chaotic audio skillfully composed and engineered into an astonishing contemporary score, the effect was terrific, striking, ironic, often poignant, occasionally humorous. A selection of text compiled from four movements: "Very confusing. Very small. Very strong. Very awesome. Very confusing. Uuuuum. Big lamb-chop-size cheeks/strong guy/thoughtful/tall/and very small/chunky gold jewelry/like a circle skirt in some ways/dark eyes/donate/very nice/fabric," and so on.
Meanwhile, using digital looping techniques on her MacBook Pro and custom MIDI controllers, Z manipulated other sounds with gestures. Her live singing soared like an opera star while her hands, as if issuing incantations, cast mesmerizing, sonic spells.
Peace prevailed as the magic of a professional rehearsal expressed itself.
But it was neither magic nor mystery to find peace in a run-of-the-mill rehearsal for artists accustomed to the zigzag of work as professional musicians. In addition to four Grammy awards, Eighth Blackbird has earned a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, and critical accolades from the Chicago Tribune as "one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensembles on the planet," among other praise. Z tours throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia and has received commissions from the Kronos Quartet, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and more. A recipient of numerous fellowships, in 2019 Z won a prestigious Rome Prize, earning an 11-month residency to develop new solo work in Rome.
During a rehearsal break, Kaplan said her favorite part of the Grammys happens during commercials. "It's un-televised; the part no one sees. It's a mad dash, everyone zooming around like crazy. In two minutes, they change sets entirely, roll out props and roll down screens, get the next presenters and performers in position. It's nuts."
It puts a person to wondering. What if, in the new year, we all lived as if it's a dress rehearsal or an invisible Grammy moment? We'd be calm in the face of obstacles, work in the now, not moan over the past nor worry overmuch about the future. We'd collaborate and use each other's best ideas to focus on getting past "uh-oh" to reach "ah-ha." At the least, we'd listen diligently to each other and celebrate our diversity and sameness in joyful harmony. After all, a rehearsal junkie can dream of peaceful revolution.