A Reflection on Collaborations with Non-Classical Artists
It's late summer and Fifth House Ensemble had a few weeks off, affording me time to properly reflect on the whirlwind that was our past season. In this space, a project I re-live fondly is our collaboration with the Tuvan throat-singing ensemble, Alash.
Every few years we have the pleasure to create a concert experience with artists from other musical genres. Each of these presents challenges, such as language barriers, un-notated music, and instruments that utilize different tuning systems and dynamic ranges, yet somehow have to sound, well, good together. Our in-person time with Alash essentially happened in three stages - a morning-of rehearsal and recording in April 2018 because they just happened to be in town and we needed promotional footage; a MacArthur Foundation-funded excursion three months later to their native Tuva that involved half of Fifth House Ensemble; and finally, a flurry of rehearsals, concerts and recordings in late February 2019. What struck me about these particular musicians, Bady Dorzhu-Ondar, Ayan-ool Sam, and Ayan Shirizhik, was their kindness, calmness, sense of humor, and unflappable artistry. These are qualities that our ensemble holds dear and were inspiring to witness in another group, particularly one that spends an extraordinary amount of time on the road together.
Language was a particular challenge in this collaboration, greatly overcome thanks to Alash's manager and interpreter, Sean Quirk, who is a trained musician and could effectively communicate ideas about musical nuance between the two languages. That said, some of the most delightful moments emerged when we circumvented language and just played. One of their pieces, A-shoo dekei-oo, has the same chord structure as "Someone's in the Kitchen with Dinah." As a joke, I riffed on it during a rehearsal. All three members of Alash burst into appreciative laughter and then insisted that we keep it in the song during the performance, so we did!
We had very limited rehearsal time with Alash prior to the concerts in March, and as such, learning their songs by rote alongside them was simply not possible. Deuce and Parker took on hefty arrangement projects to ensure that we had useable parts, spending many months corresponding with Alash and Sean and listening to their recommended recordings to aurally create arrangements of some of their tunes. After a grueling drive in white-out conditions to Appleton, Wisconsin, we sat down to play these arrangements with them for the first time the day before the first concert. We all took deep breaths and looked wide-eyed at each other as Alash sang their introduction to the first song in an entirely different key from the one on our stands. The conversation that ensued was polite and solution-oriented, but definitely a nail-biter! After a number of exchanges with Sean interpreting for both groups, it came out that the recording we used to create parts was twelve years old. Sean hung his head for a second, and then said, "There have been too many hamburgers since then, and they can no longer sing it in that key because it's too high." Laughter ensued, we listened to them sing in a more comfortable key, and we transposed for that rehearsal. Deuce burned the midnight oil creating new parts for the show, but all was fine.
In addition to the iconic throat singing, the members of Alash also play as many as fourteen different string, wind, and percussion instruments in a show. Finding ways for all of these instruments to blend or offset one another in interesting ways with our Western instruments was a fun challenge (and also made for incredibly long sound checks)! In the Reindeer Herder's Song, I take over a line from a Tuvan string instrument called doshpuluur. My goal was to find a pizzicato sound using a guitar pick that mimics that instrument as closely as possible. Traditional picking technique on the cello is extremely difficult because of the cello's width, and I soon realized that the single guitar pick I owned wasn't the right gauge to get the sound I was looking for. However, I know nothing about guitar picks, and had no idea whether a heavier or lighter gauge would be better. So we called a 20-minute break. I ran down the street in an arctic wind chill to an Appleton guitar shop, handed the cashier $5 and asked for her to give me as many picks of different gauges as that would buy. I ran back to rehearsal nearly frost-bitten with about 10 picks and started "auditioning" them for the group. The orange one emerged victorious!
I look back on this experience with a profound appreciation for the ways in which we were challenged to take our own musicianship and chamber music playing to the next level, to remain as unfazed as possible when we're out of our comfort zone, and to crack a joke especially when things get stressful. As we head into our fifteenth season, those are great reminders. Many thanks to Alash and my 5HE cohorts for all the great memories!