On the Record: eighth blackbird Pianist Lisa Kaplan, OC ’96

Chicago-based contemporary music sextet eighth blackbird formed at Oberlin in 1996. They have won three Grammy awards for their recordings and established ensemble-in-residence positions at the University of Richmond, the University of Chicago and the Curtis Institute of Music. On Friday Oct. 4, they will perform with Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble in Warner Concert Hall, premiering works by Oberlin TIMARA Professors Tom Lopez and Peter Swendsen. Lisa Kaplan, pianist in eighth blackbird, talked with the Review about returning to Oberlin, the challenges of a premiere, and working with her former mentor 17 years later.

Daniel Hautzinger, Staff Writer

How did this project come about?

We have a residency at the University of Richmond, which is where Ben Broening teaches, and Ben and Tim Weiss [the director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble, and a mentor to eighth blackbird] know each other from a while back, from [the University of] Michigan maybe. So they’ve been friends for a long time. Ben has a festival at the University of Richmond called Third Practice, and he has some money each year to commission new works for the festival specifically. So for last fall, he said, “I’d love to have the Oberlin CME [Contemporary Music Ensemble] come to Third Practice and I want to commission these pieces. What do you think about having the composers Tom [Lopez] and Pete [Swendsen] write pieces for Oberlin CME plus [eighth blackbird]?” And then the timing worked out really well because we would come to Oberlin, do the initial preparation, and then do the same concert in Richmond.

Had you worked with Tom or Pete before?

I hadn’t worked with Pete before because I wasn’t on the piece of his that the rest of the ensemble did last year at the Third Practice Festival. Tom we had not worked with either, but I just know him. He often comes to the Richmond Festival. It’s always a different level of knowing somebody once you’re working on a piece of their music though.

I know that Tom and Pete emailed you the process and inspiration behind their pieces. Does the composer’s thinking behind a piece and its title affect or inform your rehearsal process at all?

I think that titles can be very meaningful for the composer or not so meaningful. Tom’s piece [is titled] Skipping Stones… I think that idea is really nice because it will be eighth blackbird and the CME sextet kind of mirrored. The idea is that you hear a musical idea that the six of us play, and then that transfers to the CME sextet playing the altered version of that same music we just played. And then even one more, in which the idea is altered even further, I think they play on toy piano, stuff like that. I personally love the imagery of when you’re skipping a stone, the further it goes, the less and less distinct the ripples become. I think that that will probably be something you can see just visually happening on the stage. That will maybe enhance the person’s experience of it, and I think that’s great. Now, I think people still want the music to speak for itself as well. And some people are very unconcerned with program notes or even knowing any of that information. You can read all the program notes afterwards if you want to.

Pete’s piece is based on the Picasso painting [“Glass of Absinthe,” on display at the Allen Memorial Art Museum]. I think that’s definitely a more abstract kind of inspiration, but probably for him it seems very concrete. I think it’s fine for it to be that way for the composer, and not have to be explained more than that to someone listening.

Do you have a process that you go through, both individually and as a group, when you work on a premiere?

We come to the first rehearsal of a new piece very prepared, not just that we can play our own part, but that we understand how our part fits into the structure as a whole. So a lot of score study. We always ask for six scores. I spend a lot of time with my own part, marking in things that are relative to how my part fits in. And then we get together and we often put on a metronome hooked up to an amplifier, just to hear the eventual tempo. When you’re first reading off of your part and also trying to read all the cues you’ve written in, it’s a little bit harder to pay attention, so you just want to get it in your ear with all the other parts. Sometimes we’ll record ourselves in a rehearsal, because sometimes it’s hard to get the perspective of what it actually sounds like. People sometimes ask, “Oh my god, when you’re premiering a piece, how do you know what it sounds like? There’s no recording.” And I say, “Yeah, that’s what’s so cool.” You are discovering the first way of playing it. That’s so terrific.

What is it like being back at Oberlin and working with students, something you do a lot since you’re ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago, the University of Richmond and the Curtis Institute of Music?

So nice. I just have such a special place in my heart for Oberlin. I don’t know that eighth blackbird would have formed at any other school. It had so much to do with Tim Weiss. I think it also had something to do with the kind of place that Oberlin is that invites this openness and diversity of thinking. That’s the kind of students that come here. I feel like so much about how I ended up in my professional career is because of this school. I get excited about working with students who are passionate about what they’re doing, wherever they are. It gives you hope.

What’s it like working with Tim Weiss now that he is no longer your teacher?

It’s very collaborative, though I always felt that way about him in general. When I was 18, Tim was only about 24. Even though he exuded a certain authority, I never felt that he put people in their place, like, “I am the teacher, you are the student.” I felt that there was room in rehearsal to say, “Could you conduct in a different beat pattern?” He was very accommodating. I think that’s part of what people really like about him. I feel like he’s a part of my life, and probably always will be.

Is there a favorite moment in the pieces that you’re playing on Friday?

I’m really excited to play my four-hand piece [Whirligig], each movement with a different person, and I’m playing the last movement with Sanford Margolis [Kaplan’s piano professor at Oberlin, who still teaches here today]. So that will be a little cameo appearance.

Do you have any advice for groups or people advocating new music?

I think one of the greatest pieces of advice is something that Tim told me very early on, which is that in order to make it, you need to be 80 percent motivated and 20 percent talented. Everyone at this Conservatory is talented; the difference is how much you want it and how much you work at it. Some people have to work harder or less hard depending on what your talent is, but the motivation factor is what will get you a long way. You cannot underestimate that.

For new music, you have to stick to your guns, in terms of what it is you want your product to be. At the very beginning, we got asked a lot of the time to come to a festival, and they would say, “You can play some modern music, but could you also play some Beethoven?” That’s not what our group does, and it was hard to say no, because we had no gigs, and they were paying. But it dilutes whatever it is that you’re trying to put out there. It’s not that you should be inflexible. But at the very beginning it’s important to know what is your purpose.