Enter your username and password

Forgotten your username or password?

Your Shopping Cart

There are no items in your shopping cart.

14 May 2024

Building from the bones

Tessa Brinckman and Terry Longshore - Caballito Negro Image: Tessa Brinckman and Terry Longshore - Caballito Negro  

Contemporary chamber music-making is a puzzle. It's ardently riding the wave of our innate desire to create and connect. It's also the indignity of creating work in a society that barely cares about contemporary classical music, that offers few resources, while demanding we behave like "entrepreneurs" or "stakeholders" (plaster your neo-liberal label here). We are so invisible to the rest of the world that even the music worlds we belong to cannot successfully name themselves. The labels "classical", "contemporary", "chamber" don't even begin to describe the multi-lingual, cross-genre dreamscapes we create and perform as contemporary artists. In a personal sense - in my desire for some solidity, some "proof" of existence - I have been intent on leaving a body of work that doesn't require the constant energy of staging performances. As part of a series of making things that count (at least to us), our flute and percussion duo, Caballito Negro, released Bare White Bones in April, both as a single and a video.

Our duo is now bicoastal, though we started this collaboration in 2008 in Ashland, a small town in Southern Oregon. I'm a New Zealand flutist who's lived in the USA for decades now. Terry Longshore is a born and bred Californian and percussionist. The name, Caballito Negro, ("dark little horse") comes from Federico García Lorca's poem, Canción de Jinete (1860), quoted in George Crumb's Madrigals Book II. We love the mystery inherent in Crumb's and Lorca's work - this duende is a constant inspiration.

Artistic practice in rural America often depends on larger institutions (with ever-dwindling budgets) for economic shelter. The US is gigantic. When you live outside the major cities (with hundreds of miles between cultural hubs) collective energy is often dissipated, stifling that immediate, honest feedback you need from other artists. Isolation is difficult for artists whose work is temporal and collaborative. Rural audiences in conservative Southern Oregon are very dependent on mutual good will and not rocking the boat, which is a simultaneous blessing and curse. The last eight years have been a strange political test, with the push for social change via the same meager, unstable budgets. Institutions have polished their surfaces for better "optics", but everything is of course tenuous. My life has been made a lot easier since I moved to New York City in 2022. A big city is a monstrous engine, inhaling and exhaling so many more people and opportunities. Artists are always on the precipice of standing or being crushed. I'm lucky that, so far, for now, I have been able to win a bunch of grants and residencies, some of which are for Caballito Negro.

Even though we now live bi-coastally, our duo is thriving, because from the beginning we made a list of priorities. As collaborators, commissioners, curators and composers we wanted to realize imaginative, interdisciplinary projects, seeking real cultural exchange with any local, regional, and international artists we worked with. We value close, clear communication. Building professional relationships, where no-one is treated as a utility box, takes time. We have sought to personalize the experience (where classical music often prides itself on a kind of remoteness). We only take on projects that we can each give 100% support. And we are resourceful. Exactly how can we make something within many limitations, that resonates spiritually and politically? We want our work to foster empathy and imagination for all the obvious reasons.

Back in 2016 we immediately jumped into a new flute and percussion consortium (headed up by Gemini Duo), commissioning Australian composer, Wally Gunn. Wally was living in the US at the time, and his sound world sounded like a perfect addition (and evolution) for flute and percussion repertoire. Rock music is in Wally's background, and it shows in the rhythmic groove of the piece he wrote for the consortium, Bare White Bones. This piece is a wild, rollicking, dark ride. The composer used an excerpt of the traditional Scottish ballad, The Twa Corbies, and asked his brother James Gunn to translate it into Latin, adding to the macabre feel of the music. The flute and percussion parts ask us to whisper and hiss the poem into, and around, our instruments as we play.

The dark humor of this ancient ballad echoes the pain of our anthropocene era, and the triumph of ancient natural cycles and beings. Two crows recite how they will "perch on his pale face... nest in his golden hair... peck out his beautiful blue eyes... through his bare white bones the wind will blow forever…" Wally describes himself as "from a dreary rural town in Australia's southeast", where he learned this poem at his "bleak Australian Gothic" school. Re-reading it as an adult he was struck by its lack of sentimentality. He chose the Latin translation both because it is a dead language, and because it was used during the Enlightenment as a conduit for profound, secret wisdoms in science and philosophy.

Everyone had fun making this plangent, macabre video, filmed mostly on my former home in Southern Oregon, with full-on costuming, drone photography, flesh-eating feasts and a leaf-burial. A slew of friends and family served as prop-masters, art directors and drone-flyers. It is always bittersweet for me to see my former home as a character in the video, a place of incredible beauty and spirit, who carries all kinds of ancestral stories. The legacies of Manifest Destiny and colonization echo in all kinds of ways throughout Oregon, one of which is local people struggling - a dis-membering, a dis-remembering - to know ancestral songs and ancient names.

We sent the video to Wally (who was by then in Australia). He wrote back to exclaim that it was "irresistible". He loved that it is a literary version of "those extraordinary Rococo vanitas paintings of flowers, food, candle flames, and skulls." Crows and ravens are his favorite birds, "so striking to look at, so interesting to observe, and so intelligent." It was an obvious choice to release our single on International Crow and Raven Appreciation Day (April 27), celebrating our sharp corvid friends, and their imaginary "eye" on humanity's crises.

Making things is exhausting - and yes, yet another recording we made with personal resources. But it is a practical magic that outlasts our abilities. Physical creation builds relationships. Less ideation, less of a virtual reality abyss, and more doing, living the tactile world of being with your loved ones. Making things helps us as artists articulate back to ourselves - albeit within post-modern exhaustion and isolation - who we are and where we are going.

Bare White Bones - Caballito Negro

Interdisciplinary flutist/composer Tessa Brinckman has been praised for her "chameleon-like gifts" and "virtuoso elegance" (Gramophone). She enjoys creating and performing work that honors synesthesia, dialect, innate meter and collaboration, often on geo-political themes. Two of her collaborative videos have won 22 film festival awards for music scoring, animation and experimental film, and she recently released an album, Take Wing, Roll Back, on New Focus Recordings. www.tessabrinckman.com

Percussionist Terry Longshore maintains an energetic, virtuosic career as a performer, composer, and educator, and his genre-crossing work exhibits the artistry of the concert stage, the spontaneity of jazz, and the energy of a rock club. He serves as Professor of Music and Artist in Residence at Southern Oregon University. www.terrylongshore.com

Caballito Negro has been praised for its "wildly personal, intercultural, modern music... vivid, expressive music that could be performed anywhere" (Oregon Arts Watch), and the duo's first EP, Songlines, is described as having an "absolutely gorgeous tone... understated virtuosity" (Blue Sky Music). www.caballitonegro.com

Subjects discussed by this article:


Be the first to share add your thoughts and opinions in response to this article.

You must login to post a comment.