Eighth Blackbird is an innovator in modern contemporary classical music, through championing new music and supporting risk-takers in contemporary classical, they are a leader for the future of the genre. Jen Richards is the former Managing Director of Eighth Blackbird, and gives us a look at her perspective on musical innovation and active audience engagement in the modern classical world.
Jen Richards on Innovation at Eighth Blackbird
Key Tenants to Classical Music Innovation and Active Audience Engagement:
One of the most important ideas in management theory, and supported by both data and anecdote, is that innovation is people driven. It can’t be manufactured, but we can create the conditions that allow it to flourish. It’s anxiety inducing in its lack of guarantee, but the one thing a company and arts organizations can do, is invest in people. When you see talent, your job is to create a structure that encourages it, gives it room to experiment, to fail, to grow, and ultimately to follow wherever it leads. Eighth Blackbird has always done that, by giving each ensemble member and staff member equal say in the direction of the organization. From top to bottom, people are given more autonomy than in most arts companies, the end result of which is innovation.
The core of any audience is people with whom you’re already engaged: friends, colleagues, fellow artists, etc. If the organization centers itself around the voices of people who would normally be at the margins, then the core audience will reflect that value structure, which in turns signals to the wider audience that they are included, that the performance experience is theirs. Like innovation, diversity can’t be manufactured. The idea that classical music is somehow irrelevant to anyone except middle class white people is absurd, offensively absurd. Great art transcends identity politics, and to relegate sublime aesthetic achievements to a particular demographic is a form of elitism informed by a dangerous mix of racism, classism, and misogyny. If a community orchestra played nothing but Handel, it would still find an audience that reflected the demographics of its musicians and staff.
Eighth Blackbird offers audiences immediate and meaningful connections to the music of our time. The ensemble presents rarely heard works all with intensity, accuracy, and dynamism. Eighth Blackbird often memorizes and stages performances, contributing to the openness and approachability that is its signature style. For approximately 15,000 audience member annually, these factors combine to offer unique and important opportunities to witness the best music of our time performed with utmost skill.
In recent projects, Eighth Blackbird has sought out collaborations with composers and performers who defy the persistent division between classical and non-classical music, equipping broad audiences with the tools they need to appreciate the classical canon. In 2016, their 20th anniversary year, Eighth Blackbird has won a fourth GRAMMY Award, received a prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, was honored by Chamber Music America’s inaugural Visionary Award, and garnered Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year (2017). Eighth Blackbird will also be pushing the envelope in education in June 2017 with The Blackbird Creative Lab, a two-week, tuition-free opportunity for emerging artists at the Besant Hill School in Ojai, California.
Jen Richards Today
Jen recently moved to LA to work in media. She left Eighth Blackbird to focus on activism, and quest for social justice generally and transgender issues specifically, but finds herself always coming back to the power of art and storytelling to accelerate social change. She is now the co-writer/star/producer of a web series Her Story, about the dating lives of trans women, and is busy writing and consulting on several other projects. Jen says about her career, “I’m proud of all the work I’ve ever done. My life is the result of unconventional choices, and it’s just now in my late 30’s that I can start to see that there is some sense to it!”
Jen Richards is a writer & actress, as well as a consultant & advocate who works with national organizations and media projects and specialized in nonprofit management, and gender and racial justice. From 2008 through 2013 she was the Managing Director of the multiple Grammy Award-winning contemporary classical music ensemble Eighth Blackbird. To learn more about Jen and her work visit her website. If you’re interested in learning more about the Her Story project or providing financial support, visit here.