So, what brings us back to Oberlin? ACRONYM. If you ask Kivie, the mastermind behind this ensemble, what it stands for, he'll give you a different answer every time, for example...
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Who we are is unambiguous: A collective of early music enthusiasts dedicated to having a good time and recording great undiscovered works. Seven Oberlin Conservatory alumni spanning the classes of '99 through '07, with three new friends from Juilliard and one all the way from Australia. This is what Weia Teia on Main Street might call "eclectic cuisine with a global perspective."
Our inaugural session took place last summer, when we congregated for a week in Amherst, Massachusetts to record a mostly unpublished and unrecorded set of 24 sonatas by 17th century German composer Johann Christoph Pezel, one per letter of the alphabet. This summer we reconvened in Oberlin, where the conservatory graciously donated to us the use of Warner Concert Hall for five days and provided us with guest housing. This year's menu: a set of thirteen sonatas by 17th century composer Antonio Bertali – yes, mostly unpublished and unrecorded. Last summer felt like unchartered territory and culminated in what felt like an unprecedented and unrepeatable recording surge of seventy-two hours straight, a result of a collective exponential upward spiral of enthusiasm only imaginable with exactly this group of people. This summer, so Kivie promised, would be significantly more sane an undertaking.
My journey begins in Brooklyn, where my lovely fiancée Adriane and I just spent a whopping two days at home after an intensive ten-day tour of house concerts in beautiful Montana. It's hard to complain about not being home, though, when you get to travel and make music with your future wife, best friend and favorite musician all summer long. Walking around Oberlin, the place where we first became friends and read through the Trout Quintet ten years minus one week ago, the empty campus makes it feel as though time has stood still. No current students to make us feel foreign (and old), just those same trees, buildings and shortcuts we weaved through for four years.
The plan for the next five days is simple. Days 1 and 2: rehearse; Day 3: rehearse, long break, then start recording once Ryan, our Tonmeister extraordinaire, has arrived from Yonkers with his equipment and has had time to set it all up. Day 4: Record all sonatas involving Adriane, Doug and me. Day 5: Send off Adriane, Doug and me to William Christie's festival in France, and record the remaining sonatas. The plan works perfectly, though at first it feels really strange to have evenings off, remembering what we went through a year ago. Only a few times does Simon feel the need to remind us how many hours we have already been playing on a given day, arms stretched out, brows furrowed, his theorbo lying face-down in his lap, as though admonishingly recalling his union rights.
The evenings off are put to good use. The Feve becomes a meeting point for us and our former professors (Webb Wiggins, David Breitman), and the site of Edwin's and Doug's encounter with dipping sauce at spicy level 10. From our guest housing on E College St, past the renovated Apollo Theater, it's only a matter of steps to the perfect location for a midnight toss of the frisbee in the damp grass. The sauna on the premise is put to the test, and Loren's home-made framdibulator put to good use in duet with the Cleartune app on Kyle's phone.
The recording process goes smoothly, for now, though delayed by traffic on Ryan's drive from Yonkers. By the time we finish Sonata No. 1, it's already 10:30 pm. The theorbo takes on its ominous face-down position in a hurry, but Edwin's inspirational speech helps everyone find it in them to continue and go for one more. By midnight, it's 2 down, 11 to go. A later start the next morning leaves time for breakfast with Kivie and Tim Weiss, whom I am always happy to see. After a short stack of pancakes at Black River Café, our first full recording day does throw us a slight curve: construction vehicles in front of Warner are uproariously ripping up the sidewalk, the lackluster soundproofing of the doesn't cut it. The resulting noise-enforced afternoon off opens up time for another quick reunion, this time at Slow Train coffee shop with Brian Alegant – another professor-turned-mentor whose passion and insights I am grateful for. And last but certainly not least on the professor reunion front: a fun and entertaining dinner at good old Lorenzo's with Michael Lynn, who had already graciously given us some feedback during rehearsals and made some phone calls to the city and the college regarding the various potentially disruptive construction projects. I may also at this point highlight Michael's recent incredibly hard work toward the creation of the Medici Charitable Foundation. All this reminds me that perhaps Oberlin IS a special place.
We do finally get our late night sessions in – but with nothing close to the sense of hectic urgency that manically drove us to new levels of endurance last summer. By the end of Day 3, we are well underway for the successful completion of the project. 8 down, 5 to go, and most importantly, all sonatas involving Adriane, Doug and me are covered before we leave. As I type on the plane to Paris, I trust that my dear colleagues breezed through the remainder of the sonatas with the usual bravura.
Sometimes you hear it's only once in a blue moon you get to play music you love with a bunch of musicians you love. In school you hear it will never again be like this – the liberatingly aimless but invigoratingly driven making of music, the innocently unburdened collaboration and socializing with friends. Yes, of course even among the members of ACRONYM there were some tense moments, some disagreements on how best to handle things, musical and otherwise. But in the large scheme of things, we all feel like winners.
It so happens that our Day 3, August 21, 2013, coincided with the appearance of a blue moon, and now, thanks to Edwin's smart phone in the middle of the parking lot, I finally know what a blue moon is.
For a few days, we were back in college.
The ACRONYM Musicians
Douglas Balliett double bass & viola da gamba
Kivie Cahn-Lipman cello & viola da gamba & lyrone
Paul Dwyer cello
Elliot Figg harpsichord & organ
Karina Fox violin & viola
Edwin Huizinga violin
Loren Ludwig viola da gamba
Simon Martyn-Ellis theorbo
Kyle Miller viola & beatbox
Adriane Post violin & viola
Beth Wenstrøm violin
Ryan Streber recording engineer & producer