Composer/performer Chris Black rode into town in the summer of 2007, from Austin, Texas, heartbroken. He left a successful musical career—and the girl he once loved—behind to start a new life in Tucson.
Before long, Black found acceptance in the comforting arms of the downtown arts scene. There, the former country crooner and gypsy/punk/cumbia violinist rose from the ashes of love, redefined himself and established the popular alt-classical concert series ChamberLab.
Black and a crew of local musicians take the stage to perform his latest recording, “Lullabies & Nightmares, Chamber Music, Vol 1,” this Friday, Sept. 8. Other pieces, including "Downtown Suite," and a narrated string trio "Cooper Must Die,” will also be on the bill.
Tucson Weekly caught up with Chris Black over lunch. Relishing in a happy domestic life with his wife of two years, Black says, “I rarely go out anymore.” So, to keep up with friends, Black started hosting “The Grilled Cheese Sessions.”
“Many from the local music scene have enjoyed grilled cheese and Wavy Lays at our house,” Black says.
Some backstory: Black grew up in El Paso, Texas, a self-described goofball who was a decent student earning A’s and B’s. Both his parents were music teachers.
“My mom gave me piano lessons as a kid.” Black says, “It’s just something I’ve always done.”
Black remembers one of this first musical memories was Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On-Bach
(1968), a rare novelty recording that interprets Bach masterpieces on early Moog synthesizer. “
That, and Henry Mancini,” Black says. “I loved Peanuts comicstrips. I had a toy piano. I would pretend that I was Schroeder playing along to ‘The Pink Panther.’ Mancini is great. ‘The Days of Wine and Roses,’ I still love.”
In high school, Black’s orchestra teacher noted: “You have big hands.” He recommended Black give the bass a try.
“The bass was my first love,” he remembers.
Although his parents taught him to sight read, he was not very good at it.
“I am doing this completely by ear,” he says.
In 1988, Black moved to Austin, Texas to attend drama school but he remembers that he was “a terrible actor.”
Then he joined a band—’90s alt-rockers Shoulders—and got a record deal in France. Shoulders debut album, Trashman Shoes, rose to the top of the rock charts in France with the band’s “wide-reaching drunken carnival music,” Black says. “We started touring directly and I dropped out of college.”
Following a painful romantic breakup, Black decided it was time to move on, so he booked two solo tours of the U.S. to both earn a living and look for a new place to live.
When Black first settled in Tucson, he started a country band called The Ashes of Love.
“I was heartbroken and wanted a band that just played sad songs,” he says, recalling that George Jones’ tearjerker “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” was prominent on the setlist. The Ashes of Love: A Happy Hour For All Those That Ain’t held a Wednesday night residency at downtown’s Red Room for close to a year.
ChamberLab started in 2010, inspired by a project bandmate Graham Reynolds started in Austin—the Golden Hornet Project—where composers not from the classical world write music for classically trained musicians and then perform it somewhere outside of the concert hall. Recognizing the caliber of the talent in Tucson, Black decided to bring the essence of the Golden Hornet Project to life here and christened it ChamberLab.
Lullabies & Nightmares was recorded in just two days—no overdubs, live, musicians performing in the same room together, standing a few feet apart—at Gabriel Sullivan’s Dust & Stone Recording Studio.
There is nothing conventional about this project. ChamberLab starts with a concert date without the performers knowing what the material performed will be. And the results are often strange.
“Sometimes it’s a general call to see who’s available,” Black says. “We’ll have three bassoons, a vibraphone, two violins and a flute. Crazy. These ensembles don’t exist in the wild. But that’s who showed up, so let’s write music for them.”
From the outset, ChamberLab has been a collaborative venture with many guest composers. The Rosano brothers—Dante, Marco and Tony—-have been regulars.
The inspiration for Lullabies and Nightmares—six compositions that alternate thrice from idyllic lullaby to nightmare fraught with peril—comes from his wife.
“I was looking for an idea,” Black says. “We were talking about Chopin’s lullaby [Berceuse, Op. 57] when she commented that ‘people don’t write lullabies anymore.’ ‘You should write lullabies.’ And, being me, I said fine. I’ll write nightmares too.”
The album opens with “Dance, from Barfly,” a gypsy-infused violin and cello duet originally inspired by the paintings of Joe Pagac.
“Termites,” is a bass-heavy piece that burrows into the psyche grain-by-grain.
“That’s bass and one contrabassoonist, Jessica Campbell,” Black says. “I thought it sounded like termites gnawing away at the inside of your house; chewing, chewing, chewing the wood. Argh. Just horrible. Relentless.”
Charged with deliberate trickery of the type found on a Tim Burton soundtrack, “Bassoon Trio No. 1—Wait, What Did I Come In Here For?” breathes with whimsy.
Black’s tense ostinato bassline is the underpinning on “Lullabies and Nightmares: No. 2,” as Samantha Bounkeua’s violin crescendos one menacing shriek at a time.
On “Downtown Suite,” a series of 10 compositions, Black’s connection to downtown Tucson is celebrated.
“I started working on that in 2012,” says Black. “It’s just what I saw day-to-day. I work downtown. And, then of course the Grill burned down.”
“No. 4—The Grill After the Fire” is a mournful lament to legendary downtown eatery.
“The Grill meant so much to so many people,” Black says. “It had already closed. Then the fire. It was like hearing that a loved one’s grave had caught fire during the night.”
The odd time-signature in “No. 8—Girl Can’t Walk in Those Shoes” and straight 4/4 of “No. 9—1:30 A.M.,” capture the sights and sounds of street life in the Old Pueblo.
“It’s late at night,” Black says. “Clubs are going. Cars rolling down the street, thumping.”
Clocking in just short of 17 minutes, the last piece to be performed at Friday’s show, “Cooper Must Die,” is written for strings with narration and is rife with paranoia and persecutory thoughts.
“I pretend to sleep but Cooper is inside me now having breakfast,” says the song’s narrator. “My shadow thunders...Run, run, run.”
It leaves one to wonder: Just where will the hyper-imaginative mind of Chris Black take us next?
Chris Black’s Lullabies & Nightmares, Chamber Music, Vol 1 CD Release Show
Friday, September 8
8 p.m., doors at 7 p.m.
191 E. Toole Ave.
Tickets: $10. Tickets are available at www.chrisblackmusic.com
Performers include members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and the Grammy Award-winning True Concord Voices and Orchestra:
Mindi Acosta, flute
Cassandra Bendickson, bassoon
Chris Black, double bass, narration
Samantha Bounkeua, violin
Jessica Campbell, bassoon, contrabassoon
Cat Cantrell, oboe, English horn
Anne Gratz, cello
Daniel Hursey, bassoon