Composer/performer Chris Black rode into town from Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2007, heartbroken. He left behind a successful musical career—and the girl he once loved—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.
Tucson Weekly caught up with Black over lunch. Clearly, 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," he says.
Some backstory: Black grew up in El Paso, Texas. A decent student; A's and B's. A goofball. Both his parents: music teachers. His mom gave him piano lessons as a kid and he can't remember life without performing music: "It's just something I've always done."
Black's childhood earworms: The first thing that captured his attention was Wendy Carlos' Switched-On-Bach (1968), a rare novelty recording that interprets Bach masterpieces on an early Moog synthesizer.
"That and Henry Mancini," he says. "I loved Peanuts comic strips. 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, the orchestra teacher told him he had big hands and recommended he play the bass.
"The bass was my first love," Black says.
In 1988, Black moved to Austin, Texas to attend drama school, but he realized, in his words, that he was "a terrible actor." But then he joined a band ('90s alt-rockers Shoulders) and got a record deal in France, where a debut album, Trashman Shoes, rose to the top of the rock charts. The music was "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. "I booked two solo tours of the U.S.," Black says. All the while, he looked for towns that he liked.
The first thing he did, when Black moved to Tucson, was start a country band: The Ashes of Love. Black recalls. "I was heartbroken and wanted a band that just played sad songs." 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.
"I also booked music at Red Room for about a year," he says. "That was fun."
During this time, Black used to sit in on drums for Fell City Shouts, co-fronted by Gabriel Sullivan and Brittany Katter. "I had gotten Sullivan into gypsy music, and was transitioning into violin, when Sullivan had the impulse to form Taraf de Tucson." Black was developing his own gypsy-punk playing style based on running his violin through an overdrive pedal into an amp. "Lots of shrieking trills." A sound that contrasts with the somber, at moments beauteous chamber music of Chris Black's current project.
ChamberLab started in 2010. It was inspired by a project bandmate Graham Reynolds started in Austin. The Golden Hornet Project invited composers from outside the classical world to write music for classically trained musicians, then perform it somewhere outside of the concert hall. Outsider art. 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.
Black's new album, 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, not usually knowing what the material performed will be.
"Sometimes it's a general call to see who's available." And the results are often strange, 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," says Black. 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.
Black remembers he and his wife "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 local muralist Joe Pagac. "I wrote that piece on the violin using gypsy scales." Black credits Taraf de Haiïdouuks, "insanely good Romanian fiddle players," with helping to lay the bedrock for the harmonic nature of those pieces.
"Termites" is a bass-heavy piece that burrows into the psyche grain-by-grain. "That's bass and one contrabassoonist, Jessica Campbell. 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," for Samantha Bounkeua's violin that crescendos one menacing shriek at a time. Sheer horror.
On "Downtown Suite," a series of ten 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 the storied downtown eatery. "The Grill meant so much to so many people. It had already closed. Then the fire. It was like hearing that a loved one's grave had caught fire during the night," says Black.
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. Black sets the scene: "It's late at night. Clubs are going. Cars rolling down the street, thumping."
Clocking in just short of 17 minutes, "Cooper Must Die," is written for strings with narration. Rife with paranoia and persecutory thoughts. The narrator tells, "I pretend to sleep but Cooper is inside me now having breakfast. My shadow thunders . . . Run, run, run."
It all leaves us wondering: Where will the hyper-imaginative mind of Chris Black take us next?