Blackbird Ensemble’s brand new show DREAMS opens April 14


Blackbird Ensemble are heading to bed… And you’re invited. Wear your finest pyjamas, throw on your slippers, and head to DREAMS at the Basement this April.

‘DREAMS’ is the newest creation from Blackbird Ensemble who have become known for their elaborate and powerful musical concert experiences.

Starring 9 versatile multi-instrumentalists, this miniature orchestra presents an eclectic mix of music by artists such as Stravinsky, Piazolla, The Smiths, Calexico, Fleetfoxes and Radiohead. Blackbird Ensemble’s set list adopts its usual disregard for genre, binding its concert together with thematic links; this time, music inspired by dreamstates, nightmares, lullabies and the rituals of the bedroom.

‘Blackbird Ensemble morphs into a smaller ensemble than their last 3 productions (The Night Sky, The Wilderness, By The Sea) to present ‘DREAMS’ in The Basement Theatre. For the first time, the ensemble merges concert music with physical theatre and characterisation.

The production is directed by award winning theatrical visionary Renee Lyons. Chapman Tripp award winning Renee Lyons was selected to tour NZ, Melbourne and Edingburgh Fringe Festivals with her remarkable solo play ‘Nick: an accidental hero’. Her recent screen credits include the lead role in feature film ‘The Great Maidens Blush’ and a role in the TV series ‘800 words.’  Her recent directing work includes ‘Dinner with the Devil’ and ‘The Memory Shelf.

Musical direction is by Blackbird’s creative director Claire Cowan.

Cowan’s passion is to challenge classical music performance etiquette, removing boundaries between audience, orchestra, and musical genre divisions. In March she will be touring Australia with ‘Live Live Cinema: Carnival of Souls’ and in 2015 is Composer in residence with Orchestra Wellington, writing a brand new Violin concerto for young virtuoso Amalia Hall (The Wilderness).

Set design is by Daniel Williams. Daniel’s theatre career has seen him design sets and costumes for work all over New Zealand and Internationally. He recently won The 2013 Q Theatre, Auckland Newcomer Award and has been nominated multi times at the Chapmann Tripp theatre awards including winning Weta Workshop set designer of the year for ‘The Little Dog Laughed’.  Most recently Daniel designed the immersive theatrical event “Generation Z’ at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival. He is Currently working on directing ‘Night of the Queer’ for Auckland Pride, Silo’s next production ‘8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography’ and was the concept design behind Britomart Cricket Club’s fan club activation.

“It’s a rare opportunity that I get to work with musicians and singers of this calibre. I’m beyond excited about what is already an inspiring and special collaboration with Claire and the Blackbird Ensemble. The audience will be swept into a world of sensory delight. It’s going to be magic!”  – Director Renee Lyons

“DREAMS is about getting the audience closer than ever before; both physically and emotionally. It’s also a playful theme and setting to explore music that has sprung from composer’s subconscious thoughts and desires. It’s an endlessly fascinating subject – I often have my best ideas whilst just waking up, before my fully conscious mind has switched into its logical and judgmental state.”

– Musical Director Claire Cowan

DREAMS is performed by

Claire Cowan CELLO/KEYS (Blackbird Ensemble founder/director)

Jessie Cassin VOCALS (Motorcity Family Funk)

Mikey Brown VOCALS (Outside In)

Tom Broome PERCUSSION (Hollie Smith, Sorceress)

Sam Taylor GUITAR (Lisa Crawley, Sam Taylor Duo)

Eric Scholes BASS (APO, ACO, Rocking Rollercoasters)

Charmian Keay VIOLIN (APO, Korutet)

Kevin Keys TROMBONE (Soul Samba Circus)

Callum Passells SAXOPHONES (The Babyshakes)

We made the stars blaze

I stole the title of this post from a terrible musical production I did at primary school, which I have largely tried to block out.

However I did think it was appropriate to describe what happened at Q theatre this last week. With over 800 people coming to our show, and many happy faces post-show, I think we sprinkled more than a little blackbird stardust on some new fans.

Thanks to all who came along, the band and I had an awesome time. I particularly enjoyed the Black Hole Disco, DJ’d by the Space Babe DJ’s Priscilla Northe and Erin Ward. Another highlight was watching the Amazing performers from The Dust Palace, perform aerial feats above the stage during the show. The first night I was so distracted by their performance I completely forgot to cue the orchestra! Haha.

Q theatre staff were amazing to work with as always, and supported our show and performers during our time there. I leave you with some pictures of the show – and a request to spread the word – we’d love to tour this show! It is however quite costly to mount, so any offers of sponsorship to stage it in other parts of New Zealand would be welcomed!


The Night Sky Alex Taylor and Jessie Cassin _MG_1881 _MG_1891 Eve Gordon from Dust Palace _MG_1942 Kevin Keys as The Beastie Boy Kevin Keys Intergalactic Ina Patisolo Alex Macdonald _MG_2030 _MG_2065 _MG_2107 _MG_2130 _MG_2153


Player Profile: Alex MacDonald

Alex Macdonald, our die-hard rocking viola star. I know Alex as a talented BBQ’ist (you should watch him butterfly a chicken like a pro) and cocktail maker.. invite him to your party and observe the magic.. He’s also VERY good at computer whispering. We find out what this ‘prawn in a paella’ has to say about his part in the Blackbird Orchestra.


Alex MacDonald, Viola player for the Night Sky

Please tell us about yourself and what you play in 3 sentences.
I’m a amateur mixiologist, gardener, scientist, and a classically trained viola player. A viola is slightly bigger but looks exactly like a violin. It’s not a show-off thing but it has a couple of times to shine, usually for an introverted or contemplative moment.

How many blackbird shows have you done now?
3.5 – I went to the first ever show – blew my mind at the time.

Which is your favourite show and why?
Night sky. It is the most fun I’ve ever had doing a gig – as much as the audience was. The perfect mix of space-boogie, ballads, and sci-fi tunes.

What is the best moment in the Night Sky Show?
Star Wars – Imperial March. It’s like being on the Death Star and knowing the awesome planet destroying capabilities at your fingertips.

How do you feel when you’re performing?
What a question! Well at the least I hope is that I feel my instrument in my hands. But when the music is really happening I often feel like I’m seeing the whole band from the outside in – looking at myself as a lever in a Rube-Goldberg machine or a prawn in a paella dish.
None of that does it justice – I’m always listening and thinking about the music, what’s happened, happening, and going to happen.

What would be your dream blackbird gig theme?
Uhh…  I can’t imagine! Something with characters and a story… Trapeze?
I think my love of science and music is satisfied by the night sky show.

What’s your favourite thing about BBE?
Music best with musicians you’d want to party with – that’s always true with BBE. But what makes BBE seriously satisfying is the Wagnerian idea of complete art. Going to a blackbird gig is like walking into a different time and space continuum – there’s no proscenium arch or stuffy concert etiquette.

Player Profile: Jessie Cassin

Introducing: Jessie Cassin, our lovely lead vocalist. Self confessed sci-fi geek and glowing space princess,
Jessie shines out the front of the band during our Night Sky Shows. Quite literally. With a voice that can shimmer like space-diamonds, and belt with the strength of a blazing meteorite, she’ll earn her place as high priestess of the planet Blackbird. Ok, now enough with the cheesy space metaphors – let’s hear from Jess…
Please tell us about yourself and what you play in 3 sentences.
Im one of the lead vocalists, but I also occasionally play a bit of synth keys, kick drum, percussion…

How many blackbird shows have you done now?

Three so far (The Sea, The night sky, The Wilderness) and some Carnivale shows.
Which is your favourite show and why?
The night sky . It’s high energy, visually dynamic and the song choices really resonate with me and how I like to perform. Im also a bit of a sic-fi geek so getting to dress like a space princess is the shiiiiiit!

What is the best moment in the Night Sky Show?

That’s a hard question, there are so many great moments. When Jupiter starts at the very beginning of the show, I get this nostalgic kind of feeling, sort of familiar to how I feel when Im about to watch a movie and the MGM lion roars…something about that transports you ; Jupiter has that same effect on me. Also singing ‘Two planets’ with such a big ensemble always feels special.

How do you feel when you’re performing?

Like I might have special powers. 

What would be your dream blackbird gig theme?

Night sky does it for me. Nothings better than outer space theme!

What’s your favourite thing about BBE?

The energy, the song choices, the theatricality, and great musicians.

Player Profile: Kevin Keys

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Kevin Keys. Actor, Singer, Rapper, Trombonist, and all round nice guy. Let’s get up close and sweaty with Blackbird’s lead Trombonist, and man of mystery..


Please tell us about yourself and what you play in 3 sentences.

6 foot 2, Scorpio, long walks on the beach, etc, etc… 

I play the king of instruments, the undisputed heavy-weight champion of the metal department, the irresistible high-priest of the glissando, and the only instrument to have a forebear with the name ‘sackbut’, the TROMBONE.

How many blackbird shows have you done now?

The Sea Show, Ballet Banquet and The Night Sky.

Which is your favourite show and why?

The Night Sky has been my fave – full throttle with hugely theatrical elements that, in this next season, are going to be bigger, better and with a side serving of potatoes.

What is the best moment in the Night Sky Show?

Besides the moment when I crack out a pedal Bb (always a highlight for any trombonist), it would probably be when Jessie goes beserk to Bjork (appalling rhyme unintended, but noted.)

How do you feel when you’re performing?

Hmmm – a bit sweaty? Not sure – you’d have to touch me.

What to say? I like live performance – being part of an organic beast that can ebb and flow and react to that special crackle of energy that exists between an audience and performers…

What would be your dream blackbird gig theme?

I think a psychedelic/early 90s guitar rock/loosely agricultural-themed mash up is the obvious next choice.


What’s your favourite thing about BBE?

Its holistic performative experiential nature (did I really just write that?), along with the ‘can-do/put this shit on’ spirit.


Player Profile: Alex Taylor

cropped-img_4197.jpgYou may know Alex taylor as a composer. You may know him as ‘that guy in the gold jacket who can sing like Nick Cave.’ I know Alex as a man who makes a mean lasagne, who wears zebra pyjamas, and who can produce a whole octave of notes out of a single beer bottle. He’s also a great dancer. A man of many talents. Well here’s a few words from the man himself, who’s performing in the upcoming Night Sky concerts at Q Theatre.

Please tell us about yourself and what you play in 3 sentences.
I am a composer, musician, poet, teacher and student of the universe. Blackbird Ensemble gives me the opportunity to inhabit a bunch of different singing personas, including Nick Cave and David Bowie, and I also play tenor saxophone and violin. When I’m not making music I’m probably reading, binge watching HBO or procrastibaking.

How many blackbird shows have you done now?
I’ve been on board for the Sea Show, Carnival, Banquet Ballet, and the Night Sky.  

Which is your favourite show and why?
Each show has its highlights. The Sea Show let me go full seedy rock star with Nick Cave’s Little Empty Boat (complete with expletives and revealing jumpsuit); the Banquet Ballet had some very sharp arrangements and a great groove; Carnival’s costumes and make-up are hard to beat. But for me it’s gotta be the Night Sky – it’s got depth, breadth and so many killer tunes.  

What is the best moment in the Night Sky Show?
Taking my jacket off.
Just kidding. There’s a bunch – when the texture gets brought right back to banjo, guitar and flute for Sufjan’s haunting UFO eulogy; when I get to duet with my dear flatmate Claire; when Jessie goes full hysteria on Bjork… so many great moments in this show.

How do you feel when you’re performing?
Performing gives me the chance to act out my extrovert rock star fantasies. I feel focused, powerful, elated.

What would be your dream blackbird gig theme?
Something crazy. I think it would lend itself really well to something psychedelic, gender-bending, androgynous. Or some kind of sensory overload. Blindfolds, tastes and smells.  

What’s your favourite thing about BBE?
The fans.  

The Wilderness

This show took Blackbird Ensemble to a whole different level. We transformed the Q theatre loft into

a magical forest space, complete with pond and snow.

At Q Theatre, July

At Q Theatre, July

Read one of our favourite reviews below:


Reviewed by Hayden Eastmond-Mein for The Pantograph Punch.

As soon as I stepped inside the Q Loft, I forgave the strange smell that’s been occupying the Q Theatre complex for the last couple of days. It’s the kind of earthy, wet sock smell that makes paranoid people such as myself worry about a potential laundry mix up. In fact, it was emanating from the organic matter that makes up a stunning, eerie dead forest set designed by Celery Productions for the Blackbird Ensemble’s latest show, The Wilderness.

It’s not the setting you’d expect to find a chamber orchestra in, which is of course the point. Director Claire Cowan’s ensemble does for classical music what no number of NZSO v Shapeshifter collaborations could ever really achieve: modernising classical music and making it more accessible to a wider audience without resorting to dumbing it down. But more so than the set design (and costuming, which matches the set’s eeriness perfectly), it’s Cowan’s musical direction that really bridges the divide between chamber music and the young, gig-going audience.

The bulk of The Wilderness is set around Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. With such a well-known piece of music, this reworking operates as a sort of exhilarating acid flashback for those who appreciate but don’t make a habit of listening to classical music. Soloist Amalia Hall’s powerful and beautifully expressive violin playing carries the group through familiar and not-so-familiar movements, soaring above but never beyond, making full use of the theatrical crescendos and caesuras.

But it’s when vocalist Jessie Cassin comes to the stage that the show really opens up. Along with her pure voice, the chamber group is suddenly joined by a wider range of aural textures as a tabla, guitar, banjo and accordion join the stage that’s already full of violins, violas, cellos, harp, harpsichord and bass. The three numbers Cassin leads – Bjork’s “Hyperballad”, Joanna Newsom’s “Cosmia”, and Bat for Lashes’ “Wilderness” – don’t have the same urgency as Richter’s Four Season (not many pieces of music do), but they have an intrigue and drama that’s perhaps more captivating.

Transplanting chamber music to a space like the Loft isn’t without its issues. There’s a reason it’s usually played in a specially designed wooden hall – the resonance of wooden surfaces not only allows the sound to fully envelop an audience, but it lets the musicians hear themselves within the context of the group. In such an acoustically dead space as the Loft – necessary for intimate theatre – the audience feels separate from the sound source, and the musicians – at least initially – seemed self-conscious.

But what you gain in the Loft is an intimacy that you wouldn’t get in a concert chamber – the ability to see the expression on each musician’s face, and the subtleties of the group’s time-keeping sway. In the end, it’s the performance of this talented group of musicians that encapsulates.

Claire Cowan and her Blackbird Ensemble are doing something vitally important for classical music in New Zealand, and you should really go see why.

Introducing: Manjit Singh, Tabla player for the Wilderness

We have a very special collaboration happening the Wilderness Show. Manjit Singh, our Tabla player talks about his instrument and what it’s like to play with a classical orchestra.

Blackbird Ensemble: When did you start to learn Tabla?

Manjit: I started learning tabla at the age of 14 and learnt under the traditional guidance of Kulwinder Singh (disciple of legendary Ustad Alla Rakha) the famous tabla player and teacher in Punjab. I have done a Masters in Indian Music and currently doing a BMus in University of Auckland. I am working as a director and teacher in Rhythm School of Indian Music.

Blackbird Ensemble: How is the process different working with classical musicians?
Manjit: Indian classical music is improvisation based music. The Indian music does not employ notation system for any instrument playing or singing. Its very different for me to playing tabla with the western classical music because of the reading notes. But its a new learning experience for me to play tabla with reading scores.

Blackbird Ensemble: What is your favourite place in the Wilderness?
Manjit: My favorite place in nature is the Lakeside. I like sitting at lakeside and play tabla and enjoy playing tabla with the sounds of nature.