Inside Etudes, Opus 11
Updated: Jan 8
Over a decade ago, Rob Wolcott asked TWIN Global Creative Director Jeffrey Ernstoff to develop and conceptualize an informative, all-arts performance program, which Ernstoff entitled Etudes for Innovation (Opus 1).
Today Wolcott describes Etudes as "the jewel-in-the-crown" of TWIN Global, one that strategically takes place midway through the TWIN Global gathering. Ernstoff and Wolcott will stage their eleventh opus today, Wednesday, September 18th.
We sat down with Jeffrey for a discussion on what to expect at Etudes, Opus 11, a little on the ideas that underpin a full-fledged interdisciplinary program, and some of the ideas that inspire him most.
Bryan Campen: So where are we sitting right now?
Jeffrey Ernstoff: In my dressing room at the Harris Theater, well-stocked with M&M's, Dr. Pepper, and more junk food than you can shake a stick at.
Bryan Campen: With Opus 11 at Harris Theater this year, it appears as ambitious as anything you’ve done in the past, or even more ambitious. What’s coming tonight that you can speak to now?
JE: I'll give you the highlights and save the best for the show. Overall, it's bigger in its own way, and more focused on specific arts disciplines.
This year we have only three segments, but each segment runs longer. There's Rob Schwimmer, a theremin artist with whom I've collaborated at the Santa Fe Institute, and for whose work I have great respect. The theremin is hard as hell to play, so we'll feature it solo and then do a duet adding myself on saxophone, showing how the instruments that seem disparate can actually work together. The audience will discover the thinking that led to the innovative conception of the theremin and how that kind of thinking can be applied in other areas.
That will be followed by a performance by members of the Joffrey Ballet. I don’t want to give anything away here, but let's just say part of the surprise is NOT that Rob Wolcott and I will be dancing as part of the company, which, believe me, is a good thing.
And then we'll close with Sons of Serendip, who garnered national acclaim on America’s Got Talent.
Do yourself a good turn and google all these folks.
BC: So how did this start?
JE: Rob and I met about ten years ago, in New York City at the Fortune Innovation Forum, staged at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I chose and directed several arts innovators to open the program, including a juggler, a flutist, and ventriloquist, all major innovators. As director, I was standing there, making sure it was all going ok—Rob whom I hadn't met, was standing next to me. And he said “Wow, I’ve been to a bunch of these kinds of events. They're often ho-hum, but this is really good.” I said "thanks", and as it turned out, I was in Chicago within a couple of weeks of that on another project. Rob and I got together then, and our work together almost instantly kicked into high gear. Rob is the kind of person with whom this kind of thing happens all the time. In Tipping Point terms, he's a connector.
BC: What about the experience of Etudes for Innovation sets itself apart? What for you makes it special?
JE: What we do at Etudes—I call it an informance—because it's a performance that informs, not just entertains. When we talk about innovation, we ask "What separates the genius from the craftsman? Where and how do these virtuosic men and women come up with their innovative ideas?"
Informance perfectly describes what underlies the philosophy at Etudes. We are presenting performances that are hopefully full of highly informed moments: a certain phrasing by Mozart, or riffs by Charlie Parker, or cinematic techniques pioneered by Merian C. Cooper, the conversion of juggling to a form of dance by Michael Moshen and so on. Those highly-informed moments fall within the realm of aesthetic cognition. OK. I am going beyond that to say that what Etudes does is present performances that demonstrate two sides of innovation. On one hand, we showcase a traditional performer, offering a highly innovative piece. For example, a French cellist playing a piece by Haydn, who was an astonishing innovator in his day. On the other side we have the artists who are innovators themselves in the way they approach their instruments, movement, poetry, and so on. It's about their own work and the genesis of it. What the audience comes away with hopefully—I think it’s working, we are on our eleventh year—the audience comes away with having seen something they enjoyed, but also considering how different modes of innovative thinking that can inform what they do.
BC: Give us one example.
JE: OK, I'll give you two, quickly.
So take Etudes, Opus 1 (I can't believe we've been at this for over a decade now).
We talked about Haydn’s creation of the string quartet and how the Esterhazy court fostered Haydn’s ability to engage the best musicians of his day. This gave him room to determine what was possible. Musicians could come to him and say “Hey look, I was messing around yesterday and look what I came up with in terms of technique.” At the same time, Haydn could "test drive" experiments in instrumental technique.
BC: So where did that lead?
JE: It led, for one, to the innovative creation of the string quartet. Which of course then gives rise to a host of smaller chamber ensemble groups.
So when you have a company and you’re used to doing stuff on a big scale, you may find some jewels at smaller scale by understanding what really is working at the biggest level, shrinking it down and making certain adjustments. Which is the opposite of saying, I’ve got a small thing, and now I’ve gotta make it bigger. It's scaling in reverse, leading to a form of line extensions. Sometimes it’s equally beneficial to shrink things down and have a brand new product that spawns a whole bunch of other products or approaches. Again, it's scaling in reverse.
And we've done this on everyone from Haydn to Merian C. Cooper. So let's talk about Cooper for a minute. He was a great multi-talented movie producer/special events guy/innovator in aviation, and a leading fore behind the original King Kong. As a matter of fact, the impresario--Carl Denham--in King Kong is based on Cooper.
I included Cooper in an Etudes segment because he was an excellent example of how one's background and passion can get channeled into something innovative. Merian C. Cooper—in his early years attended the US Naval Academy at Annapolis—where he was expelled for hell-raising and championing air power (remember, he's at the naval academy and yet he's championing air power).
So Cooper goes through the Naval Academy and is expelled. Not surprisingly he becomes a pilot, flies all over the world making documentary films, serves in two wars. Gets shot down twice. He escapes. And then eventually, he was involved in the invention of Cinerama.
Cinerama is a horseshoe-shaped film experience, actually three screens that look like one seamless screen in films like How The West Was Won, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Grand Prix.
So he co-invents Cinerama, with its super-wide vistas—the kind of vistas he enjoyed as a pilot—and wanted to bring to the moviegoing public. He also worked on other widescreen innovations. So that was an example of an innovator who was what he ate. Or, you are what you eat. So Cooper, a passionate pilot brings the pilot's perspective to cinema. We take wide screen formats for granted today, but Cooper's impassioned achievements were quite stunning and innovative in their day. By the way, in the original King Kong, when we see close-ups of the airplanes shooting King Kong down from the top of the Empire State Building, Cooper is one of the pilots! There's also a documentary about Cooper entitled I Am King Kong, which I think is terrific.
So our challenge to the TWIN delegates was to ask, "What is it about your passion for something that appears to be separate from your day-to-day business objectives that could lead you to innovate in a field beyond your passion? Even if it's a hobby that's seemingly unrelated to your professional pursuits, have you really examined how it can be applied? Think about it."
BC: OK, shifting gears to you and Rob. How do you two work together to get this done every year?
JE: I can’t think of any meeting we’ve had where someone isn't cracking jokes one way or another.
So first of all, we both like to laugh, and that makes a really big difference. That’s just purely chemistry we discovered between one another, not something you can instruct someone to do, you know, “go out and have fun with one another while you're working.” Although I most say, for many folks it is the act of doing serious work that is fun itself. From the audience's perspective, that comes across as what many programmers dub "serious fun". But obviously, if you can "whistle while you work", one way or another you're gonna be ahead of the game. If you and your colleagues are kind of serious by nature, maybe you can integrate a diversion that gets you further along.
BC: You were telling me you guys have a "code"/shorthand you use to communicate, built over the years.
JE: Rob gives me tremendous latitude. So for Opus 1 he pretty much threw away the leash, while adding some very valuable suggestions for talent and messaging. But once we had done one, because it was so successful, we could make references to what had succeeded earlier and say “Let's do something along the lines of what we did with Peter Erskine, or Robert Dick.” Both of us instantly know what we're talking about. You just develop a shorthand. That's true in any field, of course.
One year I just said “Look: I want to have a particular artist in the show. He doesn’t fit the theme, but he's just so damn creative. So let’s bring him in and call his performance the 'wildcard segment'.” We invented that on the fly. We pull people and acts in that are wildcards and we’re up front about it. The audience never says to themselves "Gee, that didn't fit". It works.
BC: Anything you've missed doing over ten years of Etudes, that you have not yet had the chance to do?
JE: First off, let me get something off my chest. I'm always frustrated by people who say "I'm not a creative person like you." By that they mean they're not an artist. But the fact of the matter is, of course, creativity is not limited to the arts. So I try to tell them that although the arts by definition entail creativity, they shouldn't sell themselves short. But in terms of appreciating so-called creative achievements by artists, I don't attempt to draw a literal correlation. I might suggest it, but my job is not to say “Haydn did this, so you should do this or do that.” Instead, I say and show “Haydn did this, and you should think about it.”
Maybe the one disappointment in a way as a creative director is that, because I'm in rehearsal from the time TWIN Global starts, I simply can't go to any sessions and panel discussions themselves. I can go the following day. But I can't go to any pre-Etudes sessions. So it's almost impossible for me to integrate content from those sessions into Etudes. But what are you gonna do? That's showbiz.
BC: So what do you want everyone at TWIN to take from Etudes?
JE: As a director, as an artist, I want people to think in transdisciplinary terms. Repeat: transdisciplinary. I want people to come away thinking about how seemingly unrelated fields and the concepts that underlie them can actually speak to their own efforts. The idea of borrowing or adapting approaches from other fields isn't new, but really presenting a wide spectrum of them in an artful and provocative way, is particularly rewarding not only for me, but—judging from audience feedback—highly valuable to them. Many of the delegates say it has changed their approach to their own work in ways they hadn't imagined.
We asked Rob and Jeffrey to take a look at some photos from past Etudes, and tell us what they were thinkingstarting with this gem, below. The location is at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, 2012.
Rob Wolcott: This gag was for the opening: we walked out, we said nothing and I began singing Sorrento. When I finished I heard a few people behind me say “he’s actually pretty good!” So this was me shamelessly taking the opportunity to perform on the stage of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
We bussed all the TWIN delegates down to the Civic Opera House in Chicago, and had the stage set for 300 people, for dinner.
We held everyone in the lobby for cocktails. In the house the curtain was down. It’s a stunning tableau. We rose the curtain and everyone saw the dinner out on the stage, and when they walked to the stage and looked out on the house, it was breathtaking. Few get to see what it’s like from the stage. I think Governor Hickenlooper was there, and the mayor of Helsinki and a lot of interesting people.
We were clearly both in 'operatic' costumes. We had the tuxedo made by a tailor and the top hat handmade by Optimo in Chicago. And of course, Ernstoff was in a Pharaoh costume. We opened Etudes with one brief Neapolitan song, Torna Sorriento.
The most impressive part of the experience for everyone was sitting on the stage and looking out at what only the performers typically see. It's a breathtaking space. The second largest mainstage opera house in the United States, after the Met in New York City.
Jeffrey Ernstoff: First off, Rob loves to sing. He’s a frustrated opera singer. So we are parodying an ari. Here Rob is singing a Sorrento tune--the lyrics were supertitles and had nothing to do with the Italian that Rob was singing.
Here’s what is actually happening in this shot: The speaker prior to this was… serious. We had to find a way to jolt the audience.
We were at the Lyric Opera for this Etudes, Opus Four. Of course this specific Etudes spoke opera in just about every way it could.
The setting was “grand”, so to speak. One of the giant scenic backdrops the Lyric had was Aida. Very elaborately staged.
We straddle the fence between entertainment and the intellectual and philosophical, and this was a really good performance by Rob. Also Rob likes to laugh and is funny.
Not as funny as me, but he knows that.
So when we stepped out on stage in our respective costumes, there was immediate laughter. The idea of this guy in a Pharaoh costume playing a saxophone was in stark contrast to the very serious stuff that preceded it. And Rob was in tails and tophat.
It was an icebreaker, like the opening in Rhapsody in Blue. It was an attention-getter, and whatever was going on before it was no longer relevant.
What did I enjoy most about that moment? Getting a laugh. And secondarily, getting a good show. I wanted people to as what the hell is going on here? I don’t know, but it’s funny.”
Unfortunately there is no video and almost no photos of that show, but it’s easily one of the very best of the lighter moments Rob and I have done, which thereby make the serious content even more effective.