A Year In: Carla McElhaney, musician

The pandemic crashed into McElhaney's highly engaged musical practice. At first a break was welcome. Then came the longing for community.


The series ‘A Year In’ catches up with artists now that the coronavirus pandemic has passed its one-year mark.

Carla McElhaney is a multi-faceted musician, a pianist who values the intimacy of small performances — shows where there’s a a direct line of communication between the performers and each individual. As the co-founder, along with cellist Joel Becktell, of  chamber ensemble project Revel, McElhaney creates concerts that erases as many barriers as possible.

“Revel favors small, intimate audiences where you get to know the people you’re sitting with, and the performers and audience members get to know one another,” she told Sightlines in 2018. “(We encourage people) to forget the rules, come as you are, clap when you feel like it, and listen with abandon.”

A long-time host on KMFA 89.5 classical radio, McElhaney serves on the music faculty of Texas Lutheran University, and is tireless collaborator performing with Chorus Austin, Austin Chamber Music Center, and myriad individual musicians.

The pandemic crashed into McElhaney’s busy and highly engaged musical practice. At first a break was welcome. Then came the longing for community.

Sightlines: What were you working on when the lockdown began in mid-March 2020? What was the first of your work you saw cancelled or lost?

Carla McElhaney: We were at the midway point of Revel’s eleventh season, a series of five events reflecting on the human journey and the soul’s search for home. Sunil Gadgil, Zach Matteson, Blake Turner, Matt Kufchak and I had just played the third concert in the series, “Witness,” in collaboration with the brilliant poet Amanda Johnston. It was a powerful program about the absolute brokenness and sorrow we were experiencing as a nation — politically, racially, socially, culturally, every which way. This was on March 8, 2020. Mind you, the event took place at Scott Donald’s Studio A, a lovely, intimate, postage stamp-sized listening room with about 40 people packed together. Just a few days later, Austin shut down and we started to get an inkling of how serious things were. As far as I know, no one caught the virus at that event, and if that’s the case, we were incredibly lucky. Needless to say, we were unable to finish the season.

The first thing to go was a collaboration with Dianne Donovan, Mitch Watkins, Pat Harris, and the underground arts collective Drink and Ink entitled, “No Mud, No Lotus,” about the transformative nature of life’s challenges. In retrospect, it does seem a little bit prophetic.

Next was the celebratory season closer, “A New Voice,” featuring Liz Cass. The title was pulled from Mary Oliver’s “The Journey”: “…the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” I hit the pause button, and I’m still not fully ready to hit play. While I applaud and support my wildly brave, fierce, creative friends who took to producing virtual presentations, the format is just not for me. I played in a couple and helped produce a couple, but my own inner voice told me to sit tight. I’ve learned that if I’m not feeling an enthusiastic yes, the answer is no.

S: What part of the pandemic were you surprised to find being a creative benefit?

CM: At first, I have to admit that I was thrilled that everything came to a complete stop. I needed that. I have a tendency to take on too much, and all that racing around I’d been doing year after year was taking a toll on me. Then, of course, came the longing for my familiar ways of interacting with the world, and all the grief over all of the losses, large and small, from human life, to being able to safely go out to dinner, hug a friend, or smile at someone in the grocery checkout line. The surprise came when I realized that where these old modes of living and being had fallen away, there were limitless new opportunities that sprang up in their place.

Creating and connecting is simply what humans do, no matter the circumstances. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t miss the old things, but the realization just helped me relax into the flow of life a little bit easier. If something is of benefit to life, it’s of creative benefit, too. For example, one of my sisters who lives in Florida and I started talking on the phone every Saturday morning — we call it Coffee Chat. We never would have thought we could carve out regular time for that before, but now we can’t imagine giving it up. We laugh, we vent, we encourage each other in our dreams. That’s of creative benefit, for sure.

S: What changes do you want to see in classical music, how it’s practiced and how it’s presented? What should the so-called new normal of classical music look like?

CM: I have to confess that I don’t really self-identify as a strictly “classical” musician anymore. Classically trained, yes. A lover of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, yes. But classical is such a loaded term these days, and the world can’t seem to agree on what it means. When I think on this topic, I think about music writ large. I see the evolution of any art form as being intrinsically tied to the evolution of the artists who create within the medium. How I hope music will evolve really boils down to what I hope for the humans who make it.

I’m interested in freedom. I’m interested in authenticity. I’m in favor of cultivating a culture of creativity from every conceivable angle. I would love it if composition and improvisation were a part of a young musician’s education from day one.

I would love it if creatives within arts organizations who are not feeling supported by boards, leadership, funders, etc. had the courage to cut those ties and find new partners. I find the bureaucracy surrounding many grant opportunities to be an unnecessary drain on resources.

Most of all, I want creative musicians to understand the incredible light that they possess, and to stop settling for anything less than ideal circumstances. This is a two-fold idea: 1) Whatever you can dream is possible, and 2) If it hurts, you absolutely must stop what you’re doing and course-correct.

The gift of crisis is the opportunity for transformation. There’s no question that a powerful artistic and cultural renaissance is unfolding, and I’m excited to be a part of things and see where this takes us.

S: Artistically, what’s next that you look forward to and are excited by?
CM: This summer I’m doing a wonderful project with composer Stephen Barber. I’ll be recording and premiering a very special piece he wrote for solo piano. I don’t want to give away too much about it, but the piece is so imaginative and evocative, and utilizes an extensive color palette, which I love.

Other than that, the thing I’m most excited about is the chance to catch my breath, spend time outdoors (yes, even in the Texas heat), hang out with friends and family, and dream about the future. That open-ended dreaming is certainly an integral part of the artistic process. I just left a full-time position with KMFA, a dual role in leading educational projects and artistic direction for the new Draylen Mason Music Studio. It was a fantastic opportunity and I’m so grateful to have had the experience, but the pandemic caused me to shift my priorities. I realized that I need to have lots of free time just to feel like I’m okay, let alone happy. In addition to unstructured time and rest, I want to be able to create — or not — at my own pace and move in whatever direction I feel inspired to go at any given moment. There is nothing more delicious.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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