Ensemble Ibérica Musicians Bring a Diversity Of 'Musical Hats' To Kansas City's Performing Arts Scene
Musicians Coleen Dieker and Beau Bledsoe discuss Iberian music, genre hopping and performing during a pandemic.
Beau Bledsoe is the founder and artistic director of Kansas City-based performance group Ensemble Ibérica, which plays and explores “the music of Ibéria (Spain and Portugal) and the colonial Americas.” Beau, who is also a guitarist for the classical group Bach Aria Soloists and the country band Slim Hanson and the Poor Choices, demonstrates the remarkable range of his musical talent. He plays guitars and oud.
Coleen Dieker is as much a multi-instrumentalist as she is multi-genre professional. While she is a pianist, violinist, fiddler, singer and palmista, her genres of expertise include classical, Irish rock, jazz and blue-grass. Coleen grew up in Missouri and, after attending Berklee College of Music, returned to Kansas City to work as a musician. She joined Ensemble Ibérica in 2015.
What does Ensemble Ibérica mean to each of you? Beau, what led you to form the group? Coleen, what drove you to join?
Beau: The Iberian Peninsula of Portugal and Spain and almost everything I do can fall under the history of Iberia just because of Spain and Portugal's tendency to colonize. ❲Iberian music❳ was just the biggest umbrella I could think of that related to my career. If you play a classical guitar, you're already playing a lot of nationalist music that has folk underpinnings just under the surface of the notes. Oftentimes you'll have a piece and there will maybe be a subtext under the title that it's a dance or a farruca or a tango. I always wanted to know what those things were ... so I started traveling in my early 20s to study those kinds of things. And that's been kind of my M.O. every since. So I’ve become this hybridization of a classical musician and a folklorist, really.
Coleen: Our mutual friend introduced me to Beau. I called him and he came and he showed up with so many different scores of music from all over. It was perfect and it was so much fun. It was music I had never discovered. In my career, I look for variety. Ensemble Ibérica has put together a Turkish program, a Spanish program, an Irish program. And Beau also brings in the masters of all these different genres and parts of the world who ... work with us and we get to perform with them. It’s pretty magical that it exists in Kansas City.
You both make wide, brave hops between musical genres. I’m sure there are many technical things that change when you're playing a classical Brazilian folk piece versus a country or rock song. How do you feel when switching between styles and genres?
Coleen: Beau and I wear a lot of different musical hats. Going from all the different styles that we do in Ensemble Ibérica ... it makes you feel different. I also play with an Irish rock band and I play a different instrument for that, an electric violin with pedals. My stage presence is very different with that ensemble. You know how when you're around different people, you can kind of speak their language? Musically, that translates. It’s like putting on a persona and experiencing a vibe, experiencing a culture and a language. It’s important to be with musicians that are open to learning new stuff and sounding all kinds of different ways.
Beau: Like Coleen, I would be very sad quickly if I were just a flamenco artist or just one genre, and I really respect people that can make a life career out of that because there are such deep traditions, there's no way that you can get through one in a lifetime. But I see myself as the result of a lot of cultural doors opening up within my career. I love to study the Portuguese guitar, the Turkish oud, all of the different instruments are really exciting to me. And I also like the fact that when I play the Portuguese guitar ... I can feel Lisbon or Buenos Aires and go there in my mind. Or if I've never been there, I can kind of imagine it. We just started working on [medieval Spanish] music in the last two or three days and peoples’ minds were in very different places. If you read the text and what it's about and the different influences, it's like you're physically going somewhere.
What is something you've learned from from the Latinx performing arts community in KC and what is something you wish that KC’s classical music listeners knew, too?
Coleen: There's a huge Latinx community here and there's all kinds of different singers and mariachi groups ... it’s such a rich tapestry of music. I played with Making Movies for a number of years before I met Beau — and they are really into using their music as a political vehicle to get rights for immigrants and ... the music is really powerful, like it comes from a different place. It's not calculated at all, it's just really free. People get together and just play ... there's no music stands or getting everything all nice and in order.
What sets Ensemble Ibérica apart from your typical classical music ensemble?
Beau: In a classical ensemble, you usually have a whole bunch of scores and a score library and there's a rehearsal and maybe a dress rehearsal and that's kind of it. [Ensemble Ibérica plays in] small residences. We’re bringing in real masters of the genre for prolonged periods and ... we'll work with them and learn. Oftentimes, we'll go to where they live. So there's an international exchange happening where those relationships get deeper and deeper. Most of them are in the realm of very, very deep friendships at this point. That's kind of what I'm most proud of. I think that's how we're very much different than your typical classical music series: rehearsal, who we're working with, and these deep international relationships.
Since March, how has the nature of performance and collaboration has changed for you?
Coleen: A lot of things just went virtual so whether out of a production studio or my living room, I'm performing to the screen. It's definitely a mental shift of performance because you don't have that energy live in the room. We have been putting on all these outdoor concerts ... I put on a concert series for my neighborhood. We did three concerts and they were all fundraisers. We donated to Thelma's Kitchen that feeds a lot of homeless and to Black Lives Matter back in June. We also donated to Harmony Project and KC Tenants. We’re doing one more concert before it gets cold. But yeah, it's been kind of like all our careers all got canceled. I was traveling, you know, twice a month to another city and then suddenly everything was over. But it was like this new fertile ground for us to see what we could create out of this strange time.
Beau: I'm sheltered with [my son Aidan], a 10 year old bass player who goes to Harmony KC. I just kind of started teaching him how to play more and we started playing, oddly enough, old country songs out in people's driveways and just visiting people. Coleen's my neighbor, so we would visit her and we would play out on her front porch and just kept doing it. Of course, Aidan's really busy now with his online classes, so that's put a damper on his fun music career for the time being.
What is a piece of advice you have for young musicians?
Coleen: I really don’t take for granted my classical training, at all. It was so good for my ears to really hear all those things and for my fingers, my hands, and my brain to be able to think that way -- to look at a score and know what’s going on. But I would definitely encourage young musicians to use their ears. Because in a lot of things I see with kids learning, it’s like they’re executing a task instead of being in the music or hearing what it sounds like. Making sure that you’re listening is probably the best advice I could give.
What is one thing that brings you joy every day?
Beau: Coleen and I talk about this often. This is a global tragedy, but the challenge of continuing to serve audiences, to keep making art together, to get up and play music every day -- I dare say it’s enjoyable. And being able to play with my son so much — I know I’ll look back in hindsight on this time (and he will too!) as one of the greatest gifts of our lives that just wouldn’t have happened. Because of schoolwork, it’s already substantially subsided. But we had a few months of just absolute magic. It reminded me of how some of my Roma teachers described how they would teach their children, which is just application and doing.