Eighth Blackbird Performs
F. Ludwig Diehn Concert Series
Chandler Hall, January 23, 2017
Review by John Campbell

Eighth Blackbird is a cutting-edge, contemporary classical chamber group. In 1996, six Oberlin Conservatory undergraduates (Nathalie Joachim, flutes; Michael Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin; Nick Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Lisa Kaplan, piano) formed the group and over the last twenty years have commissioned and premiered hundreds of works. All the music played on the January 23rd program was written between 2012 and the present. Their strong sense of ensemble with the unique sounds of the six, very different instrumental voices was engaging and often enthralling.

In the 2015-2016 season they were featured in a pioneering residency at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, serving as a living installation with open rehearsals, public talks and performances with guest artists. In the summer of 2017 they will launch their boldest initiative yet, the Blackbird Creative Laboratory, a tuition-free, two week summer workshop and performance festival for musicians in Ojai, California.

They opened with American composer Nico Muhly (b. 1981) Doublespeak (2012), written to honor Philip Glass's 75th birthday. If you think of Glass's music as woven of whole cloth then it is fair to describe Muhly's tribute as a patchwork quilt of swatches of Glass sounds. All six instrumentalists in various combinations contributed to the emotional shifts and turns, some spare and quiet, others overwhelmingly immersive. Pianist Lisa Kaplan gave us a direct Glass quote at the end.

Then followed two pieces from a 2015 special commission “Hand Eye,” a suite of six pieces from a composers' collective whose six members are all in their thirties and who met while at Yale University. Each piece was inspired by an art work. Ted Hearne chose By-By Huey, a painting by Robert Arneson. It is a portrait of Tyrone Robinson, who murdered Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers. A giant preying mantis is superimposed over the murderer's face, memorializing the (self) destructiveness of that social movement—the mantis consumes its own. The music is a hard-edged, modern piece built around percussive piano with hands both on the keys and inside the piano. There were ear-shattering bursts, low wooden-sounding piano notes, a bowed marimba and muted string sounds that were both muzzled and growling. The ending turned maudlin in mood, both soft and whispery.

Inspired by another painting, Timo Andres' piece Checkered Shade is described as a gradual zoom outward of tiny fragments of repeated musical material that resolves into larger patterns. At the urging of the violin it eventually coalesces into an expressive chorale. As with each composition the “choreography” on stage was fascinating, especially in this 14 minute piece.

Bryce Dessner's Murder Ballads (2013) was inspired by several old folk ballads: Omie Wise, Young Emily and Pretty Polly. Set in a claw-hammer banjo style, these tales of romantically-charged killing are based on real events. The piano and cello were prominent in the highly repetitive opening with a harpsichord-like sound from the prepared piano*. From random phrases to foot stomping hoedowns, brilliantly quick percussion and hand clapping led to a motionlessness only to begin again with soulful marimba and screaming strings. Soft taps on a huge drum gave depth to pastel scene painting with long flute and clarinet lines and staccato strings. These violent stories were told through seductive music.

The program notes tell us that New Yorker critic Alex Ross has said “If you are having a slow day, his samples will wake you up.” Though I cannot find Ned McGowan listed in the book cited (The Rest is Noise), McGowan's The Garden of Iniquitous Creatures (2016) built on samples of other music, did indeed wake us up. Heavy drumming opens, then strings played percussively in a Poulenc-inspired section were followed by sections of ferocity inspired by Swedish metal band Meshuggah. Carnatic rhythms from South India, harmonic movements of Steve Reich, tempo manipulations of Colin Nancarrow and the virtuosity of Frank Zappa are all suggested by the tapestry of sound, according to those same notes. This was a thrilling experience to conclude this intriguing evening.

*A piano with objects placed on or between the strings, or some strings re-tuned, to produce an unusual tonal effect.

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