Eighth Blackbird

The ensemble Eighth Blackbird have championed the  brighter side of contemporary American music since forming in college in 1995. Their energetic stagecraft has earned them global fame (at least as far as contemporary music ensembles go), including several tours to Australia. They also enjoy collaborative relationships with composers, often learning repertoire by heart and interacting in ways a music stand-bound performer cannot. During this tour, the ensemble collaborated extensively with the young Australian composer Holly Harrison on a rocking new work.

Nico Muhly’s “Doublespeak” is a homage to American minimalism and was composed for Philip Glass’ 75th birthday. Featuring a quotation from Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts, the piece includes a string of bitter-sweet instrumental pairings (especially effective when played with all the energy of the ensemble’s cellist, Nicholas Photinos), which build to moments of sinister intensity punctuated by kick-drum.

Bryce Dessner looked even further back in time to inspire his Murder Ballads. The seven reconstructions of folk songs displayed a stunning array of moods and textures, including some galloping wood-block effects by percussionist Matthew Duvall and even actual thigh slapping. The extended version of the Murder Ballads performed for the tour includes movements not included on the ensemble’s recording. The movement “Underneath the Floorboards” is recognisable as Sufjan Stevens’ incredibly creepy—and in this context entirely appropriate—song about the “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy Jr.

Eighth Blackbird worked intensively on Holly Harrison’s new work Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup commissioned by Musica Viva with support from Geoff Stearn and the Hildegard Project. The piece is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The hybrid gryphon and mock turtle in the story are musically figured with bombastic energy in a musical amalgam of rock, jazz, metal, hip-hop, blues, and funk. Dazzling riffs and solos are punctuated by fragments of text interjected by the musicians. The piece is driven by a powerful groove that has its apotheosis in an unlikely and spectacular bass clarinet and flute duo performed by Michael J. Maccaferri and Nathalie Joachim.

The program contained two works from Eighth Blackbird’s Hand to Eye project. For this series of compositions, composers were asked to respond to works in a private collection of visual art. Ted Hearne’s  By-By Huey is inspired by Robert Arneson’s painting “By-By Huey P.” The painting is a portrait of Tyrone “Double R” Robinson, who murdered a co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton, in 1989. The portrait features a praying mantis superimposed over Robinson’s face. As the program states, “A guide at the Frankel Gallery told me Arneson included the mantis in the portrait because ‘they eat their own.'” The music is similarly self-destructive, with a variety of strategies aimed to silence the music including muting, instrument preparation, and sudden, sharp attacks resulting in vanishing splashes of tone colour. Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade takes as its point of departure the pen-and-ink “(variegated spirals)” by Astrid Bowlby, a picture consisting of just that, thousands of spirals of different thicknesses. The piece, likewise, is an elaboration of one see-sawing rhythm that is shared around the ensemble in rich overlapping textures.

Though Eighth Blackbird interact more on stage than most contemporary music ensembles, I would have liked to have seen them perform from memory and get away from their iPads. The program was an excellent insight into contemporary music from the States and a great opportunity to nurture a new Australian work.

Eighth Blackbird
Melbourne Recital Centre
28 February

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