"Ghostlight"review- eighth blackbird and Will Oldham take the stage at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

On March 25 and 26, 2016,  as part of the series “MCA Stage”, eighth blackbird and Will Oldham, (Bonnie "Prince" Billy”) put on  “Ghostlight”, a concert at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, (MCA), 220 E. Chicago Ave, that rocked the three hundred seat Edlis Neeson Theater. This four-time Grammy award winning Chicago-based ensemble, which derives it’s name from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, has had a long and rich history of working with the museum, and has held the position of MCA artists-in-residence since September, 2015. They will remain in this posture through June, 2016, “embedded in the galleries, utilizing the MCA as their studio space”.

The artists of eight blackbird; photo courtesy of Saverio Truglia

The “super-musicians” (LA Times) sextet celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and recently won the 2016 MacArthur Award for effective and creative institutions. Once described as “one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensembles on the planet” (The Chicago Tribune), the group consists of Nathalie Joachim on flutes, Michael J. Maccaferri on clarinets, Yvonne Lam on violin and viola, Nicholas Photinos on cello, Matthew Duvall on percussion, and Lisa Kaplan on piano. The members hold degrees in music performance from the nation’s leading music schools. As a group, they are known for performing from memory, for collaborating with theater artists, and for utilizing choreography and lighting design to acheive effects which  vibrate with an explosion of quality, energy, wit and adventure. They describe their mission as “to move forward through innovative performance, advocacy for new music by living composers, and a legacy of guiding an emerging generation of composers”. The ensemble has won numerous prizes, and has routinely been hailed by leading critics for forging a new pathway in classical music for the twenty first century.

eighth blackbird and Will Oldham at Ghostlight; photo courtesy of Nathan Keay

“eighth blackbird” has worked with many composers and premiered hundreds of new works; Steve Reich’s commissioned piece, “Double Sextet”, 2007, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. They have long been partners with Cedrille Records of Chicago, and have produced 7 recordings; four of these won Grammy awards, including the most recent, “Filament”, released this year. The program at The MCA came right after eighth blackbird premiered David T. Little’s piece “Ghostlight”, 2015, at the Kennedy Center. First on the bill was Bryce Dessner’s “Murder Ballades, 2013, revised 2015. Will Oldham, singing and playing guitar, performed Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together”, 1971, arrangements 2000/2003, as well as some of his own pieces, newly arranged by Lisa Kaplan; the ensemble joined him on several of his songs.

eighth blackbird the ensemble; photo courtesy of Saverio Truglia

The concert project can be described as emanating "from the shadow side of life”. The set was strewn with weird ladders, knocked over chairs, crumpled sheets, the whole bathed in an eerie light. Both “Ghostlight” and “Ballades” were developed during the group’s residency at the MCA. In “Ghostlight”, Little evokes ancient ceremonies; the audience can almost- but not quite- hear vague and disturbing noises, strange  grumblings and vague voices that soon subside into lovely and peaceful restive music. “Murder Ballades”, which the group recently recorded on “Filament”, is meant to describe frighteningly gruesome “American tales of revenge and betrayal through simple, upbeat melodies”, including melodies such as “Young Emily” and “Pretty Polly”.  The piece “Coming Together” was inspired by a letter written by a convicted bomber shortly before he was killed in a prison riot in Attica, New York and was intriguingly weird yet transformative. Special mention must be made of and thanks be given to Matthew Ozawa  and Matthew Duvall for stage direction, Erik Barry for lighting design, and Madeleine Borg, production stage management.

Performance View, eighth blackbird with Will Oldham, (Bonnie "Prince" Billy), Ghostlight, MCA, Chicago, March 25 and 26, 2016; photo courtesy of Nathan Keay

Indeed, the whole concert can  truly be described as otherworldly- hauntingly beautiful and evocative; it called forth memories of old tragedies and moved from intensity through dissonance to evocative beauty and stillness. Will Oldham’s playing at times seemed like a cacophony of primitive sound. However, especially when paired with the deep emotionality and playacting of eighth blackbird, it was rich and  deeply immediate, especially in his unusually resonant vocal intonations.

eighth blackbird; photo courtesy of Saverio Truglia

MCA Stage regularly produces wonderful and groundbreaking concert performances, meant to be audience engaging and activated by the artists. Coupled with the permanent and changing exhibets and the museum’s educational programs, they foster an inclusive and diverse community to enjoy and share the ideas and work of today’s artists.

As part of the winter/spring season, patrons can enjoy “Taylor Mac, the History of Popular Music”, on April 12 and April14-16, and “Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, When the Wolves Came In”, from April 28-May 1.

 

For tickets to the museum or for MCA Stage, go to www.mcachicago.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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