Wallace Stephens wrote of the 8th of “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”--
“..I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.”
When Stephens wrote this, could he possibly have imagined that the inescapable rhythms that would open a concert by the group named for his poem’s eighth stanza would come from three toy pianos?
Indeed they did, and that was the first of many disarming performances from the new music group-- eighth blackbird—in its return performance in the concert-friendly hall of one of their sponsoring organizations, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
That first toy piano concerto was titled “qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq”, which the composer, Tristan Perch, explains “was named after an excerpt of commands I type when configuring my drawing machine…(evoking) the sensitive membrane between the electronic and the physical, the abstract and the real..”
Indeed it was like a pleasant electrical jolt.
Following came a piece by guest ensemble member, Nico Muhly “Doublespeak”, an homage to Philip Glass and written for a commemoration of Glass’ 75th birthday. In the after-concert discussion we learned that energetic Muhly first heard eighth blackbird when he was in high school and then and there decided that THAT sound was what he wanted to know about and be about.
Lisa Kaplan, one of eighth blackbird’s original sextet members created a four hand piano piece entitled “Whirligig” that she and Muhly played together with obvious fun in addition to aplomb. She comments, “whirligig is all about getting up in each other’s business and relishing in it..”
Composer David Lang was in the audience and heard the next two pieces, both his original compositions—‘how to pray” followed by “death speaks”. Of “how to pray” Lang writes, “..I have been transcribing my own cantillation (Liturgical setting) of the psalms—the rhythms, the accents, and the pacing of the Hebrew…(using) a similar strategy to convert the prayer before saying the psalms into the music for ‘how to pray’.” “death speaks” was a tribute to Franz Shubert’s many songs with texts where Death is personified. Even for those of us who are not religious, we hear these pieces and feel as if we are hearing that prayer and lamentation have found a new voice.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of the evening was guest artist Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades. The MCA was among a group of several prestigious global arts organizations commissioning the piece. While I was admittedly thrown a bit by the title and the program description suggesting this piece is a commentary on violence in America, the music itself with many changing rhythms and phrasing did keep one hyper-engaged with its progression. Indeed, this guest artist eighth blackbird is very aware that it is creating our impression of his own art.
Philip Glass, an unseen but definite presence at this performance as at many other new work ensemble performances had his piece Two Pages performed. The flute player shared that for the wind instruments this piece is somewhat like swimming 50 meters under water on a single breath. Later Muhly, who played electric organ in this piece, confessed that the re-arrival of a note taken out by Glass much earlier in the single line of music piece comes as an incredible relief to the performers.
The final piece was Lonely Motel reportedly drawn from Slide a musical theater song cycle. This was a relatively mellow end to an evening of music that provided much ear candy to chew upon.
Definitely resist all temptations to leave MCA performance pieces before the after-show discussion. Who was more interesting? The young audience member who explained that he was only there because of rock star guest artist Bryce Dessner and how wowed he was by what he stumbled upon? Or was the most memorable comment by composer David Lang sharing that what he thinks his and other contemporary music is about is “imagining the world you want to live in and then doing it yourself.”
Eighth blackbird is indeed a force being felt far beyond the concert halls where ears delight in its fruits. For example, the group is now in the midst of a 3-year residency at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Chicagoland native and De Paul graduate Jennifer Kallend, Director of PR for Curtis sums it up, “…The group performs in non-traditional venues, champions new technologies, and attracts fans of all ages to its performance. Over fifteen seasons the ensemble has steadily built and broadened its audience. This success is the direct result of eighth blackbird’s compelling performances…”
In the post-concert discussion there was a shout-out to the MCA for supporting cutting edge art of all kinds. Certainly making a Chicago home for eighth blackbird performances is high on the list of the MCA’s achievements.
Photos: Luke Ratray and Museum of Contemporary Art.