Musica Viva’s 2017 International Concert Season was audaciously launched by Eighth Blackbird – a celebrated contemporary ensemble from Chicago. Established in 1996, this group of six musicians is renowned for cutting edge musical commissions and innovative performances, creating unique and thrilling experiences for their audience.
The program consists of recent commissions featured in Eighth Blackbird’s latest albums Hand Eye (2016) and Filament (2015), as well as a Musica Viva commission from young Australian composer Holly Harrison –
Nico Muhly Double Speak
Bryce Dessner Murder Ballades
Holly Harrison Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup (world premiere performances)
Ted Hearne By-By Huey
Timo Andres Checkered Shade
Each of the elements of the performance told a story. Whether inspired by folk tales, literature or paintings, each piece evoked vivid imagery and emotions through the voices of a cello, violin, piano, flute, clarinet and various percussion instruments. Like any good story teller, Eighth Blackbird used mood and pacing as a vehicle for emotion, and took their audience on a journey.
Double Speak was written for the Music Now festival in Cincinnati, held in honour of Philip Glass’ 75th birthday. Inspired by the influential minimalist style of the 1970s, this piece demonstrated how the avant garde movement evolved into the innovative contemporary 21st century compositions such as the works that follow in the program. Double Speak was an expressive and captivating piece of music, with subtle transitions in tempo and volume, and unexpected pauses between repetitive rhythms demanding precise delivery. The connection and flawless coordination of the six musicians on stage was impressive and a delight to experience.
Murder Ballades reinterpreted the American folk tradition of telling often true and graphic accounts of murders through songs. Dessner’s response to his commission by Eighth Blackbird was: “Let great American folk music inspire a great American new-music ensemble”. The colour and atmospheric movements of the Ballade immersed the audience into the harsh and mysterious world of early European settlement in America. The Murder Ballades were accessible and highly visual pieces of music, reminiscent of movie soundtracks with their shifting moods and raw expressiveness. This piece showcased Eighth Blackbird’s remarkable ability to produce rich soundscapes by fully exploiting the potentials of a few key instruments.
A composition inspired by Lewis Carroll’s imaginative Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is set to be wonderful and odd. Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup was just that – combining rock, jazz, metal, hip-hop pop, blues and funk, this piece was a fun and bold musical kaleidoscope. Harrison invited the audience to listen for the squabbles between the instruments, which reflected the nonsense dialogue between Alice, the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle in the story. The music at times descended into deliberate chaos, the absurdity of the referenced scene accentuated as each instrumentalist repeated an excerpt of a dialogue between a whiting and a snail.
In contrast to the Murder Ballades which planted the stories in the audience’s imagination by stirring familiar emotions through music, Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup recreated Wonderland on stage as the various instruments mimicked the voices of the characters, establishing musical dialogues that defied conventions. At times the drums drowned out the other instruments, but one could hardly complain while watching the spectacular performance of percussionist Matthew Duvall.
By-By Huey was inspired by a symbolic painting with a praying mantis superimposed over a portrait of Tyrone ‘Double R’ Robinson, who murdered the co-founder of the Black Panther Party Huey P. Newton. It tells a story of self-destruction, which Hearne expressed musically by experimenting with techniques that distorted and muffled the sounds of the instruments. This was a fascinating performance as the musicians exhibited new ways of aggressively manipulating their instruments, creating music and sounds with a menacing immediacy that reflected the violence of the narrative.
The final piece of music was an interpretation of an abstract painting, which consisted of spiral fragments repeated to create textures and larger patterns. As the program commenced with a homage to minimalist modern music, it fittingly concluded with a piece that cross fertilised modern painting and musical compositional concepts. Starting with a simple theme, the music blossomed into richly interwoven sounds of magnificent melody, leaving the audience marvelling: were there only six performers on stage?
This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, with an outstanding program of highly accessible, innovative contemporary music. The combination of music, literature and painting provides a fresh canvas for future interactions between artists and audiences.
Eighth Blackbird’s creative aspirations are beautifully captured in the name of the ensemble, which references the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’s poem Thirteen 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.
Vive La Blackbird!