Thursday, June 12, 2008

Concert Review -- Eighth Blackbird

Casual Listening

Concert Review

Eighth Blackbird, May 29 2009, Harris Theater, Chicago

"America's greatest living composer" was upstaged last week. The Chicago-based new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird gave two Midwest premieres of commissioned work: Steve Reich's "Double Sextet" and "Singing in the Dead of Night," a collaboration by the artistic visionaries behind the Bang on a Can collective. Despite a worthy and interesting piece by Reich, the younger group's choreographed opus took more risks and ultimately won the audience.

Although I'm a recent admirer of Reich (I started exploring his work in preparation for the review of "Daniel Variations" in this space two months ago), I'm willing to put him on the short list for the "greatest," a label he's been given by both the New York Times and the Village Voice. At its best, his work has rhythmic intensity, harmonic richness, and depth of meaning. Stylistically, he's a more interesting cousin to film score darling Phillip Glass -- employing repeated musical patterns that transform before your ears.

“Double Sextet” starts before the musicians do, the six performers having prerecorded themselves playing half of the piece. The live musicians enter playing the same instruments a few beats after the tape starts, and the interlock produces a dense, intricate sound.

The piece opens at a rhythmic gallop, alternating pairs and threes in zigzagging combinations. Piano and vibraphone drive the rhythm, while flute, clarinet, violin, and cello provide melodic contrast. The harmonies are shotgun clusters of tones connected by their forward momentum.

The second movement is signaled by the precipitous drop of the piano and vibes to half speed. The strings play elongated notes, and the live and recorded instruments seem to finish each others' sentences. The bow leaves the cello, the sound continues, and the bow eventually reconnects.

Equally abruptly we resume the gallop for movement three. The string and wind instruments shift back to more staccato patterns, and the whole charges on toward the conclusion. The final movement is a controlled cacophony of energy and motion, the musical equivalent of standing underneath high-tension power lines.

"Singing in the Dead of Night" is a collaboration between composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, with choreography by Susan Marshall. Lang, Gordon, and Wolfe are the musical heirs to Reich's brand of Minimalism, with Lang recently winning a Pulitzer for his compositions. Through founding Bang on a Can, a composers’ and musicians’ collective, the three are substantially responsible for new music's extreme makeover as a hipster art form. The name is suggestive of their aesthetic, which is less pretentious and more playful than one would expect for high art.

As one of the group's patrons explained to me, Marshall has created chore-ography, as in work. It's less about dancing than it is about the musicians keeping occupied in visually interesting ways.

The Prologue clusters the musicians in the center of the stage. A piccolo replaces the flute, and all of the musicians are playing in the higher registers of their instruments. Intentionally or unintentionally, the complex, repeating figures are a smooth musical transition from "Double Sextet," yet signal something unexpected on the way.

The cello opens "Episode 1" with a layer of sliding notes, giving a sound like an accelerating car shifting through the low gears. The other players wander to instruments placed around the stage. The pianist grabs an accordion, and one by one the string and wind players join the percussionist at a table with steel cans, pipes, and rods. The ensemble starts a pattern: car noises, a clang of cans, and a triumphant chord on the accordion. Eventually, the accordion is dropped and the piano returns, with three musicians on the bench, and one strumming the strings inside.

An amplified mat is placed centerstage for "Episode 2," and as the flute and clarinet play sustained tones, the ensemble loads one of the players arms with all of the percussion paraphernalia. It's only a matter of time before he loses his grip. The dramatic tension is rich, as he holds on longer than expected, not unlike the chef on the old Sesame Street clip that tumbles down the stairs with a double-armload of cream pies. The musician stacks all of the fallen percussion onto a cymbal, and as he prepares to cart it offstage, lets the cymbal tip, unloading another riot of clanging.

A dreamlike musical background begins "Episode 3." A table is placed over the sound mat, and buckets of sand are dumped on. Two musicians pull up chairs and lie their torsos across the table. Their bodies brush back and forth, causing the sand to fall. The music turns slowly from dream to nightmare, becoming chaotic and dissonant.

The Epilogue returns to the complexity of the prologue. Stage lights cast enormous shadows of the musicians on the back wall, and multiple lights create a visual interlock that matches that of the music.

Creativity is a matter of making new choices. Forty years ago, Steve Reich's choice of shifting repetition heralded a new generation of composition, and a piece like "Double Sextet" continues to explore the effects of that choice. Lang, Gordon, Wolfe, and Marshall add the choice of movement, and the musicians’ motion give a provocative new dimension to the work. Before the audience’s eyes, music evolves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People should read this.