Eighth Blackbird: Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin and viola; Lisa Kaplan, piano; Natalie Joachim, flute; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Nick Photinos, cello.
March 14, 2019
The year is still fairly young, but it’s safe to bet that the new-music ensemble Eighth Blackbird gave one ofthe most engaging and ear-opening concerts of 2019, March 10 in Temple Beth-El for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society.
Six Oberlin Conservatory students formed Eighth Blackbird in 1996; the troupe moved to Chicago in 2000. It has commissioned hundreds of new works and amassed a slew of prestigious awards. The players are Nathalie Joachim, flutes; Michael Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin and viola; Nick Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano.
All but one of the pieces on the program dated from the past decade. The exception was Stay On It (1973) by Julius Eastman, an American legend both metaphorically and (almost) literally.
Eastman was prominent as a composer, singer and dancer in the avant-garde of the 1970s and early 1980s, first in Buffalo, where a plum academic appointment allowed him to flourish, and then in New York. His hopes for another academic post and financial security came to naught, however – possibly because of his assertive black and gay identity. He descended into drug use, lost most of his scores when he was evicted from his apartment, and died homeless in 1990, at age 49. In recent years, the composer Mary Jane Leach has been able to reconstruct some of Eastman’s scores from scattered fragmentary scores and performance tapes. A revival of his music is well under way.
Stay On It, for open-ended instrumentation but performed here in an arrangement for Eighth Blackbird, falls into the minimalist camp. It’s based on a short, rather jaunty idée fixe and a half-dozen compact “layering cells.” These are combined in various ways that increase in complexity until the music attains a wild abandon – the percussionist gets very busy – before calm returns. (Curiously, in this performance, the idée fixe seemed to acquire a little silent hiccup or skipped beat, as though the time signature weren’t 4/4 but 17/16. The result was more bracing than disconcerting, however.)
The piece is tightly disciplined, getting great mileage out of the merest wisps of material. Eastman deserves his reputation.
The rest of the program covered a wide range of personal styles, from calmly shifting fields of sound, as in Jonathan Bailey Holland’s The Clarity of Cold Air (2013), to rollicking, intricately structured counterpoint. Sometimes both aspects alternate, as in the case of Nina Shekhar’s ice ’n’ SPICE (2018), which interleaves passages of high, glistening atmospherics with episodes of frenetic, heated activity. Or we hear both at the same time, as in Fjóla Evans’ beautiful Eroding (2017), a swelling and ebbing cloud of sound that periodically thins out to more clearly reveal the minimalist clockwork inside.
Angélica Negrón’s Quimbombó (2010) partakes of Afro-Caribbean rhythmic energy from the composer’s Puerto Rico. Holly Harrison’s jazzy, driving, witty Lobster Tails and Turtle Soup (2016), inspired by Lewis Carroll, somewhat recalls the great Carl Stalling’s Warner Bros. cartoon music in its sudden changes of direction.
Viet Cuong’s Electric Aroma (2017) is an off-kilter tango that maintains a clear pulse even though rhythm is deconstructed into its component parts and constantly being redistributed among the instruments – a tour de force of compositional chops.
A program change brought a single movement from Alex Mills’ Four Rain Begging Songs (2019) for flute/piccolo and clarinet/bass clarinet. This intricately woven piece has roots in Balkan folk music. It had its world premiere just a few days earlier during an Eighth Blackbird concert in Richmond, Virginia.
The young (or youngish) composers in this group have little in common except an aversion to received aesthetic -isms and a propensity to please and challenge listeners at the same time. We have much to look forward to. The performances were exceptional, not only for the musicians’ technical craft, but also for their supple responsivness to each other.