If you’ve never read the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, when you come upon the 8th stanza, you will most likely make the connection to the meaning of eighth blackbird. Personally, I took it to mean that the group is thinking ahead of me but not against me as a listener.
Having been established in 1996, the Chicago-based eighth blackbird is all at once challenging and exciting. Just recently they have been performing a work that is the brainchild of both Steve Mackey and Rinde Eckert titled Slide, where the players actively tell a story, in part as actors, singers, and dancers in addition to their musical performance. The recording Lonely Motel: Music from ‘Slide’ is nominated for several Grammys.
Tim Munro, the group’s flutist, spoke to me via Skype on behalf of the ensemble, and we discussed this work along with other things of interest like his favorite TV shows.
CM: Can you talk about Slide and the current companion recording Lonely Motel: Music from ‘Slide’?
TM: That whole project is something that dates back to the turn of the century. It’s a project that’s been in the works both performing and recording over the last ten years. It began as a collaboration between Rinde Eckert and Steve Mackey, who are two people that have worked together over the last 30 years, and have produced a number of works. The best way to describe them is to actually say they don’t really have an easy definition of what genre it is. The work Slide that they generated is part song cycle, part rock opera, part musical theater, part straight theater, part dance work. It’s a really strange hybrid, which speaks a little bit to both Steve and Rinde’s kind of diversity as artists. Rinde is a singer, actor, director and writer personality, and Steve is a composer, improviser, performer of notated music, rock musician, jazz and classical musician–Both of them are everything in this big melting pot.
CM: How did you feel about performing some of the vocal parts?
TM: We don’t think of it as being so different from what we often do in eighth blackbird, which is look outside of what our primary instrument is. So, we do things like work with choreographers on generating movement around the stage–If we’re playing while moving around the stage, I’ll often play a percussion instrument or maybe a piano section, or maybe I’ll play a kazoo or a slide whistle. Singing is just sort of another of those other things. It feels very much in keeping with what we do as an ensemble anyway, which is to try to stretch the boundaries of chamber music, and of what we do. I think it’s actually much more common for a percussion group as far as instrumentalists go, to push boundaries–To using singing, speaking or chanting in their performances. So, it’s kind of exciting for us as other musicians to be able to try some of that stuff.
CM: To me, it’s one of those pieces that I don’t quite get straight off the bat…
TM: I feel like that’s the same for everyone. It’s a difficult thing that we do because we play music, a lot of which is quite complex in terms of the amount of stuff happening, complex in terms of the ideas behind it, and Slide has both of those issues. It has this whole backstory, which is the story of this screwed-up, emotionally overwrought psychologist, who’s looking at himself and looking back on his life. And there’s a lot of elements of that which are blurry–The music itself is quite complex in a lot of places and it draws on a lot of influences, but that’s actually part of the idea behind the piece, which is that there are these slides (referring to visual slides), and the slides go in and out of focus. In some ways, that’s what Steve and Rinde tried to do with the music and with the text, in that it would be in focus, and then it would be blurry and hard to see or comprehend. But that makes it difficult in the back-end, because you have a lot of people that are like “Huh?”. Like for you, it makes it more complex on the first listen.
CM: It’d be weird if everybody got it on the first listen.
TM: Like with any art, even with programs on HBO or Showtime–those networks are doing stuff that’s pretty subtle, and it’s the sort of thing that requires actual thought after you’ve watched it, and you don’t maybe get all of the things the first time you watch it. Actually, the show that immediately comes to my mind now is “Arrested Development”, and that’s such a weird and fun show. Every time I watch an episode of that again, I think “God, I really missed out on a lot of stuff!”, but I really enjoyed the experience of watching it the first time, it’s like you’re being bombarded with things.
Maybe eighth blackbird is the “Arrested Development” of the new music world! [both laugh]
CM: For me, classical music had been very hard not to hear certain things and be put off. One time when I was a kid, they’d programmed Del Tredici’s Final Alice on a Philadelphia Orchestra concert on the radio, and I had to shut it off because it sounded over-the-top to me then. It was much easier for me to enjoy contemporary music later on after hearing things like Holst’s The Planets.
TM: The Planets is an interesting thing because so much film music comes from that piece. It’s evoked by so much film music that I wonder how much of that is just because you’re used to hearing music that sounds like that. There’s an interesting question about expectation–A lot of people expect and demand that classical music fulfill something very specific for them, which is that it be relaxing. That is actually not born out by a lot of classical music–A lot of it especially in the last hundred years has been much more confrontational.
CM: What’s great about The Planets is that everything is there–Literally the first half of it is the juxtaposition of the violent “Mars” and the dreamlike “Venus”.
TM: It’s true, that’s a very diverse piece.
TM: It was jumping the deep end a little bit because it’s not something we’ve ever held before, but in conjunction with the American Composers Forum, and MakeMusic, which is the Finale software distributors–they gave us the administrative and financial support to be able to make this happen. We probably thought we would get about 200 applications for it when we finally decided on all the details and posted it, but we got 504 applicants, and that experience was enormously overwhelming, because we had about 15 huge boxes completely full of scores and CDs. It actually took us 3 months to go through that. To get down to 3 finalists was a 3-month-long process. It felt pretty epic.
The main reason we wanted to do this was that we feel a little bit out of the loop. We get a lot of unsolicited submissions that we don’t have time to address, but also, we’re on the road so much we don’t get to listen to a lot of new stuff. We wanted a way that we can hear a lot of new voices, and we really achieved that, because in addition to the 3 finalists, we came up with 15 people who we considered to be highly-commended people. And that’s a big pile of really interesting composers that we can now consider over the next few years–A lot of them have very unique voices. That is probably the overriding criteria that we were looking for, which is, unique voices, and Andy, and the 2 other finalists certainly had that in spades. Andy wrote us a piece for the final round that was incredibly interesting in a way that it completely redefined the world of vibraphone and piano (ERASE). It threw out the conventional ways of playing in the conventional sound world, and turned them into a sort of super instrument. The piece is a groove-based piece that’s sort of funky and driving, and it’s like a vortex of intense wall of sound.
Andy is a very interesting young voice. He’s someone who did not start off as a composer, obviously, he started off as a performer, and he has a very diverse range of interests, and then I think that he fell into the thing that he’s best suited for–He has been making a very quick rise. A lot of performers I know respect his music a great deal, and he’s making a lot of waves, which is really great.
CM: Will there be more of these contests and how often will we see them?
TM: I don’t think that there’s any way that we can do it annually, but I knew that everybody in the group thinks it was a success, and we have already programmed 2 of the finalists’ pieces: Andy’s piece, and a piece by one of the other finalists, Kurt Rohde. We programmed both of those for a few times this spring–That’s a really positive outcome for the competition, so, we want to continue it. The difficulty, of course, is the enormous administrative burden of taking in 500 applications, the enormous drain on our time to listen to them, so, I think we’re going to try to do it every 2 years–Don’t quote me on it, I mean, you can quote me on it, but we’re not promising anything. We want to do it again, and we need to generate some way of keeping the momentum going.
CM: And Jennifer Higdon‘s On a Wire is one of my favorite pieces! Can you talk about the ensemble’s relationship with her and the pieces she wrote for you guys?
TM: We’ve known Jennifer for almost 10 years. She wrote a piece that was virtuosic and sonically imaginative piece that had a beautiful sweet, Copland-esque middle section and it was just a really big crowd pleaser called Zaka. The ensemble played it probably 60 or 70 times, and then recorded it, and it was nominated for a Grammy. That whole working relationship throughout is an incredibly positive and successful one, and she writes so well for our ensemble. So, when we were thinking about concerto composition (because we wanted to work with orchestra), she was the first one that sprang to mind because she’d written a number of concertos, and she was very at home writing for the orchestra. She is above all else, an incredibly pragmatic composer, so she can write a work that can be performed on a small amount of orchestral rehearsal, but that shows us off, and explores a lot of interesting sounds, colors and techniques. That was why we immediately went to her. As for On a Wire, I cannot imagine a better group concerto. Each of us has a passage, which is a solo passage for one individual of the group plus the orchestra, and they’re all very different in style, so the flute and the piano have these very wild, virtuosic licks, and the cello and viola have these very song-ful, slow solos. She has a number of passages where the group as a whole is playing with the orchestra, and fighting against the orchestra, and also playing on its own sans orchestra. In addition to that, she’s generated this other sound world that enables us to have some sort of theatrical component, which is that we all play inside the piano. The piece begins with bowed piano, then it transitions to a section where we’re all tapping, plucking, playing on the strings, and playing harmonics. She has weaved that throughout the concerto using that as transitional material to get from one section to another. Over all of this, there’s this orchestral tutti section that reappears, that sort of becomes the pillars of the concerto–a ritornello that keeps coming back. She’s just managed to work magic with how those different sections line up, and it just turns out to be an incredibly effective showpiece. We have it programmed a couple of times this season, later in the spring. Next season we have it programmed maybe 2 or 3 times already. It’s a piece we’ll continue to work with, because it’s a completely new audience for us, the symphony orchestra audience. We love being able to go in and surprise them, because I think for a lot of symphony orchestra audiences when they see that a new work is on the program, they sort of shudder in trepidation. This piece is very bright and extrovert, and a lot of people like it.
Jacob Druckman: Reflections on the Nature of Water
EDITOR’S NOTE: This just in–Congratulations are in order for the cellist of 8BB, Nick Photinos, he and his wife have welcomed a brand new baby girl Emi just a couple of days before his own birthday!