Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review: eighth blackbird

March 26, University of Richmond

Whoever said first impressions are the truest doesn’t know some of my best friends, and wouldn’t stand a chance of getting to the nub of "singing in the dead of night," a wildly eventful, 45-minute-long work by composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and choreographer Susan Marshall, given its first performance by eighth blackbird.

Lang, Gordon and Wolfe write for and perform in Bang on a Can, the New York new-music ensemble. Their energy levels are complementary and they seem to share certain traits – notably, similar senses of humor; but their contributions to this piece stand off from one another.

Lang’s two episodes and epilogue, titled "these broken wings" one, two and three, sound to be inspired by baroque contrapuntal exercises. The second episode, subtitled passacaille, effectively hides its form behind slapstick visual effect – the piling up and dropping of metal objects on a resonating surface.

Gordon’s episode, "the light of the dark," contrasts low-register slides on cello with brilliant, virtuosic violin figures, punctuated by percussive downbeats and running interference through jarring chords and tone clusters from winds, accordion, harmonica, acoustic and amplified guitar and piano, whose keyboard is played by two to six hands with a seventh finally strumming its strings.

Wolfe’s episode, from which the whole piece takes its name, centers on the sound effects of sand slowly pushed around a tabletop by one or two performers, with the conventional instruments providing a Greek chorus to the grittily resonant protagonist(s).

Its length, scope, contrast of musical and physical materials, combination of sound, movement and lighting, suggest that "singing in the dead of night" might harbor Gesamtkunstwerk aspirations. But its titles are so open-ended and its content so varied (and variable) that I wouldn’t attempt to guess what it’s "about," certainly not on one hearing. (In a post-concert Q&A, Wolfe didn’t rise to Marshall’s bait when the choreographer strung together the words "obsessive, desperate, sad" to characterize her episode. Lang and Gordon said nothing about theirs.)

It’s unquestionably a pentathlon for the performers. Pianist Lisa Kaplan, percussionist Matthew Duvall, violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photionos, flutist Tim Munro and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, playing much of the work from memory, played up to and beyond the composers’ numerous technical challenges and the logistical ones posed by both score and choreography. I’ve never seen these musicians work harder at a piece, and rarely to better effect.

The program, called "The Only Moving Thing," opened with another premiere, of the Double Sextet by Steve Reich, the percussionist and composer commonly identified as one of the founders of minimalism. (Nicolas Slonimsky more alluringly termed Reich’s music "hypnopompic.") Written for 12 instruments, the piece is being introduced by eighth blackbird with six instruments pre-recorded and six played live.

Reich’s sextet opens and closes with emphatic, layered ostinato played off against sighing long notes from strings and winds, which gradually pick up the insistent rhythmic figure. The central section is lyrical, gently rocking like a barcarolle. Nervy syncopation and chorale-like melody rub against each other, as in jazz and blues.

The piece is more for executants than interpreters – aside from some issues of dynamics and whether to play long notes straight or messa di voce, it’s mostly timing and balance.
In the first performance, the recorded tracks (laid down by the ’birds two months ago) sounded more mellow and mid-rangy, while the live (and amplified) instruments were more (at times much more) edgy. That contrast may have been more pronounced in the acoustically bright Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond than it will be in the venues for subsequent dates.

"The Only Moving Thing" will receive six more performances through May, including a May 13 date at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Details: