Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: eighth blackbird

with Glenn Kotche, drums & percussion
March 25, University of Richmond

Encounters between performers of contemporary art-music and popular music of the art-rock or "indie" genres are becoming more frequent, if not yet commonplace. Many younger musicians ignore the old, once-bold line between highbrow and lowbrow art forms; and, it seems, "every composer’s got a band," observed Missy Mazzoli, shortly after her "Still Life with Avalanche" was introduced by eighth blackbird in the finale of its fifth season in residence at the University of Richmond.

The program explored the common ground – by now, a pretty substantial bit of acreage – cohabited by today’s classical musicians and rockers who aspire to more than four-four beats and catchy hooks in their songs. It also reminded us that this common ground has been cultivated for some time.

The featured artist of the evening was Glenn Kotche, best-known as the drummer of the band Wilco, also a composer and performer in several other groups that delve into jazz and multicultural percussion-centered music. Kotche, with and without members of the ’birds, presented four of his compositions, and joined the sextet in a performance of Steve Reich’s "Clapping Music" (1972) for an ensemble of hand-clappers.

Two of Kotche’s works, the large-scale "Monkey Chant" (2004) and shorter "Projections of (what) Might" (2005), melded the sound and style of gamelan, the Indonesian percussion orchestra, with the rhythms and atmospherics of street-corner funk. Gamelan music has influenced generations of American composers in both classical and jazz realms; Kotche, as a percussionist, departs less from the original sound model than others who have adapted gamelan for Western instruments and ensembles.

"Monkey Chant" is a "loose retelling" of the story of the battle of monkey armies from the Hindu epic "Ramayana," in which Kotche plays along with a film by Nathaniel Murphy. Murphy uses figures from Indonesian shadow plays in an animation recalling the primitive television cartoons of the 1970s, with their minimally moving figures and static backgrounds.

Kotche’s "Double Fantasy" (2008) expands his "Fantasy on a Shona Theme" for solo vibraphone into an ensemble piece for performance with eighth blackbird. The theme, a tune from Zimbabwe that sounds like a lullaby, develops into a kind of lilting pastorale with heavy percussive interjections. It also boasts one of the oddest multi-instrumental taskings ever faced by the ’birds’ Matt Albert, who alternates between violin and bass drum and gong.

Kotche’s "Individual Trains" (2005), another piece expanded for eighth blackbird, is the densely percussive sound track for his abstract film-in-four-frames on their mutual hometown, Chicago.

All these works showcase Kotche’s virtuosic technique on drum kit and other percussion and his immersion in both non-Western and vernacular pop rhythmic styles; but they also show that, multicultural as his influences may be, Kotche is a composer whose structural and dynamic arcs reflect a fundamentally classical core.

After performing his works, Kotche joined eighth blackbird in Louis Andriessen’s "Worker’s Union" (1975), a thunderous, lengthy opus from the height of the Dutch composer’s thumb-in-the-eye-of-the-highbrow-establishment period. Characterized by the ’birds’ pianist, Lisa Kaplan, as a "socialist manifesto minimalist romp," the piece, heard a generation after its creation, makes both the political and musical ideologies sound oppressive and obsessive. The musicians managed their heavy labor with intense concentration, and maybe an ironic sense of fun.

The premiere of Mazzoli’s "Still Life with Avalanche" was a welcome break from the largely high-volume percussive balance of the program. The work is a sunny pastorale into which a dark cloud intrudes; while writing it at an upstate New York art colony, the composer got news of the sudden death of her cousin. Mazzoli layers melodic content expertly and emotional contrasts with sensitivity and depth. In this first performance, the ’birds treated the piece like a precious, fragile object – like life itself.