Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Review: eighth blackbird

Sept. 22, University of Richmond

The new-music sextet eighth blackbird has presented some formidable challenges to ears and sensibilities in its decade in residence at the University of Richmond. “Pattycake,” the program launching its 11th UR season, proved to be not exactly easy listening, but a good deal easier than usual for the non-specialist to absorb.

The program was anchored by two pieces about rhythm, freed from overlays of melody and harmony. Sean Griffin’s “Pattycake” (2007) tasks four performers with a physically complex take on the children’s hand-clapping game. Tom Johnson’s “Counting Duets” play numbers games, garnished with some tricks of dynamism and a bit of ballroom dance. Both were great fun to watch and hear. I suspect they were exhausting for the artists to prepare, but they seemed spontaneous and almost effortless in performance.

Johnson’s pieces kept unlikely company, being interspersed with four études by György Ligeti in arrangements by two members of the ’birds, flutist Tim Munro and pianist Lisa Kaplan. Kaplan’s treatments of the rhythmically driven “Fanfares” and “Entrelacs” (études Nos. 4 and 12, respectively) fit more comfortably alongside the Johnson duets. Munro’s enlargements of the intricately colored and deeply moody “En Suspens” and “Automne à Varsovie” (études Nos. 11 and 6), ingenious as they are, departed too far in tone and mood from Johnson’s droll rhythmic exercises.

An even less likely combination of pieces, which the ’birds call “Songs of Love and Loss,” combine “Duo for Heart and Breath” (2012) by Richard Reed Parry of the Montreal rock band Arcade Fire and Kaplan’s arrangement of Bon Iver’s “Babys” with Munro’s instrumental arrangements of 17th-century vocal pieces by Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo.

Parry’s duo, whose tempo is determined by pianist Kaplan’s heartbeat (she wore a stethoscope) and violinist Yvonne Lam’s breath rate, was in this performance a mellow and deliberately paced minimalist prelude. Lam played her violin with no vibrato; in the following Monteverdi, she played viola with ample vibrato – a reversal of historical and modern performance practices.

An even more radical reversal in this set: The early music is “hard” and the contemporary music is “easy” (relatively, anyway).

The Gesualdo arrangement underlined the eccentricity of this composer with bell-like and sliding/winding-down effects. Kaplan’s “Babys” arrangement – building on the insistent and gnarly groove of Bon Iver’s instrumental introduction to the song – returned to the steady state of Parry’s piece, with an intense, lyrical climax from cellist Nicholas Photinos.

Photinos also took on David Little’s “and the sky was still there” (2010) for cello and electronics, written for the violinist and electronica artist Todd Reynolds. The piece sets sections of an account by Amber Ferenz of her experiences as a closeted lesbian in the “don’t ask/don’t tell”-vintage U.S. Army to a sonically eventful and complex soundtrack. In this performance, amplified electronics overbalanced the cello (amplification is frequently troublesome in UR’s acoustically bright Camp Concert Hall), and parts of the narration were lost in the mix.

Rounding out the program, another chamber work with pop origins: “Number Nine” (2013) by Gabriella Smith, a thickly textured tone poem that rises out of, and eventually returns to, an instrumentalization of the rhythms and pitches of “number nine,” as it was vocalized and repeated before the song “Revolution 9” on The Beatles’ “White Album” of 1968.

“I also incorporated many other ‘Revolution 9’ references, weaving their collage fragments into ‘Number Nine’s’ continuously evolving arc,” the composer writes in a program note. The collage is so dense and the fragments so fragmentary that few listeners would feel able to hum along.

On first hearing, “Number Nine” struck me as a Platonic shadow (as in Plato’s allegory of the cave: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave) of the high-concept progressive rock song, complete with drum solo (which Matt Duvall mercifully dispatched in much less than a period-authentic 20 minutes). A pretty accurate shadow, I’d say – maybe even preferable to the real thing, at least for those of us who overdosed on the real thing 40 years ago.