Taking Flight With Eighth Blackbird

US group Eighth Blackbird make their Adelaide Festival debut in a one–night only performance of new classical music.

No doubt many will be unfamiliar with one of the groups heading to the Adelaide Festival courtesy of Musica Viva. From Chicago, Eighth Blackbird are new to this city but clearly a big noise in the US in what is generally referred to as the new classical or contemporary classical scene.

Over 20 years, this sextet has premiered hundreds of new works, including by Steve Reich (Double Sextet) and a clutch of younger new wave American composers, and has collected no less than four Grammys. Comprising flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello and percussion, they are known for their high level virtuosity and describe themselves as “a dangerous musical high wire act”.

To find out a bit more about 8bb, as they are also called, we asked the man responsible for bringing them out to Australia, Musica Viva’s Artistic Director, Carl Vine. A new music composer himself, of course, and founder years ago of a similar ‘Pierrot ensemble’ by the name of Flederman, he admires Eighth Blackbird highly, and recounts how he heard them right up close last year. “I went to one of their rehearsals, and they had me sitting in the middle of their ensemble. The music is quite complex and demanding, but they play with incredible precision – it was faultless. I am thrilled about them. They’re totally committed to what they are doing.”

Musica Viva’s courage in bringing out this group is not to be underestimated. Not since 2004 have we seen the organisation program an exclusively new music concert – in that year it was Triology. Vine explains why: “This is not being done lightly. We have new works in many of our concerts and particularly in our Huntington Estate festival, where we have a lot of contemporary groups. However, it is a completely different thing for one-off concerts. It’s just a fact of life that there is not an overwhelming clamour for new classical music.”

In their debut visit to Adelaide, Eighth Blackbird will be playing works by two leading lights of American new wave music, Nico Muhly (aged 35 from New York) and Bryce Dessner (40, who now lives in Paris). Vine says they bring together an unusual combination of styles that is “fresh and exciting without being overly intellectual – I have a problem with new music that is excessively intellectual, and this new breed of American composers hopefully heralds that new direction.”

Two intriguing items they play are Ted Hearne’s nerve-wracking By-By Huey, which paints a musical portrait of the drug dealer who shot African American civil rights activist Huey Newton in 1989, and a new piece by Sydney composer Holly Harrison with the amusing title Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup. “It’s like a lot of her music, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, but rather more inventive than Danny Elfman,” Vine wryly observes.

Stranded back in Chicago is one of the group’s core members and usual pianist, Lisa Kaplan – reason is she’s 27 weeks pregnant. “I have not missed one concert or tour in 20 years,” she says ruefully.

Can Eighth Blackbird be described as a ‘classical crossover’ group? The question naturally arises because their performances venture across so many borders that usual stylistic definitions don’t fit. But Kaplan demurs. “I am not a fan of this term,” she says.
“I suppose it’s because Eighth Blackbird has never liked to be put in any kind of box when it comes to genre. We are all classical trained musicians who revel in pushing ourselves to new, creative places.

“Whether that means memorising our music and moving around the stage to give a visual representation of the aural picture we are painting, or whether it means vocalising, singing, or acting in some of our highly staged productions – we are just trying to push the boundary of what chamber music is.”

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Similarly for the composers Eighth Blackbird chooses to team up with: they’re not the sort who hide away in ivory towers, but are instead out there playing as musos themselves in a variety of roles. “Bryce, Nico and Ted in particular have their feet in a lot of different worlds – indie rock, rap, electronica,” Kaplan says. “They perform with classical musicians, hip hop artists, performance artists and rock and rollers, among others. They are bringing their own diverse experience as performers themselves into their own compositions. I think it would be impossible not to do that.”

The result can be quite a roller coaster ride. Undoubtedly, Dessner’s Murder Ballades will be another highlight. This is a suite consisting of instrumental arrangements of actual murder ballads from the American Old West interspersed with original compositions that follow a similar vein. “The murder ballad is a genre that Bryce has been really interested in lately – the folky, often upbeat tunes are contrasted with grim and grisly lyrics of actual murders that took place acting as a sort of local news at the time, but in song form,” she says.

And what does Kaplan think of Harrison’s new piece about lobsters and turtles? “Quirky! She has a wonderful sense of humour. It’s highly sectional, changing character in unexpected moments, constantly keeping the players and as well as the audience on their toes. And she draws from her obvious love of popular styles. It’s so nice to be reminded that this serious art music we perform doesn’t have to be so serious.”

Other purveyors of new music might want to take, umm, serious note.

Eighth Blackbird
Adelaide Festival
Adelaide Town Hall
Thursday, March 9
adelaidefestival.com.au

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