Eighth Blackbird: Our classical anarchists

By Deirdre Kelly

What defines classical music? A style, a form, a tonal language? No, the term encompasses such a diversity of these terms that it is impossible to derive a coherent definition from them. The instruments which play it? The consistency of the coincidence of certain instruments with classical music makes them a reliable identifying marker, but they do not define it. What defines classical music is its concept of the composer. What other category of music so segregates its conveyers from its creators, while continuing to revere the latter? The relationship between the composer, the performer and the music more reliably distinguishes musical categories from one another than does the music’s style, which is often diverse. Folk music? No composer. Rock? The performer is the composer. Teen pop music – who wants to confess to writing, “Oops, I did it again?”

The classical composer thus occupies a unique position in relation to the music and the performer. The composer’s music is and always will be his or hers. The performer makes every effort to realize the composer’s original intentions.The composer’s job is to write his music down such that it clearly conveys to the performer what he or she wants. There is also an expectation on the part of the listener that a piece of classical music is the creation of a composer which at a minimum bares his personal stamp, and ideally is an extension and piece of his very soul.

Thus, when Eighth Blackbird flutist Molly Barth self-consciously said before their concert that Eighth Blackbird is trying to redefine classical music, she wasn’t telling the whole story. Their manner of presentation does challenge the superficial aspects of classical music: their level of dress is informal by classical music standards, they make choreographed movements about the stage as they play. And if such were the extent of it, Eighth Blackbird could rightly claim to be redefining classical music. But Eighth Blackbird is in fact defying classical music, for the program of the second Contemporary Chamber Players concert of the year defied classical music’s concept of the composer.

Eighth Blackbird performed music by four composers early Sunday evening in Mandel Hall, but the audience heard only one work. The composers Dennis DeSantis, Roshanne Etezady, Adam Silverman and Ken Ueno constitute the Minimum Security Composers Collective (MSCC), a product of the friendship they forged during their years as graduate students at the Yale School of Music. They act as a collective by each collaborating with and writing a piece for the same ensemble or soloist. The idea of a professional collective of composers is innovative in classical music, being counter to the notion of the autonomous composer. The collective further challenges the classical concept of the composer by emphasizing the collaboration between the composer and performer. Dennis DeSantis, the only composer of the four present at the concert, says that he is often asked by musicians performing his music whether they are playing it the way he wants. His response is that it is not his music but their music, that the music becomes the property of the musicians playing it and that the way he imagined it becomes irrelevant. This attitude is antithetical to the concept of the classical composer, and so it is not surprising to learn that DeSantis is also deeply involved with techno and DJ culture, where such an attitude would be the norm.

Eighth Blackbird, intrigued by the notion of a composers’ collective, commissioned MSCC to write a work that would carry the notion a step further, from the level of the professional to that of the musical collaboration. The result was Di/verge, the combination of four movements by each composer into one large scale piece. To unify their work the composers decided on a particular chord which had to appear in every movement and wrote for the same instrumentation. With this scant starting material, the four went in wildly different directions. Each produced a piece in four movements and then turned it over to Eighth Blackbird, who synthesized the pieces into one large work by coming up with the order for and transitions between the movements. If dividing up a composer’s work and interspersing it with another’s were not composer concept defying enough, Eighth Blackbird in addition created transitions between the movements so seamless that it is not always apparent where one movement ends and another begins, thereby confounding the listener’s ability to identify the music with its composer and negating the very definition of classical music.

The success of Eighth Blackbird’s presentation of Di/verge thus depends on the listener’s willingness to accept music which, while presented in the classical milieu, is not classical. It is possible, though often only retrospectively, for the listener to identify where one movement ends and another begins because each composer has a distinctive musical language and threads common elements through each of his movements. Dennis DeSantis’s movements each made prominent uses of the woodblock at some point and stylistically reflected his familiarity with techno music. Roshanne Etezady’s movements were rhythmically driving and often repeated one pitch incessantly. Adam Silverman’s movements were based on the Beatles’ tune “Blackbird,” and were the most tonal and consonant of all the composers’. Ken Ueno’s movements were at the opposite extreme, being dissonant and dense. Ueno was also the only composer not to write four movements of equal length but one mammoth movement and three brief ones.

Ueno’s piece becomes the governing force behind Di/verge because its inordinate technical difficulty and irregularity draws attention to it. One of the movements is to be not performed live but played on a boombox on stage. As he explains in his notes, Ueno intended for the boombox movement to be played before the main movement so as to reverse the role of mechanical memory by presenting as captured on recording music which has not yet been brought into reality. Eighth Blackbird chooses to ignore this intention on the composer’s part (and justly so, as the ability to proscribe order was one of the composer prerogatives which Eighth Blackbird and MSCC set out to dislocate with this project), thereby changing the meaning of the movement from role reversing to role confirming. They also chose through their staging of the movement to comment on its oddness, perhaps even mock it. The moment, in fact, plays out the ambiguity which the redefinition of the relationship between performer and composer in an ostensibly classical music setting necessarily generates.

It was as if the performers were saying to the composer, “We shall perform your composition, but we shall do it our way, and we shall mock it before the audience because you tried to assert your compositional will where it did not belong.” While Eighth Blackbird clearly created their own meaning out of Ueno’s boombox movement, in doing so they opened a virtual dialogue with the composer which drew attention to him as autonomous creator whose intentions were here being defied.

Eighth Blackbird’s presentation of Di/verge is likely to confirm the classical concept of the composer for those audience members ingrained in the category, for during the course of the program they will be forced to expend a portion of their mental resources on identifying which composer they are hearing, and their judgment of the program is likely to be tinged by their failure or success at this task. Those audience members free from the need for the music they hear to be classical, however, are likely to enjoy the unity and variety which comprise the work as a whole, as well as Eighth Blackbird’s own creative personality which shines throughout. And perhaps Di/verge and other defiances of the classical concept of the composer can render classical music idioms appealing to those who feel more comfortable in other musical categories.