eight blackbird push boundaries of performance

By Jesse Ma

Last Sunday at Mandel Hall, eighth blackbird, a sextet in-residence at the University of Chicago, proved that their music goes well beyond just the sound and into the realm of movement. The concert, which could have been just about the music, revolved to a large extent around the characteristic and brilliant choreography in each of the sixteen movements the sextet played, juxtaposed with the continuous musical action in each piece. The interaction between the performers focused the audience on the dominating theme at any given point in music: when the flutist, Molly Alicia Barth, and clarinet player, Michael J. Maccaferri, had a duet they would move deliberately closer to each other and at times even seem to dance together.

The sextet played a varied set of music, mixing and matching movements from four pieces, each with a different personality: Powerless, by Dennis DeSantis, Damaged Goods, Roshanne Etezady, In Another Man’s Skin, Adam B. Silverman, and Pharmakon, Ken Ueno. The order of the music achieved a seamless transition from movement to movement such that, if not listening carefully, the audience would only know the next movement arrived with a change in the melody or drastic change in the sound. The consonant and lyrical movements from In Another Man’s Skin stood out from the rest of the four pieces, while the Pharmakon distinguished itself with its brief movements. The cellist, Nicholas Photinos, and violinist, Matthew Albert, shared many difficult duets in these two movements employing different and interesting playing techniques, such as using the cello as an upright bass.

The common element shared among all four pieces was their modern sound, ranging from loud and sudden dissonant chords, figures and motives that would not resolve, and atonal movements, to “OXX,” the third movement of Pharmakon, performed by playing a recording on a boom box. But what really separated these pieces from other modern works was the fact that these pieces could be played in a variety of orders, and eighth blackbird succeeded in making it appear as if their order was the right one.

The contemporaneity of the music did not make the performance sparkle, but rather it was the performers. Walking away from the concert, what had impressed me most was the electric relationship of the group. Not once did the sextet appear out of sync with each other. The eye contact between the pianist, Lisa Kaplan, and percussionist, Matthew L. Duvall was so strong and vivid that at times I was so mesmerized by their connection that I began nodding my head in rhythm with theirs. Despite continuously moving around stage and often not facing each other, the players tackled the rhythmic complexity of each piece extremely well by incorporating the silence and space into the performance of the music.

Having toured extensively in the states and having quite an adventurous reputation, eighth blackbird, founded only in 1996, soared to new heights by pushing the limits in what defines a musical concert. The group transformed the music into kinetic motion on stage, engaging the audience in a new fashion. The evening of music and movement was delightful and refreshing to experience.