January 16, 2004

eighth blackbird provides a reason to forget the seventh and sixth

There is almost never a question about what a listener should expect regarding the virtuosity and playing capabilities of eighth blackbird. Not only are their individual skills as instrumentalists mind-blowing, but their ability to function together as a coordinated unit reveals an incredible musical understanding by each one of their members. The music they play would be a challenge for a conductor to put together; that they are able to perform such thorny scores and without any outside direction seems almost superhuman.

That said, Tuesday evening's concert was no disappointment. The program—Fitzell's Violence, Chen Yi's Qi, Steven Mackey's Indigenous instruments, and Arnold Schoenberg's seminal Pierrot lunaire—all showcased their unique talents well.

When any concertgoer sees a piece with a name like Violence on a program of contemporary music, there are certain assumptions that go along with it. Many automatically associate contemporary music with aggression and atonality, so a piece with such a descriptive name would be expected to conform to those assumptions. In his concert notes about the piece, however, Fitzell writes, "My concern was not with artistic representations of violence, but with violence inherent to the very structure of the art object."

Fitzell's piece opens with textures full of highly resonant sonorities and subtle plays of timbre (including, at one point, three of the musicians playing water glasses). This leads into a mock "fight" between the clarinettist and flautist. Emphasizing this moment with their typical use of stage action, Molly Barth (flute) and Michael Maccaferri (clarinet) played this duet (which included toneless key clicks and violent air whisps) with verve and aggression. After the duet, the textures are muted and staccato—a marked difference from the opening of the piece. In this way, the composer creates "violence" through the form of the piece itself.

Chen Yi's Qi is another tightly constructed piece. This quartet for flute, cello, piano, and percussion flowed logically and seamlessly from texture to texture, often returning to a cello solo. Yi's highly rhythmic percussion writing culminated in an exhilarating solo for Matthew Duvall (percussion) on the bass drum and Chinese opera gongs. A very sonorous section followed the solo, dominated by low arm clusters in the piano and protracted tam-tam notes in the percussion.

Steven Mackey's Indigenous instruments had the particular distinction of being the only microtonal piece on the program. During the setup for the piece, pianist Lisa Kaplan gave a very approachable explanation of just what this means. The smallest distance between two notes on a piano is a half step. However, an infinite number of pitches exist between these two notes. In the case of Mackey's piece, he chose to divide his half steps in two, producing what are known as quartertones. These "notes between the notes" can be produced on string instruments and with alternative fingerings and instrumental adjustments on wind instruments.

Mackey has the string players "de-tune" certain strings by a quartertone to achieve his effect. In a sense, this piece was almost a guidebook on how to write a good quartertone piece. Very often, when their instruments are tuned in this fashion, musicians will automatically "correct" the microtonal discrepancies with their fingers and lips, and the effect is lost. Mackey's piece, however, does not allow them to get away with such transgressions—he frequently pits notes against each other that are a quarter tone apart, bringing out the intense dissonances that are inherent in the system.

The most noticeable scordatora tuning, however, was that the violin's G-string was tuned an octave (plus a quarter tone) below its normal level. The desired effect, Kaplan told the audience, was that it should sound like the low rumbling of a UPS truck. Luckily this was much more than a cheap gimmick—it became an integral part of the piece. This was yet another well structured and very fascinating piece.

Groups like eighth blackbird have one problem that other chamber groups and larger ensembles do not. That is, there are very few "measuring sticks" by which to test them. A symphony orchestra can prove its abilities with a Strauss tone poem or a Mahler symphony, pieces of standard repertoire by which everyone can judge it. In the case of this sextet (or quintet, as the case may be), Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire is about the only such work that meets these qualifications.

As expected, eighth blackbird more than proved their abilities in this work. They further proved that they could easily collaborate with an outside musician. In this case, it was mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley who gave one of the most stunningly accurate and moving performances of the work I have ever heard. Her voice seemed specifically designed for these songs. Her marvelous range easily covered the wide tessitura demanded in the score, with her deep low notes especially standing out.

I have, however, one or two complaints with the performance. At times, the instruments overwhelmed Ms. Bentley's voice. Such balance issues only arose during very loud passages, but more care could have been taken to make sure that the singer was always heard.

A matter of interpretation also concerned me. In the score, Schoenberg indicates very precisely how he wants the songs to flow into one another, with markings such as, "After the briefest possible pause, go on to …" These indications, which serve to group the songs together and create a larger sense of form, were rarely observed by the ensemble. Schoenberg often pairs a short song with a longer one to create a sense of balance. This was lost in the performance last night, replaced by a more fragmented feel.

Overall, this was yet another stunning concert by eighth blackbird. The University community should feel incredibly lucky to have this group in residence, especially for keeping the community at the forefront of new art music.