Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Musical Sandcastles

Last night I definitely broadened my musical horizons. I went to a concert by Eighth Blackbird at the Kennedy Center, where I heard very contemporary music accompanied by performance art.

I went at the invitation of my friend Doug, whose son Sam is a professional musician in NYC in a group called Zs.

Eighth Blackbird is a group of 6 musicians who all graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory in the mid-90's. They played at least a dozen instruments over the course of the evening, ranging from the huge Steinway piano to an accordian to strings and gongs and even cans – yes, that would be metal cans.

The first piece was titled Double Sextet by Steve Reich, commissioned by the Kennedy Center. My first curiosity was how 6 musicians were going to be a double sextet. No problem: You simply record the first round of the piece and then play over top of the recording.

It was 22 minutes of music that never stopped. There were no pauses, no ritards, just a relentless beat. I can’t say it was unmelodic, although it didn’t leave me humming the theme during the intermission.

The second half was like nothing I had ever seen. It was a collaboration of David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe, entitled Singing in the Dead of Night. In addition to lots of instruments, there were collections of cans and other metal objects and buckets of sand. At certain points the metal things were dropped on the floor offering definite punctuation.

But it was the sand that left a lasting impression. Almost in the vein of sand trays in a therapist’s office, the buckets of sand were gradually dumped on a table mid-stage where the performers would stop to play in the sand, lie in the sand, letting the sand fall to the floor in particular spots in the music. Then they would get up, shake off the excess, and return to the rhythm of the piece.

Toward the end the lighting changed to cast long shadows of the players on the backdrop. And just before the end, everything became blue. Totally surreal.

This is the music of today, not the stuff of the old masters that makes up my piano repertoire. It takes a little getting used to, but it was obvious that Eighth Blackbird loves making this kind of music.

I’m just glad I didn’t have to clean up that stage once the sand-play was over!


Blogger Gary said...

Reading this post reminded me of seeing the musical group Pink Martini for the first time(without all of the sand). I didn't know any of their music but as the evening went on I became a huge fan. They were so innovative and eclectic with the choice of musical instruments and rhythms. If you have an opportunity check out their first two CDs and let me know what you think. Or if you are interested I could burn a copy for you. Just let me know. :)

11:49 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Gary -- I will definitely check out Pink Martini. It's nice to expand our horizons sometimes, don't you think? Sometimes just the enthusiasm of the performers is enough to win me over!

12:31 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

Sounds like a fascinating evening.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- Life would be dull if we all liked the same music!

4:02 PM  
Blogger mouse (aka kimy) said...

definitely will check this ensemble out - they sound fascinating....I enjoy being challenged at times by different types of music! and they are from oberlin, which of course is just down the road!

geez, I bet they do play in cleveland - but there's so much music here, I miss a lot!

5:52 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Mouse -- The program indicated Eighth Blackbird is in residence at the University of Richmond in Virginia and the University of Chicago, but I'm sure they all fondly remember Oberlin. Last night's ensemble actually consisted of 5 men and 1 woman, contrary to the photo I found. The name derives from the Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

6:06 PM  
Blogger mouse (aka kimy) said...

unfortunately eighth blackbird's site is down....hopefully it's just down temporarily.

fyi from wikipedia I found this:
"The ensemble deliberately spells their name in lower case." for what that's worth....

I'm quite fond of blackbirds (well mainly crows and ravens) so must look for the wallace blackbird collection!

9:51 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Sounds fascinating! Your descriptions really helped me imagine what the evening might have been like. I wonder if they're on YouTube?

11:48 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Mouse -- Here's the Wallace Stevens poem:

Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- I found eighth blackbird (Mouse -- Note lower case!) here and here.

1:06 PM  

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