The sextet eighth blackbird is among several music groups that have revitalized chamber music performance. Inspiring comparisons to the Kronos Quartet, they have earned a reputation as interpreters of works by modern and contemporary composers such as Frederic Rzewski, Joan Tower, George Perle, Daniel Kellogg, and George Crumb. In some instances, composers have written music commissioned by the group for world premier performances and recordings.
The chamber music group eighth blackbird takes its name from the Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The eighth stanza reads: "I know noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms;/But I know, too,/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know." In addition to the renown the group has received as interpreters of modern composers, they have also won critical accolades for their dynamic performances. In these performances, the group members move freely about the stage in casual dress, perform choreographed movements, engage in spoken narration, and incorporate elements of rock and jazz improvisation. These elements, enhanced by the group's sense of playfulness and their youthful vitality, have enabled them to engage younger audiences and demonstrate that chamber music can be entertaining as well as culturally enlightening.
The members of eighth blackbird came together at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1996. They entered the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition in South Bend, Indiana, in May of 1996, and took home first place honors. According to Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press music writer, "Festival artistic director James Tocco has never forgotten the jolt he got when he slipped the audition video into the VCR. [Tocco recalled,] 'The tape said 'Eighth Blackbird,' and I didn't know what the hell it was…. It gave a list of composers, most of whom I hadn't heard of. But I tell you, it was amazing. From the first minute these kids started playing, it was just riveting. There was this strong sense of identity, commitment and ensemble.' Tocco was so impressed with the group at the festival that he arranged for a three-year residency at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where Tocco holds a faculty position." The ensemble became a full-time entity at the University of Cincinnati, where they received rehearsal space, money to commission original works, and, according to Stryker, "three years to woodshed music and hone … artistic ideas."
The group members eventually earned degrees in music performance from Oberlin, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The six musicians—pianist Lisa Kaplan; percussionist Matthew Duvall; violinist Matt Albert; cellist Nicholas Photinos; flutist Molly Alicia Barth; and clarinetist Michael Maccaferri—became the first contemporary ensemble to win, in 1998, first prize at the Concert Artist Guild International Competition. Their performance at the festival also netted the group a Channel Classics Recording Prize. They subsequently earned the Rockport Chamber Music Festival Prize the same year. Their first release, Round Nut Tool, was commissioned by AT&T Research Labs to assist in its efforts to develop new digital compression technology for Internet downloading purposes. Round Nut Tool was recorded in Oberlin's Finney Chapel by engineer Michael Schulze, and included interpretations of works by Fred Lerdhahl ("Fantasy Etudes"), David Lang ("cheating, lying, stealing"), and Jacob Druckman ("Come Round"). The album also featured movements from Thirteen Ways, a 1997 composition by violinist Albert's father, Thomas Albert. The composition was a musical adaptation of the Wallace Stevens poem that provided the group with its name, and was revisited on eighth blackbird's Cedille label debut, Thirteen Ways.
The late 1990s were marked by the group's winning first prize at the 1997–98 CMA/ASCAP Awards, for Adventurous Programming/Touring Ensembles. They also received honors at the Coleman Chamber Music Competitions. As the group progressed into the 2000s, they performed nearly 50 concerts each year at festivals and on chamber music series across the United States, including the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Hot Springs Music Festival, Hampden-Sydney Music Festival, Grand Valley State University Celebration of the Arts, and Shenandoah Performing Arts Camp.
By the time they released Thirteen Ways in 2003, eighth blackbird had become an extremely hot concert ticket in cultural centers around the United States. Featuring selections written by Joan Tower ("Petroushskates"), George Perle ("Critical Moments"), David Shober ("Variations"), and Thomas Albert's "Thirteen Ways," the recording prompted Molly Alicia Barth to write in the liner notes: "None of these pieces is long or drawn-out; each says what it needs to in a poignant and meaningful way, and then moves on. The various colors and harmonies of each work feed off of and complement one another." Barth also explained the creative impetus for Albert's Thirteen Ways: "Tom Albert knows us (especially Matt, his son) and our playing styles quite well; for instance, he knows of Matt's love for soaring and meaningful melody, so he incorporated that into many of the movements." The piece begins its thirteen movements with spoken excerpts from the Wallace Stevens poem, and also makes a passing musical reference to the Beatles' song "Blackbird."
The group's follow-up, Beginnings, included Divine Mysterium by Daniel Kellogg and Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) by George Crumb. Both pieces deal with theories of how the world began; Kellogg's from a Christian perspective and Crumb's from the scientific perspective of the "Big Bang." The Kellogg piece featured the vocal group Chanticleer in an updated version of the Advent hymn "Of the Father's Love Begotten," which adapted lyrics from the Christian mystic Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413).
In 2005 eighth blackbird released Fred, which contained three compositions by Frederic Rzewski. One of these, Pocket Symphony, was composed in 2000 exclusively for the ensemble. The album also included Rzewski's Les Moutons de Panurge, inspired by the literary character created by Francois Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel. Consisting of 65 notes, the players play individual notes until the piece's melody is revealed. The players then eliminate one note at a time until only one note remains. The difficulty of the piece forces players to improvise; in fact, players are encouraged to follow the musician who makes the first mistake.
To enable the musicians freedom of movement, eighth blackbird members memorize all the pieces in their repertoire. By unanimous vote, the group selects the pieces to be memorized. "Choosing the repertory is really important to us," Duvall told Allan Kozinn of the New York Times. "A lot of new-music groups try to stack up premieres, but playing premieres isn't our mission. Our mission is to find pieces that we love and are passionate about, and to play them for audiences many, many times at the highest possible caliber. If we don't like a piece that much, we're not going to invest the time to memorize it and stage it and play it 40 times. So we don't do that. We learn pieces with the intention of living with them for a long time."
Round Nut Tool, self-released, 1999.
Thirteen Ways, Cedille, 2003.
Beginnings, Cedille, 2004.
Fred, Cedille, 2005.
For the Record …
Members include Matt Albert (born on October 14, 1974, in Winchester, VA), violin, narration; Molly Alicia Barth, flute; Matthew Duvall (born on March 5, 1971, in Detroit, MI), percussion; Lisa Kaplan, piano; Michael J. Maccaferri (born on January 25, 1973, in Plymouth, MA), clarinet; Nicholas Photinos, cello.
Founded sextet at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, 1996; recorded album Thirteen Ways, 2003; recorded Beginnings, 2004; recorded entire album of Frederic Rzewski compositions, titled Fred, 2005.
Awards: Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, First Place, 1996; Concert Artist Guild International Competition, First Prize, 1998; Channel Classics Recording Prize, 1998; Rockport Chamber Music Festival Prize, 1998; CMA/ASCAP Awards, First Prize for Adventurous Programming/Touring Ensemble, 1998.
Addresses: Record company—Cedille Records, 5255 North Lakewood Ave., Chicago, IL 60640, phone: (773) 989-2515. Publicity—21C Media Group, Inc., 162 West 56th St., Suite 201, New York, NY 10019, phone: (212) 245-2110. Website—eighth blackbird Official Website: http://www.eighthblackbird.com.
Detroit Free Press, June 9, 2002.
New York Times, March 3, 2002.
eighth blackbird Official Website, http://www.eighthblackbird.com (September 23, 2005).
Additional information was taken from the 21C Media Group press releases, liner notes for Thirteen Ways, Beginnings, and Fred.
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