SONiC Festival – eighth blackbird at Miller Theatre

What a treat for the second night of SONiC Festival to get to see eighth blackbird at the Miller Theatre (@ Columbia University). I had been looking for this moment since the last time I saw them (especially after missing them at the Armory)… I was also curious to see the ensemble perform with their new member, violinist extraordinaire Yvonne Lam (a Curtis/Juilliard graduate): eighth blackbird is quite a unique ensemble on the contemporary scene and possibly a hard one to join. Saturday night’s program was called Fractured Jams after the eponymous piece by Dan Visconti, a title that suited perfectly this evening of music that broke down the ensemble on several instances.

The concert opened with Two Sides for sextet by Swedish composer Fabian Svensson. This antagonistic piece split the sextet in two trios facing each other: high pitched vs. low pitched. A game of question an answer quickly settled and since the material was pretty much the same in both camps (highly triadic) the piece moved to a rhetoric plane: a power struggle, with delightful frictions and dynamic contrasts. Somehow the two parts couldn’t reach an agreement and the performers left the stage one by one, leaving the stubborn piccolo arguing with the piano that eventually also gave up. One couldn’t help but notice how this piece echoed with the political context in the city or the country, from #OccupyWallStreet to countless GOP debates.

eighthblackbird Photography by Luke Ratray

One of the features that makes eighth blackbird one of the most sought after ensemble on the contemporary scene today is their assured theatrical approach to classical performance. A couple of pieces illustrated this dramatic vein: Pirouette on a moon silver for solo flute, for instance, had strong elements of pantomime and Commedia dell’arte, while Fractured Jams by Dan Visconti was almost a set of 4 scenes based on popular music playing or listening. As exciting and refreshing this can be, a balance is sometimes hard to strike and in Visconti’s piece, the music almost seemed like a minor element in the overall performance.

Caleb BurhansLullaby for Madeline brought a nice relief from the Harlequinesque schizophrenia of Pirouette. Written in two sections for solo marimba, the piece exposes a beautiful and delicate harmonic material in waves of tremolos before unwinding into a music box-like melody.

One the most surprising (and exhilarating) pieces of the evening was probably DiGiT #2 by Dutch composer Mayke Nas. Written for piano 4 hands—and the key word here is “hands”—this piece performed by Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall could have been performed by any other member of the ensemble, or should I even say, the audience. Nas has been reviving (since her 2006 piece Anyone can do it) the concept of audience-participation in the spirit of fluxus where completely unprepared players can actually perform pieces. DiGiT #2 is a rhythmic play on piano clusters that accompany a “pattycake” hand-clapping score between the two performers.

Timothy Andres by Jonathan Waiter

I was very much looking forward to Timothy Andres‘ piece Crashing through fences and I was not disappointed. Written for piccolo, glockenspiel and two kick drums the piece lies on some beautifully crafted melodic material supported by a simple harmonic sequence. The almost Copland-like lines were abruptly interrupted by drum kicks to suggest a tensed intimacy.

The program ended on a piece by French composer Bruno Mantovani commissioned by eighth blackbird, the Chamber concerto no. 2 for sextet. Lisa Kaplan introduced Mantovani as a composer in the footsteps of Boulez or Grisey and one could clearly hear the lineage in the dramatic shapes, or the timbral considerations. Even if the work was remarkable in his use of quarter tones, virtuosic solo writing, and amplitude, its unpredictability made it seem almost aimless…

Carefully curated program, impeccable performances, friendly tone, refreshing energy, … the list could be longer and still that is enough to prove that eighth blackbird is one of the more solid assets of the contemporary scene today. SONiC Festival hits the ground running, so catch up as fast as your can, or stay tuned for more reviews…

Thomas Deneuville, the editor of I care if you listen, is a French-born composer living in NY. Find him on Twitter: @tonalfreak