The smart and talented young players of the ensemble eighth blackbird performed what was surely the most imaginative chamber music program in Cleveland this season. Their concert, in the acoustically satisfying wood-paneled Waetjen Auditorium at Cleveland State University, was under the auspices of the Cleveland Chamber Music Society. It was a kind of homecoming for the eighth blackbird players (Tim Munro, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin and viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Doug Perkins, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano) who formed the group when they were students at Oberlin Conservatory, about 45 minutes southwest of Cleveland. Now based in Chicago, eighth blackbird take their name from American writer Wallace Stevens' poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”.

eighth blackbird © Luke Ratray
eighth blackbird
© Luke Ratray

Not only was the program imaginative, it was fun. Each piece on the program had something for the listener to grab hold of, which is not to say that the works were not challenging. But the music was not so abstract that there was nothing to be gained from a single hearing of music that was likely new to the vast majority of audience members. The players adorned their virtuoso techniques with superb musicianship and a lively stage presence.

Bryce Dessner is guitarist for the indie-rock band The National, but in recent years has turned his attentions also to composing concert music for such notables as Kronos Quartet and, among others, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One of his most recent compositions, the 2013 Murder Ballades, was commissioned by eighth blackbird. Its two movements are based on a genre of American folk music in which (to quote Dessner) “grisly details of bloody homicides are recounted through song.” Although folk music are never far away in the work, Dessner combines abrupt breaks in the music with minimalist gestures to create a heterophonic texture – at times the ensemble are playing essentially the same music but at slightly different speeds and rhythms, creating a complex sound world. The demands on the performers are extreme: in the second movement the cello joins the flute in complicated unison octaves. The precision here was breathtaking. The affair had the aspect of Aaron Copland on an LSD trip, an insane hoe-down, complete with foot-stamping.

eighth blackbird next presented a mash-up of two works, Tom Johnson's Counting Duets (1982) and four of György Ligeti's piano Études, arranged by Lisa Kaplan and Tim Munro for the ensemble. The two pieces have nothing in common, except the requirement of being able to count. John's four duets require the performers to recite, sometimes shout, numbers at each other, with elements of theater. Each duet moved around the stage and sometimes into the auditorium. There were elements of invented language, with the numbers being recited in various tones of voice: shouted, whispered, as interrogatives, as marching cadences. Interspersed with the duets were the etudes, artfully arranged to keep the essence of Ligeti's fearsomely difficult piano pieces, but spreading the terror throughout the chamber group. This musical combination was a brilliant idea well-executed.

Richard Parry is another multi-genre musician, as an instrumentalist in the indie band Arcade Fire, but also active as a concert music composer. Parry's Duo for Heart and Breath (2012) is a gentle work for viola and piano connecting to music the autonomous physical activities of the heart beating and breathing. The rhythms of the piano are based on the performer's heart beat: in three strophes, first, single notes repeated; then open chords; and finally more complex chords. Simultaneously the viola is playing much longer notes attuned to the performers breaths. The music was soft, ethereal, and, ultimately, deeply moving.

Australian composer Brett Dean's Sextet: Old Kings in Exile (2011), commissioned for eighth blackbird, is much more ominous and surreal. The three movements have a very wide variety of musical materials combined in complex development. The sound world is such that even when as common an interval as a major or minor third is played in duet between the clarinet and flute, it sounds foreign. It is similar to Bartok's sound world of mysterious “night music.” Even as at the end of a dream, the third movement suddenly ends with one dry chord on the solo piano.

Steven Mackey's Suite: Slide is extracted from a dramatic song cycle originally for electric guitar (played by Mackey) and eighth blackbird, with libretto by Rinde Eckert. The three movements of this suite were arranged just for the eighth blackbird ensemble by Mackey, who, like other composers on this program, has a background in rock and jazz and is a notable electric guitar performer. The music is entertaining, jazzy, sometimes with aspects of 1950s TV commercial music. The third movement was especially beautiful: lyrical, languid, with a steady pulse, but the rhythm constantly altered to be off the beat. At the end, the music fades away to nothing.