Composing music is a solitary activity; so is playing of musical instrument, unless the musician belongs to an orchestra or a chamber group. And yet a group of six young composers, members of the collective Sleeping Giant, and an ensemble of six new-music players eighth blackbird collaborated to present an intriguing new work Hand Eye at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, and the result was both fascinating and frustrating at the same time.

eighth blackbird © Saverio Truglia
eighth blackbird
© Saverio Truglia

Hand Eye, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall, consists of six pieces of varying length by each composer, and is a result of inspiration each man received from an artwork belonging to the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation of Art, which co-commissioned the work. As if this was not complicated enough, what with six composers, six instrumentalists, and six pieces of musical work, eighth blackbird decided to combine music with visual art. The visual design by Deborah Johnson was projected on the back of the stage throughout the performance. Per the program notes, “the show’s fusion of live music and video design pinpoints the essential theme of connectivity”. 

Of the current six members of eighth blackbird, violinist Yvonne Lam was on leave and replaced by the founding violinist Matt Albert. The rest of the ensemble, Nathalie Joachim (flutes), Michael Maccaferri (clarinets), Nicholas Photinos (cello), Matthew Duvall (percussion), and Lisa Kaplan (piano) all brought enormous talent, versatility and musicality to the 75-minute performance. Often playing without a score and wandering around the stage with instrument in hand (except for the pianist and percussionist!), each player showed excellent technique to exploit the limits of his/her instruments while seamlessly blending into one another’s musical narrative. While some instruments, notably flutes and violin, were often prominently featured in a given piece, no player was ever primary or secondary but rather was an integral part of the whole ensemble. The musicians managed to achieve an ideal combination of virtuosity and harmony, undoubtedly through hours of individual and group rehearsals. Good connectivity indeed.

The six composers, men in their 30s, met at Yale and have maintained their collective despite their separate lives across the country. As explained during the pre-concert talk, their collaboration would be unthinkable without the tools of the internet age. Their conversation takes place mostly via email. And yet Hand Eye was a remarkably coherent and consistent flow of music, even though it was clear that the segments were composed by different composers. The first couple of pieces were rather subdued and contemplative, with middle pieces more energetic and fast, sometimes explosive. Sometimes the musical language became more familiar, almost jazzy; other times the music was more techno-like, while essentially maintaining melodic lines. The composers stated that their approach was more concerned with form and architecture rather than with “experiential” flow. The pieces were indeed tightly structured, including their order, moving from the quiet to loud, from the slow to kinetic, and then ending with descending volume and tempo. Thus the six pieces achieved an overall cohesion and left the listeners with a sense of experiencing a larger whole than individual parts.

The performance had an added layer of visual images which faithfully followed the music unfolding and often heightened the sensory experience. The images began in monochrome, black and white, and gradually added colors. At the height of the musical intensity, the colors were also vibrant and the images pulsated vigorously. At the end, the images returned to the initial image, a fuzzy and round black circle on white background. Stunning as they were, the images sometimes occupied too much of the audience’s attention, and there was the sense that the music was the background to the visuals rather than the other way round. Or perhaps one’s concentration on the modern music could only be sustained with an aid of some other stimulus in this case visual.

Whatever is the answer, while each element of the performance, the instrumentalists, the composition, and the visual image, was superb and original, I was left wondering how I might have experienced the performance if it had been just a group of six players performing the new music for 75 minutes on stage with no movement, and with no visual images flashing behind. But then it would not have been the interaction of technology and live performance as it was intended to be.