The ensemble eighth blackbird is one of the most provocative, mind-changing groups on the concert stage today.
The six players perform an electric choreography as they play music by the composers of today, and they do it entirely from memory. It’s part chamber music, part performance art. Most of all, it debunks the myth that new music appeals to only a few.
The Chicago-based group will return to Cincinnati to perform a 75th-birthday tribute for – and with – cult icon Philip Glass at the MusicNOW Festival on Thursday in Memorial Hall.
It’s something of a homecoming for the group, which just won its second Grammy Award for “Lonely Motel: Music from Slide,” a genre-bending theatrical-musical work. After forming in 1996, the ensemble spent three of their early years at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (1996-99).
“Very few places offer such a high level in chamber music. That’s something the group is very proud of,” said flutist Tim Munro, a native of Brisbane, Australia, who joined in 2006 as one of just two personnel changes in 16 years. “That enabled the ensemble to live, work, practice, fight and rehearse together for many hours each day. There was an incredible intensity that enabled the group to become eighth blackbird, essentially, to find its voice and to find its brand.”
It’s almost “an accident of history,” he said, that the group began to perform from memory, on the tongue-in-cheek suggestion of a coach. In their typically intense way, the musicians decided to take on that challenge.
“So from that small beginning, there was greater enthusiasm to work with people from theater, dance and film, and to do more things with electronics – basically to embrace the broadest possible definition of chamber music,” Munro said.
The six musicians – who also include clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, violinist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nicholas Photinos, percussionist Matthew Duvall and pianist Lisa Kaplan – will be working for the first time with one of their heroes, Glass. Their program will include Glass’ “Music in Similar Motion,” one of his “golden oldies” from 1969. Glass will play keyboards.
Munro admits to some intimidation about performing with the composer, regarded as one of the founding fathers of minimalism, because he has cultivated his own “Philip Glass sound.”
“We have limited rehearsal time, so it should be an exciting, seat-of-the-pants version. He seems happy to do that,” Munro said. “It’s been exciting to discover his music for our ensemble. I think that we’ve always been intimidated by his interpretations. It feels like his own world.”
In recognition of Glass’ birthday year, eighth blackbird will also premiere “Doublespeak,” a new piece by Nico Muhly, New York-based composer of classical music and film scores and an indie rock musician, who worked for Glass for several years.
“It’s fast and virtuosic, and weaves Philip Glass quotes into the texture as little presents. They sort of emerge or give little winks at the audience. It’s a very fun piece,” the flutist said.
Their formula for selecting new music is inventive. Because the ensemble’s members have “incredibly different musical tastes,” they look for a composer who interests some, but not necessarily all, of the players. At least two elements must stand out for everyone – craft and imagination.
“A composer might write in a particular style, but has a unique voice and something different to say. So even though it’s minimalist and romantic or a modernist piece, there’s something individual about that piece,” Munro said.
Now, more than a decade after leaving CCM, eighth blackbird is preparing to join the faculty of the famed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. For Munro, it is a confirmation.
“I think what it validates is our mission to try to forge trails for the next generation of young performers,” he said. “One thing we want to do is to show them all the ways they can be musicians in the 21st century. That’s something we did not necessarily get in our university degrees,” he said.