Composer Philip Glass turned 75 on Jan. 31. The party continues this weekend in Cincinnati, starting with the wildly innovative, Grammy Award-winning sextet eighth blackbird’s appearance at MusicNOW on Thursday. Glass himself will join 8bb during the first half of the performance.
Glass’ chamber works are seldom performed in the major area concert venues, but even more rare is the opportunity to hear them performed by a world-class ensemble known for championing contemporary works.
“Our entire concert is a birthday present for Philip Glass,” 8bb flautist and spokesperson Tim Munro says. “When we knew we’d be collaborating with Philip, we decided to create a program with three compositions that represent three times in his life. We also have four pieces by composers influenced by Glass.”
When 8bb takes the stage, there’s no chance of nodding off. “Creative havoc” is how Munro describes a typical eighth blackbird performance, and the ensemble’s program for MusicNOW, which includes a world premiere by Nico Muhly, is no exception.
Muhly embodies creative havoc musically and in the flesh. The 30-year-old phenom’s projects range from ballet and film scores (like for 2008’s The Reader) to opera (Two Boys at the English National Opera in 2011) and collaborations with Antony and the Johnsons and Björk. Muhly had worked with 8bb on an earlier composition “and we were eager to work with him again,” Munro says.
“He’s such a bright spark — incredibly bright and fiendishly funny,” Munro continues. “He’s completely unhinged.”
Muhly worked closely with Glass as a copyist and an aspiring composer.
“My mission in writing the piece was twofold,” Muhly writes in the program notes. “First, to write 8bb the most fun piece possible for them. The second was to, in some way, tip my hat to Philip Glass, whom I admire broadly and deeply. 8bb have played so much fast, loosely repetitive music over the years; I wanted to refine this kind of material into its purest, most delicious form and point back to the ’70s, when Classical music perfected obsessive repetition.”
Glass will join 8bb for the earliest piece on the program, 1969’s “Music in Similar Motion.” According to program notes on the website of Glass’s representative, Chester Novello, the piece
“starts with one voice, then adds another playing a fourth above the original line, and then another playing a fourth below the original line, and finally a bass line kicks in to complete the sound. As each new voice enters, there is a dramatic change in the music.”
The notes add that the piece is an open score and can be performed by any group of instruments. Glass will play keyboards as the drama plays out.
Glass’s keyboard work “Mad Rush” (1979) and the instrumental variations “Knee Play 2” from the opera Einstein on the Beach (1976) are also featured.
Three other works demonstrate the enormous range of Glass’s influence on the new generation of composers.
Andy Akiho’s “Erase” won 8bb’s inaugural composition competition last year. Munro describes it as “very minimalist and very funky. We were so interested in the piece’s sonic qualities that we immediately took it on the road. This is a piece that would not exist without the example of Philip Glass.”
Munro calls Timothy Andres’ “Crashing Through Fences” a “very curious little work for piccolo and glockenspiel, with each one practically kicking one another.” The concert concludes with David Lang’s “These Broken Wings 3 (Learn to Fly),” a musical episode based on Baroque contrapuntal exercises and Glass-inspired rhythmic patterns.
Munro offers assurance to 8bb’s large local fan base that the group will definitely make it for this performance; the sudden cancellation of a January appearance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was a major disappointment for many. The original sextet met at Oberlin’s conservatory and, as CCM graduate students, gained a following as CCM’s Ensemble in Residence. A Cincinnati appearance is always a homecoming. According to Munro, the group can’t leave without stops at Thai Express, Skyline and at least one Indian restaurant on Ludlow.
But even Thai Express can’t compare to the experience of winning a Grammy. The ensemble won the Best Small Ensemble Performance Grammy in this past February for their recording of Steve Mackey’s Lonely Motel: Music from Slide.
“It was very unexpected and quite a thrill,” Munro says. “We all trekked out for the awards ceremony. After we won, we were whisked away to the caverns of the Staples Center where we were photographed and interviewed and photographed and interviewed. And then we were escorted out.”
“We were famous for 45 minutes,” he laughs, “but we went to the big ceremony and it was really impressive.”
performs with Philip Glass at MusicNOW Thursday at Memorial Hall. Tickets: musicnowfestival.org. See more MusicNOW coverage on page 24.