Flipping the 'Bird

Acclaimed ensemble eighth blackbird continues to shatter Chamber music expectations

Jan 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The new year for Chamber music opens with strings. And flutes. And clarinets, prepared piano, flexatones, harmonicas, bongos and cowbells.

That’s standard operating procedure for eighth blackbird, the wildly innovative, Grammy-award winning sextet acclaimed as the country’s premier contemporary music ensemble. Acknowledges flautist Tim Munro, “We like to wreak havoc in a creative way.”

The group makes a welcome return to Cincinnati with Meanwhile…, a program of five works by established masters and exciting young composers, all but one commissioned by eighth blackbird. Expect that grand diversity of sound to be accompanied — literally — with eye-catching details, wit and irreverence, and performed with consummate artistry.

Meanwhile… gets its name from Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays (2007). Munro describes both the program and the composition as “a magical mystery tour.” Each of the six movements “open onto different landscapes with different tonalities and different combinations of instruments. That’s our program as a whole.”

Missy Mazzoli’s “Still Life with Avalanche,” from 2008, “is a pile of melodies collapsing in a chaotic free fall,” according to the composer. Just shy of her 30th birthday, Mazzoli is widely sought after as a composer and soloist throughout the world. Indie Rock is a major influence on her music, she says.

George Perle’s “Critical Moments 2” (2001) pays tribute to the doyen of new music who died in early 2009. Munro recalls that Perle was the first eminent composer to write for them, and the nine short, highly individualist pieces will be played from memory. Although eighth blackbird has played the work since 2001, Munro admits that “it’s a hard knot.” But what’s missing on the music stands is more than made up for by “the intensity of our interactions.”

Also performed from memory is Thomas Ades’ “Catch” (1991), a musical game of monkey-in-the-middle for four performers, one of whom really gets into the action.

The program highlight is Steve Reich’s “Double Sextet” (2007), co-commissioned by the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music’s “Music X” series and awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Originally written for a sextet playing against a recording of themselves, six CCM students will join eighth blackbird for the local premier of the live version.

“Collaborating with other musicians — the next generation of Chamber musicians — is an enormous rush,” Munro says, “and this piece is 500 percent better live.”

Midway through its 14th concert season, eighth blackbird returns to familiar territory. They met as undergraduates at Oberlin Conservatory and honed their ensemble skills in CCM’s Artist Diploma program from 1996-99. Munro joined in 2006. A native of Australia, he also studied at Oberlin.

Having played all over the world, eighth blackbird spends more than half the year on tour. Since 1997, they have commissioned more than 80 compositions, recorded four albums and racked up major prizes, commission grants and a Grammy in 2008.

What counts for the group’s burgeoning audiences is the unique performance art. The performers’ sheer exuberance and affection for the music is as much a draw as the music itself. The two are inextricable, Munro asserts, the Down Under persona emerging.

“That’s our reason for existence,” he says, “incorporating drama and movement into it. People apologize for new music: You’d bloody well get it or you’re an idiot. We want everyone to love it.”

Munro adds that eighth blackbird is taking baby steps in fulfilling its mission to make new music experiences relevant and entertaining to all audiences. Major strides is more like it.

EIGHTH BLACKBIRD are presented by Chamber Music Cincinnati at 8 p.m. Jan. 12 at CCM's Corbett Auditorium on the University of Cincinnati campus. Get show, venue and ticket details here.