Wednesday, September 17, 2008

eighth blackbird + one = strange imaginary remix

As a volunteer usher at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Fast Forward series in 1994, I attended a performance by Philip Glass playing his own solo piano works. After the concert, the two women seated in front of me stood up and one said, “I have been a music teacher for 30 years, and THAT was NOT music!” The conversation continued in that vein, and I chuckled—but not too much. After all, I hadn’t really liked the music myself, especially since I’m not a huge piano fan to begin with. But I wasn’t… backwoods. Was I?

So I was a little nervous tonight as I attended my first-ever concert by eighth blackbird. What if I hated it? What if I couldn’t hear the music?

Eighth blackbird was joined for this concert, titled “strange imaginary remix,” by Dennis DeSantis on laptop. The premise that a musician on a computer belongs in an ensemble is a barrier I’m still tunneling through with a tuning fork. For one thing, the laptop musicians I’ve seen are so absorbed in their computers they can’t interact with the ensemble or the audience.

DeSantis was a little better in this regard, yet his position on the side of the stage, often behind the backs of all the other musicians, symbolically excluded him from the ensemble. (Plus, somebody needs to get that boy a higher table so he doesn’t hurt his back hunching over his keyboard, mad-scientist-style.)

DeSantis added sounds, clips, echoes, beats, notes and memories of notes to the music of the other instruments. I often found myself wondering if the sound I was hearing came from a “real” instrument or from the computer, but by the end of the concert, I was trying to figure out why I thought that mattered. If one sound is real, is another imaginary? Music, I guess, is sound that we imagine into sense.

Likewise, at first I thought it was entertaining to watch the musicians—oh, those antics over in the percussion! the gymnastics at the piano!—but eventually I just looked up at the ceiling. I wanted the music to find me, rather than the other way around.

Did it? Yes. It’s music I’m glad I heard. It’s music I will never listen to on a CD. It’s music I may want to hear again, but I’m not sure yet.

Sometimes I felt as if the music were looking back at its own tracks, only to find that it had been walking on ice, on which the faint impressions of warmth and force quickly disappear. Phrases were rarely sustained or shaped in traditional ways (i.e., good luck finding a melody), and forward momentum often didn’t seem to have a destination.

My favorite pieces were “Indigenous Instruments” (Steven Mackey) and “Friction Systems” (David Gordon), partly because I could recognize the passing of musical elements among the members of the ensemble and partly because both pieces are very tonally and rhythmically interesting.

Thanks to the program notes, I know that both used quarter-tone tuning. I thought this was especially effective in “Friction Systems”: the bass clarinet and cello sounded like one organism, acting on and being acted upon by an outside force.

The program notes also told me that Mackey called his piece “a kind of vernacular music from a culture that doesn’t actually exist.” Are the instruments are indigenous to the imagination? Or maybe the imagination is the instrument itself.

In any case, I’m pretty sure those ladies at the Glass concert couldn’t have imagined this music.

The full program: “Powerless” (DeSantis), “evanescence” (Gordon Fitzell), “Dollars and Cents” (Radiohead/Colnot), “Indigenous Instruments (Mackey), “strange imaginary remix” (DeSantis) and “Friction Systems” (Gordon).

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