Monday, September 21, 2009

eighth blackbird: also appearing on toast

Here's the online review published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch… and here’s the detailed review, in program order, of the eighth blackbird concert, "Spam," at the Modlin Center on Wednesday, Sept. 16.

The concert began with “Twelve Hands” by Mayke Nas (2008), a work “for six players on one piano,” which I discuss in the published review. Musically, it’s rather forgettable. So many different things happen in such a short time that I had a hard time forging any emotional connections to it.

But it is a perfect piece to begin a concert, providing a kickstart to imagination. Who knew that running a credit card up and down the edges of the keys would sound like someone snoring… or whatever you thought it sounded like? Did you know a piano laughs when you tickle its upper strings? What next, and et cetera?

I was much more drawn in by the next piece, “Toward the Flame,” a work for violin, cello, flute and percussion composed in 2009 for 8bb by Newport News native Shawn Allison. The first movement, “Tun ‘Tawu” is characterized by spurts and runs, the second by slow glides and glissandos. The flute’s voice is prominent but not dominant. The instruments at times echo each other, although it’s not an exact echo—more like an impressionistic retelling of another’s phrase.

In a concert that seemed glutted with small musical gestures—short phrases, tight turns around small intervals—the third movement, “Atlas,” stood out with its larger, almost violent, gestures. I say “almost” because I can’t think of a word that fits right between “passionate” and “violent.” Music, like nature, defies language, as it should.

Program notes explain that “Toward the Flame” takes “inspiration from moths” and that Atlas moths have the largest wing area of any moth, “prehistoric in proportion.” Listening to this music, I had no trouble imagining the flashes of the Atlas moth’s wings as it soars through a Southeast Asian jungle, knowing nothing of passion, violence or beauty. I felt transported to a place just beyond rationality.

The last movement, “Chrysalis,” has a slow, pulsing feel and a drone-like cello. A caterpillar spinning a cocoon around itself has no knowledge of what will come, no idea that there’s any “after” to the darkness. The music closes quietly.

(I see from looking up Shawn Allison that he’s got two earlier compositions that use texts from Gerard Manley Hopkins—am fascinated already.)

I just couldn’t help myself: I actually thought the word “creepy” while I listened to Bent Sørensen’s “The Deserted Churchyards” (1990). Introducing the music, Tim Munro described it as a sort of “aural fog” achieved, at times, by the voices playing the same thing but not quite at the same time. There were moments this was a little disconcerting in a bad way—you know that tense feeling you get when you’re afraid a performer is slightly off?—but mostly it was disconcerting in a good, creepy way.

Similarly uncanny, the violin sometimes used a practice mute (I think) that produced a delicate buzzing sound. The work ended with Munro switching to a slide whistle that sounded just right with the tonal decay of the piano.

My mind boggles at the thought of the incredible focus it must take to perform this music. “Fog” is a good word to describe the mood of the piece, but the music itself was actually incredibly precise. At times, the musicians played so pianissimo my skin was crawling with the drama of it all.

“Spam,” by Marc Mellits (1995), finds a groove and chews it up. Syncopated rhythms (bearing a resemblance to rock the way Spam bears a resemblance to meat?) carry melodies through three stages. What begins laughingly morphs into a section of agitated minor tonalities. Then the music is mollified, gradually slowing and becoming pared away until it ends on a single tone. The ’birds played with affectionate irony, and be honest: isn’t that how you feel about Spam? This is music everyone should love.

(Warning: the link above will take you to a Monty Python video which has absolutely nothing to do with the eighth blackbird concert, although it was the inspiration for this blog post title.)

One minute into “Catch” by Thomas Ades (1991), I had an attack of the post-nasal drip—darn cheapo store-brand antihistamines—so I had to flee to the restroom to cough in peace. The lobby monitor’s sound wasn’t good enough to really hear the performance, but I did see some of the choreography.

“Catch” is written for piano, violin, cello and peripatetic clarinet. (You have to read that last bit out loud.) It’s music as school-game: the voices tease each other, pass notes, assert dominance. The clarinetist walks in and out, shoves his instrument into the personal space of the others.

I had watched this 8bb rehearsal video before the concert, and I really wanted to listen for how (if) the sound of the clarinet was changed by its movement around the stage—a Doppler micro-shift that would be, I guess—and how that sound affected the blend of sound as a whole.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Grazioso!” (2009) was generally inspired by the music of Led Zeppelin, according to the composer. I was listening for a Zeppelin-esque bass line, but there wasn’t really one—not that there should have been, but, you know, that was my other career choice, to play bass in an all-girl Zeppelin cover band.

In “Grazioso!” the bass clarinet was in such a low register I often had a hard time hearing it. I thought if Maccaferri sat away from the cello and the open piano (speaking of Doppler) that might help audiences distinguish the voices.

My first impression of the piece was of chaos, but then riffs emerged in solos or duets. This was probably my least favorite piece on first listen, but the first I’d give a second listen to, so as to hear Albert and Photinos nail some of the passages so fabulously again.

This was only my second eighth blackbird concert, so I can’t judge if its length of less than an hour of music, was typical, but I wished it had been longer. Not that $16 to $20 is outrageous for a ticket, but hey, why not love the fans and throw in an old favorite? The people who showed up by mistake already left at intermission. I heard the woman behind me “complaining” that the concert was over too soon. Next time, we’ll have to yell “Encore!” and see what happens.

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