Bird Calls

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:12

    THE CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL music performed by eighth blackbird is regularly acknowledged as ideal for the iPod generation: Eclectic, comprehensive, loosely defined, approximating an infinite number of genres. Only flutist Tim Munro prefers to explore an analogy that’s a tad more archaic. “Have you ever been on a road trip and just felt like exploring all the radio stations in that particular area?” he asks. “You go from channel to channel, hearing all these different types of music, one exotic sound giving way to another.That’s what I like to think the compositions we play are like.”

    Critically extolled and Grammy winning (in 2007 for Best Chamber Music Performance), the Chicago-based ensemble plays music steeped in classical traditions, yet shaped by a broad palette of modern artists and influences. “It’s nothing like Mozart, yet if Mozart didn’t exist, this type of music wouldn’t either,” one member articulated in a recent interview. Since its founding in 1996, eighth blackbird has commissioned and recorded new works from a variety of contemporary classical music composers.The group has also commissioned pioneering pieces from a younger generation, including Jennifer Higdon, Stephen Hartke, Daniel Kellogg and Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez.

    On Nov. 13 and 14, eighth blackbird will take the stage at The Kitchen, joined by six students from its alma mater, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.The 12-player ensemble will present Rzewski’s Knight,Death and the Devil,which explores songs associated with warfare, and Reich’s Double Sextet, composed for eighth blackbird and never before performed entirely live (the group has performed it in the past, but with pre-recorded excerpts).

    “This is music we get a real charge out of,” says Matt Albert, viola and violin player. “With Reich, you have an artist who creates beauty with patterns, repetition and minimalism. And Rzewski’s approach to form is so completely outside the box.We couldn’t be more thrilled to be involved with their work.”

    The eclectic chamber ensemble took shape in 1996 at Oberlin College, the brainchild of Tim Weiss, director of Conducting and Ensembles at the school. Struck with an unbridled verve for contemporary classic music, Weiss’ invaluable mentorship is frequently lauded by members of the ensemble. “Tim Weiss was the inspiration,” Albert says. “He’s the one who helped develop this passion we all had: this passion for chamber music.Through his guidance, we’ve been fortunate enough to make a career out of what we love doing.”

    It’s a career based on cultivating creativity.The performances of eighth blackbird are lauded for their unique theatricality; the group has worked with noted New York choreographer Susan Marshall to enhance its performances with integrated movement. (In keeping with such inventiveness,The Kitchen performances will incorporate multimedia interpretations of Reich’s Cello Counterpoint.)

    Perhaps the most original aspect of eighth blackbird’s performances is that the group goes conductor-less—a distinction that’s rare for mixed instrumentation groups. Subtlety and simplicity are the sextet’s tools, as each member will take the lead, supplying a quick wink here or a slight nod there. “They’re signals the audience doesn’t typically pick up on,” Munro says. “A little gesture, and everyone knows to either stay together or let the beat fall apart.”

    The musicians in eighth blackbird can pull off such proficiency thanks to years of collaborating. Albert was quick to highlight the group’s residencies (at the universities of Chicago and Richmond), and the opportunities they create in terms of honing skill and chemistry. “All the rehearsing and studying we’ve done... it doesn’t just give us a sense of familiarity with all the parts of a score. It also creates a sense of shared responsibility and communal spirit between members of the group.”

    As for the music, eighth blackbird is more comfortable letting that speak for itself. Partly because of the difficulty in trying to verbalize the energy, depth of diversity and complexity found in its performances—qualities that help forge a connection with audiences, often provoking them to explore new music of similar veins.

    “One week we’re doing a piece by a rock drummer,” Munro says. “The next week a piece by a guy who’s done nothing but study the scores of 16th-century vocal composers. Then someone with a background in jazz. The music we’re doing is in the classical tradition, but it’s part of an amazingly rich heritage. Basically anything goes—and it’s great.”

    -- eighth blackbird Nov. 13 & 14, The Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 212-255-5793; 8 --