eighth blackbird: Filament
Cedille Records

As a word, filament descends from the Latin filum (“thread”) and refers in English to thread-like structures of various kinds, whether it be an electrical filament in an incandescent light bulb or a biological chain of cells connected end-to-end. Such thread-like connections are very much present on eighth blackbird's 2015 release, which recently brought the Chicago-based contemporary classical sextet its fourth Grammy Award (for Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance).

Yet while the structural connectedness associated with the filament concept permeates the recording, perhaps an even better metaphor for the project involves the parts of an atom, specifically the nucleus and the electrons that surround it. That's because the center out of which much of the recording's material derives is Philip Glass's Two Pages, here represented by a live performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Those whose works are also featured—Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and Son Lux (aka Ryan Lott)—have developed their craft under the influence of seminal figures such as Glass, Reich, and Riley, resulting in pieces that don't baldly ape the style of these precursors yet were certainly nourished by their fertile soil. Stated otherwise by eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro, “Philip Glass is the album's benevolent grandfather.”

eighth blackbird obviously isn't the only contemporary classical outfit operating today, with yMusic, NOW Ensemble, and Bang-On-A-Can All-Stars coming to mind as others. One thing that distinguishes eighth blackbird, however, is its purely acoustic instrumentation: in addition to Munro, the group as presented on Filament includes clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, violinist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nicholas Photinos, percussionist Matthew Duvall, and pianist Lisa Kaplan. eighth blackbird is no upstart either: the group, its name taken from a stanza in Wallace Stevens's 1917 poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” has been playing as a unit for twenty years, having begun in 1996 when six Oberlin Conservatory students banded together.

Dessner, a Brooklyn-based composer, guitarist, and member of The National, not only contributed the seven-part Murder Ballades to the project, he also produced it. Murder Ballades, like Muhly's Doublespeak a world premiere written especially for eighth blackbird, has its roots in the European murder ballad tradition, though the form also has come to be associated with America. Murder Ballades is comprised of chamber-styled songs, some exuberant in tone (“Omie Wise”) and others plaintive (“Young Emily”), that, to the composer's credit, satisfy as contemporary works whilst also evoking an earlier era associated with American folk music. The string players are seriously put to the test on “Brushy Fork,” but, regardless of whether the tempo is fast or slow, all six members are given challenging charts to work with. One also could be forgiven for being reminded of Julia Wolfe's Steel Hammer more than anything by Glass in this case (even if the last part “Tears for Sister Polly” possesses the mathematical elegance of a Glass piece).

One doesn't have to look far to find a connection between Muhly's Doublespeak and Glass: not only was the piece composed in 2012 for eighth blackbird, Muhly wrote it as an homage to Glass in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday; further to that, Muhly slips an excerpt from Music in Twelve Parts into the work's design. As rigorous in construction as Dessner's, Muhly's similarly draws for inspiration from minimalism's founders without being handcuffed by them. Though he might be looking back to an era when “classical music perfected obsessive repetition,” Doublespeak has more in common with the less restrictive later styles of Reich and Glass than their early ones.

Speaking of “obsessive repetition,” Two Pages, written “as a single unison line of music [that] can be played by any combination of instruments,” is emblematic of the kind of thing Glass was doing in 1968. With Dessner and Muhly sitting in on guitar and organ, respectively, eighth blackbird honours Glass with a faithful sixteen-minute reading that doesn't stint on the piece's obsessive quality. Mesmerizing the performance is, but it not only won't win over Glass's naysayers, it might make them all the more vehement in their rejection of minimalism of this extreme kind. Of less import are Son Lux's To Love and This is my Line, which part company with the other pieces in being remix-styled affairs that stitch bits from the album's other compositions into short collages, with Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) also added to the mix. Regardless of one's feelings about Two Pages, there's no denying Filament is executed with finesse and passion, so much so it would be hard to imagine anyone bettering the group's performance of Dessner's Murder Ballades.

April 2016