Eighth Blackbird: Hand Eye
Cedille Records

A fine follow-up to 2015's Grammy Award-winning Filament, Hand Eye distances itself from its predecessor by means of the concept underpinning the seventy-two-minute recording. In essence “a collection inspired by a collection,” the recording sees each of Sleeping Giant's six composers (Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, Andrew Norman) using a work of art from the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation as a motivational conduit for musical invention. It's an inspired strategy that affords the composers creative latitude whilst also ensuring that the project achieves cohesiveness; Hand Eye is thus marked by diversity and eclecticism without feeling like a patchwork of unrelated parts. Contributing to that impression of aesthetic unity are the performances by Eighth Blackbird, the Chicago-based sextet (Nathalie Joachim, flutes; Michael Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin and viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Lisa Kaplan, piano) that has developed over the past twenty years into one of the country's leading new classical ensembles.

Inspired by the patterned pen-and-ink abstractions of Astrid Bowlby, Andres' opening Checkered Shade pulses in classic minimalism style without hewing too stringently to it—more John Adams than Steve Reich, in other words. A robust energy drives its cyclical patterns, especially when the piece repeatedly expands from tiny cells into larger formations, and the description of its structure as a “gradual zoom outward” proves apt. At the album's tail end is another serene slice of post-minimalism, this one, Cast, by Cooper and inspired by Leonardo Drew's paper casts of everyday objects (e.g., dolls, trinkets, kitchenware).

Cerrone drew inspiration from two sources for his South Catalina: the blinding brightness of Southern California and rAndom International's interactive sculpture Swarm, which responds to sounds with blasts of asynchronous lights. Opening softly with wisps of shimmer, the piece gradually blossoms into a multi-hued landscape punctuated by increasingly agitated piano, strings, and percussive flourishes. Norman created his Mine, Mime, Meme in response to an installation piece by rAndom International whereby small, mirrored machines rotate to follow viewer's movements. Photinos leads the way here, with every sinuous line played by the cellist mirrored by the five other's expressions, and a bit of game playing develops when the followers grow increasingly adept at anticipating the cellist's moves.

Honstein was inspired for his three-part Conduit by an interactive sculpture by digital artists Zigelbaum and Coelho that involves the human body merging with computational processes in a cyborgian synthesis. As colourful and mercurial as the material featured on Honstein's late-2014 release RE:you, Conduit ranges between high-wire vibrancy and gentler contemplation over the course of its fourteen-minute journey. Hearne wrote By-By Huey after viewing Robert Arneson's painting Bye Bye Huey P., a portrait that shows Tyrone “Double R” Robinson, who murdered Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton in 1989, with a praying mantis superimposed over his face. Charging at times like an out-of-control train, Hearne's setting is one of the album's most ear-catching, especially when its take-no-prisoners sensibility lends the material huge momentum; it's nevertheless interesting to discover that its most memorable passages are ruminative ones featuring piano only.

It's telling that though a textually detailed insert is included in the CD package, reproductions of the artworks the composers drew upon for their pieces aren't shown. The decision to exclude such imagery was presumably deliberate, the implication being that the musical creations are so evocative they render the need for visual clarification superfluous. Regardless, Eighth Blackbird performs each piece with gusto, and certainly any post-minimalist composer would be thrilled to see his/her material taken under the outfit's wing.

May 2016