Eighth Blackbird, the Chicago based ensemble tours to Sydney for Musica Viva performing music from its prizewinning albums Filament and Hand Eye with a world premiere by Sydney composer Holly Harrison.
The sextet celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2016 with a fourth GRAMMY for Filament, Chamber Music America’s inaugural Visionary Award and the title of 2017 Ensemble of the Year from Musical America.
Founded in 1995 at Oberlin College, Ohio, this ensemble has become one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary ensembles under the unusual name Eighth Blackbird named after a stanza in the early 20th century American writer Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. Its eighth stanza talks about ‘lucid, inescapable rhythms.’ Since then, Eighth Blackbird has commissioned and premiered hundreds of works, often playing intricate scores entirely from memory.
The ensemble for this fourth tour to Sydney comprises cellist Nicholas Photinos, flautist Nathalie Joachim, clarinettist Michael J Maccaferri, violinist Yvonne Lam, percussionist Matthew Duvall, and pianist Adam Marks on this tour.
Speaking of the repertoire, Nicholas Photinos says “Bryce Dessner, guitarist of The National, wrote a piece for us called Murder Ballades. It takes a strand of American music from the 1900s in which pretty melodies and conventional tonality accompany lyrics about gruesome murders and other horrific things that happened in the old west. Sometimes they’d be rather sad melodies, but often very happy!”
“New York composer Nico Muhly is a great friend of ours,” he continues. “He wrote a piece for us called Doublespeak, which was on the Filament album. Nico used to be a copyist and arranger for Philip Glass but I wouldn’t call this a minimalist work. It’s very energetic, winding down to a conclusion that sounds almost mystical.”
Two other works were created with the composers’ collective, Sleeping Giant. “Ted Hearne’s music has a certain grittiness, and the piece he wrote for us, By-By Huey, is dominated by a piano ostinato. It breaks out into a jazzy solo, which sounds improvised, yet is written out amazingly well. Timo Andres’s Checkered Shade is on an almost symphonic scale. It’s a huge sound, not only physically, but emotionally. It really grabs you,” says Photinos.
Sydney composer Holly Harrison has also written a new piece for the tour. Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup is inspired by chapters nine and ten of Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The main characters are the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, both composites of different animals. “I see these chimeras as a metaphor for the amalgam of musical styles in the piece; rock, jazz, metal, hip-hop, pop, blues and funk,” says Harrison, who won praise for her recent work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows, Ensemble Offspring and others.
The programme: NICO MUHLY Doublespeak/ BRYCE DESSNER Murder Ballades/ HOLLY HARRISON Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup (World Premiere*) / TED HEARNE By-By Huey/ TIMO ANDRES Checkered Shade
*Commissioned for Musica Viva Australia with support from Geoff Stearn and the Hildegard Project
ARTISTS: NATHALIE JOACHIM flutes/ MICHAEL J MACCAFERRI clarinets/ YVONNE LAM violin & viola/ NICHOLAS PHOTINOS cello/ MATTHEW DUVALL percussion/ ADAM MARKS piano