There aren’t many contemporary music groups that have made a name for themselves and left a mark worldwide. Now, I’m not talking about pop music groups, rather, groups that specialize in today’s cutting-edge of sonic art. Most commonly they are regional or university ensembles who don’t get much attention beyond their own locality. It’s unfortunate, because they bring us music that reaches farther into unexplored territory than more popular forms. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “OMG, not that boring, longhaired shite. I don’t get it—I don’t like it.” This reputation is also unfortunate, because not all new music is so foreign and bizarre that you couldn’t relate to it. Much of it has elements easy to swallow and mixes a good blend of the novel with the known. Most of the music they’re playing is by living composers (not Old Dead Europeans) who consciously bridge the gap between pop music and classical, between formal styles and the wildest of the avant garde. These bridges pave the divide between what you currently know, your musical comfort zone, with curious new and exotic territories that will grab your imagination and pull it apart. They will lead your mind into places you’ve never heard and pop you with a shot of arousing auditory stimulation.
The first that comes to mind, a name many may recognize, is the Kronos Quartet. They’ve been building bridges through live performances and dozens of recordings for decades. But I want to let you in on one of my favorites, a younger ensemble, not as well known, who blazes trails : eighth blackbird. They take the virtuosity of Kronos, the daring of Hendrix, the audacity of Stockhausen, and the whimsy of Weird Al Yankovic, inject it into a particle accelerator and smash it all together. Think about that for a minute. With those strange imaginary animals floating in your head, you’ve got a sidelong glance at what to expect.
Since its beginnings in 1996, eighth blackbird has been commissioning and performing groundbreaking music in a genre that has no name. What do you call current music that isn’t pop, jazz, world, new age or some other subcategory? Modern classical or contemporary classical doesn’t cut it. It’s not classical music. Classical refers to a particular style from a specific time period, the late 18th to early 19th century (ODEs). There’s nothing classical about it. Other terms that have been thrown about, post-classical, concert music, post-modern, avant garde, experimental, legitimate or serious music, don’t fit the bill either. You could probably come up with more than thirteen ways to name it. None of them are good enough. There’s a fault or inaccuracy, misleading connotation or vagueness in every one. The term needs to be broad enough to cover a large territory, and yet able to distinguish it unambiguously from other contemporary genres. I’m inclined towards simply calling it contemporary art music (still flawed). Anyway, eighth blackbird is an art music ensemble of six musicians which doesn’t fit into any standard ensemble format. It includes; Tim Munro, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets ; Matt Albert, violin & viola (Albert was a founding member. He’s recently left for a position as visiting artist-in-residence at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts); Yvonne Lam, violin & viola (Albert’s replacement as of earlier this year); Nicholas Photinos, cello & bass ; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano. They are busy, as an ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago and the University of Richmond, performing across the US and worldwide, currently touring Australia, and making waves wherever they go.
But what about their music? Each of their recordings has its own flavor. One common thread crisscrossing the lot is fearlessness. The music they choose to perform is always high on energy. It heads on a collision course with rhythm and always strung high on a wire. Polystylism would be a fair term to use, but its too cerebral to capture their spirit. Their music has something safe to latch onto along with something steeped in traditional 20th century academia, yet there’s still much more to it. Pulling in influences, no, more than merely influences, it’s embracing and elevating elements from the entire world of sound to stretch the self-limiting barriers of academic music. A music created to open ears, your ears. And they do it with conviction. Best of all, this amalgam makes for a music ready for listening. Through its rich textures, abundant contrasts and ever changing soundscapes of sonic iridescence it blends the familiar with refreshing innovation.
I realize this may not be getting you any closer to understanding their music or spur you to give them a try. I could make many comparisons to other musicians, composers, and recording artists, but it still won’t get you much closer. I suggest you go out on a limb. Rent a room in a lonely motel and slide into one of their recordings. Where to start? Out of their eight recordings I’d suggest testing the waters with one of the five offerings on the Cedille label. You’ll find their character well represented—exciting music, excellent performance, and exquisite recording quality. Go stretch your ears. [cedillerecords.org]
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