Ensemble Music Society
Indiana History Center
Well, this ain’t “Home on the Range” was my first thought as six bright, very talented young musicians began their Ensemble Music Society-sponsored concert/presentation last Wednesday. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra already had done one music/visual arts fusion this season. But their performers did not step to the outer fringes of the galaxy as did these six, who call themselves “eighth blackbird”— named after the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” None of those in the well-packed Indiana History Center’s Basile Theater knew quite what to expect from a performing group with no caps in their name.
But then, neither did flutist Tim Munro, when he accidentally banged his head (as one of the peripatetic group) in the middle of My Twentieth Century (2002) by Martin Bresnick (b. 1946), a piece with accompanying poetry, the players-cum-readers taking turns being projected from backstage onto a screen as they read. With the house lights coming up and all the players disappearing backstage, the incident stopped the music, the presentation and the program for at least 10 minutes.
Finally, pianist Lisa Kaplan came out front to explain that in their 12 years of performing together, this was their first incidence of a head injury stopping the show. The rest then returned and picked up right where they had left off (including Munro), with a continuation of lines typified by: “I danced like a sumac tree in the twentieth century,” and “I prayed to the Son of Man in the twentieth century.” At the end of each three-line stanza, a reader repeated, “My brother died in the twentieth century,” which tied all the verses into a knot. All this as the balance of the six played catchy, minimalist-oriented music.
My Twentieth Century was the third of only four pieces on eighth blackbird’s program, all recently composed. These 30ish six delivered all four with peerless performer polish, pizzazz, a pittance of parody and prime-rated playing. Like the Kronos Quartet before them and the current Red Priest of London with early music, this is a group which makes new music more enticing by adding a bit of show biz to the dogmatic formalism that has engulfed the concert-going ritual throughout the 20th century, an environment in which only the classical standards best survive.
Billed as playing without scores, eighth blackbird cheated just a little: Those remaining in a fixed position in any one piece had their stands in front of them, including the piano. Of the most groovy groups visiting us, only Red Priest has completely done away with scores. In any case, the six selected sufficiently captivating music to make the evening a memorable experience — one finally producing an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Pianist Kaplan, flutist Munro, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos and percussionist Matthew Duvall first appeared with Pocket Symphony (2000) by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) — the most interesting piece on the program. The name (and not the music, which by then was all 12-tone) recalls Stravinsky’s final work, Requiem Canticles (1968), which he called “a pocket requiem.” Novel percussion sounds intermixed throughout Pocket Symphony with flashes of standard harmonies and piquant harmonic transitions — and silences, all traded among the players as they moved about, Maccaferri even scraping his clarinet’s bell across the floor.
Three of these players began the program with Musique de Tables (1987) by Thierry de Mey (b. 1956). Each was seated at a small table underneath what appeared to be his/her own canister-shaped sound enhancer. For 10 minutes they simultaneously emulated a jazz-drum solo with fists, fingertips, knuckles and nails pounding the table surfaces. Like every timbre in the other three pieces, these sounds filled the hall with precision and finesse — in this case rhythmic. And yes, the three had small-sized, almost invisible scores matching the table color.
Though the visual element contributed to a degree throughout the evening — eighth blackbird recordings should be DVDs and not CDs — it was most prominent in the finale: Mirrors (2007) by Tamar Muskal (b.1965). Cast in three sections, it featured real-time distorted images of two varying players projected on the screen, the distortions weaving in and out with something of a cadence. (They were not mirror images, by the way.) Not being a visual arts type, I had trouble deciphering the “meaning” implied here. Julianna Thibodeaux, where were you when I needed you??