The last time I saw eighth blackbird, they were responsible for injecting a little "high-minded severity" into last summer's Bang on a Can Marathon. That was also when I learned they'd commissioned a "combo piece" from Bang on a Can's founders -- Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and the recently Pulitzer'd David Lang. The Blackbirdians have double-billed this with another ambitious commission from Steve Reich, who is effectively the granddaddy of the Bang on a Can approach to classical music -- which is, in a nutshell, "less high-minded severity, more grooves."
This program , collectively called "The Only Moving Thing," was premiered three weeks prior in Richmond, VA, and they've also done it in Ann Arbor, San Fransisco, and Costa Mesa, before bringing the show to NYC for Thursday night's hit at Zankel Hall.
The Reich piece was a double sextet called (you can probably see this one coming) Double Sextet. It's in the lineage of stuff like Electric Counterpoint and Triple Quartet, wherein one or more live musicians plays against their own prerecorded backing tracks. But most of those works have a uniform palette to them -- Electric Counterpoint is all guitar (Pat Metheny, actually, in the original recording) and Triple Quartet is for string quartet and their recorded doppelgaengers. But the Blackbirds are a heterogenous flock (flute, clarniet, violin, cello, piano, percussion), which makes Double Sextet a very close cousin to Reich's Eight Lines for mixed double septet (4x violins, 2x each of violas, cellos, flutes, clarinets, and pianos). Readers of this blog are all really smart people so I'm sure it has not eluded your notice that you could easily play Eight Lines in the same manner as Double Sextet, with seven musicians playing live against seven prerecorded tracks. (Also, if you are wondering why a piece called Eight Lines is scored for fourteen musicians, see here.)
Eight Lines is one of my favorite lesser-known Reich pieces, and Double Sextet resembles it in more than just instrumentation. The engine underneath the hood of 2x6tet is an intricately interlocking piano-based perpetual motion machine, in this case assisted by mallet percussion. Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duval both have a crisp, consistent sense of pulse and a very sympathetic hookup, propelling the two fast sections that bookend the piece through a virtual minefield of time-signature shifts. The outer movements were satisfying, if a bit familiar: a methodical execution of pattern-based rhythmic processes, unpredictable on a micro level, but following exactly the trajectory you'd expect. However, the middle movement was unexpectedly lyrical, with a beautiful high cello and violin line that sounded like Reich channeling Piazolla. This is a good sound.
The harmonic sequence in each movement is based on some combination of D, F, Ab, and B (and/or their relative minors) -- this use of four equidistant key areas is similar to "Coltrane Changes" (i.e., "Giant Steps" and its offspring), which exploits three equidistant key areas. Reich is a Coltrane nut so I assume that's where he got this idea. This approach to pan-modalism is totally characteristic of Reich's music, but much of Double Sextet has a definite bite to it -- Reich doesn't go so far as to allow chromatic notes from outside the mode to infiltrate, but he does go out of his way emphasize the tensions inherent within each mode. There were a lot more minor second grinds in the sustaining instruments than you usually hear in Reich's music. This is also a good sound.
I did have one minor frustration when listening to the piece, which was that the amplified sound in Zankel was noticeably muddy. Colors that ought to have been bright and sparkling were thin and piercing, and timbres that should have been rich and resonant were dull and characterless. There didn't seem to be enough separation between the recorded tracks and the live playing -- the piano and mallets were clear, but little else was. Some of this may have been due to the live mics picking up bleed from the monitors -- I don't really know enough to say. I do know that I don't envy the Blackbirds' sound tech -- all of Reich's music which involves blending prerecorded parts with live players is extremely difficult to balance correctly, and those pieces tend to sound more satisfying on record than they do live.
The Bang on a Can "combo piece," singing in the dead of night, opens with a quirky, skittish prologue by David Lang (these broken wings part one), dominated by high-register timbres -- glock, piccolo, accordion, pizz cello at the top of the range, etc. This transitioned into Michael Gordon's the light of the dark, in which the cellist lays down a cascade of buzzsaw glisses and the rest of the ensemble alternately try to swat him with sudden clangs, or ignore him and concentrate on their own folksy melodic lines. It concludes with a great bit of staging (by choreographer Susan Marshall), where Matthew Duvall steals Lisa Kaplan's accordion and gets in her face with it while she tries to focus on the piano part.
eighth blackbird are known for their staging, and the most strikingly theatrical moments came during part two of Lang's these broken wings, a strung-out Handelian passacaille, during which clarinetist Michael Maccaferri was loaded up with metal objects and, with an expression of infinite pathos, began to slowly drop them. And Julia Wolfe's "episode," also called singing in the dead of night, began with some soft, dreamy piano-and-marimba figures, before Kaplan and Duvall abandoned their instruments to lay their heads down on a leaf-covered table with a contact mic strapped to its underside. (In previous performances, the role of "leaves" has been played by "sand" and "barley, quinua, & millet." Presumably the leaves are easier to sweep up, but they also seemed more metaphorically apt.) This bit of business is repeated several times, which some reviewers have complained about, but I saw it as setting the scene for an incredibly tender and unexpected moment when, during a later repetition, Kaplan sleepily reaches out and puts her arm around Duvall. (You get the sense she's forgiven him for having stolen her accordion earlier).
I thought the best music in singing in the dead of night was David Lang's epilogue (aka these broken wings part three). It opens with a driving, disjuct piano figure that sounds like a pixillated version of the "Tainted Love" chord progression, with slamming pedal bass drum hits, piercing piccolo stabs, and a complex interlocking groove. It made for an exciting close to a well-executed theatrical-musical work. I liked that the balance between the choreography and the musical materials was constantly shifting -- the more active music didn't require much movement to come off, but in the more spacious, atmospheric moments, the onstage action was allowed to take on a more important (and necessary) role. I was also genuinely impressed with how well the Blackbirdians executed the choreography -- everything looked purposeful and motived without seeming contrived or pretentious, and that's no easy feat.
Tickets to this event were provided by Carnegie Hall. Also, Tim Munro invited me to the post-concert hang, and I went.