HIGDON: Zaka; FITZELL: violence; evanescence; MACKEY: Indigenous Instruments; GORDON: Friction Systems; DeSANTIS: strange imaginary remix. eighth blackbird. Cedille 094. 72 minutes
Up front and no shit: eighth blackbird is good!
The Richmond and Chicago based sextet gives performances on strange imaginary animals of pieces that, in less skilled hands, might seem less substantial than they may be. The timbral resources of eighth blackbird (it is a Pierrot-plus-percussion outfit with Molly Alicia Barth on flutes (Tim Munro has since joined the group as flutist), Michael J. Maccaferri on clarinets, Matt Albert on violin & viola, Nicholas Photinos on cello, Lisa Kaplan on piano, and Matthew Duvall on percussion) are prodigious, and the composers on this disc fully avail themselves thereof.
The result of this is what might be called the “Kronos Effect”, where the music being played sounds like the ensemble, not the composer. It’s not necessarily that the ensemble playing the music imposes its sonic personality on the music, though I think the Kronos do that on occasion, but it may be that a composer writing for a group like eighth blackbird will be tempted to put their compositional personality at the service of the ensemble.
Jennifer Higdon’s Zaka is a good introduction to the music of this very busy composer. It bursts with rhythmic energy and instrumental virtuosity. It begins with a fast section, has a fairly lyrical middle, and ends fast and loud.
Gordon Fitzell’s violence and evanescence are pieces of contemplation, made up of finely wrought gestures that sometimes flare up into, well, violence.
Steven Mackey’s Indigenous Instruments is a fully-realized three movement study in instrumental color and melodic gesture. It’s the oldest piece on the program, having been written in 1989, and its distance from the present, gleaming surface of the Kronos-influenced aesthetic is telling. It stretches eighth blackbird in ways the other pieces don’t.
The gestures in David M. Gordon’s Friction Systems are edgier than anything else on the program, and allow the “˜birds an opportunity to let the grit fly.
The grooves of Dennis DeSantis’ strange imaginary remix are a pleasant ending to this remarkably well-played program. eighth blackbird makes it all sound very easy.