eighth blackbird’s Valentine to New Music Lovers

Jessica Balik on February 16, 2016
eighth blackbird
eighth blackbird

While I managed to avoid crowded restaurants and flower shops, I nonetheless did spend my Valentine’s Day with people celebrating 20 years of togetherness. At Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, the esteemed new music ensemble eighth blackbird performed a newly commissioned set of six pieces. The program’s title, “Hand Eye,” implies coordination of different faculties, and eighth blackbird indeed pulled a diverse array of pieces into a cohesive — and singular — performance.

On a literal level, though, the title likely refers to something else. Musicians use their hands to make music, and “eye” probably refers to works of visual art. The musical works were individually composed by members of Sleeping Giant, an eclectic composers’ alliance. For loose inspiration, each composer selected a visual artwork belonging to the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation, which partially commissioned “Hand Eye.” 

For example, Christopher Cerrone’s South Catalina was inspired by a light installation that changes in response to varying noises in its environment. Likewise, Cerrone’s musical work explores different musical reactions to scintillating shards of sound. Anchoring them, by contrast, is a smooth and soft clarinet ostinato, performed by Michael Maccaferri, consisting of four descending pitches. At one point, the musicians physically moved toward Maccaferri before drifting away again. It was a visual representation of how the piece’s musical fragments at times brought the musicians together and, at others, pulled them again apart. Although their imitations grew more precise as the piece unfurled, the greater accuracy actually resulted in greater cacophony, since all the instruments increasingly play at the same time.

The musicians’ physical move apart slightly distanced cellist Nicholas Photinos from the rest of the group. The arrangement suited Andrew Norman’s Mine, Mime, Meme: In this piece, the other players imitate everything the cello utters. Although their imitations grew more precise as the piece unfurled, the greater accuracy actually resulted in greater cacophony, since all the instruments increasingly play at the same time.

Closing the program’s first half was Robert Honstein’s Conduit. Inspired by a meditation on relationships between humans and technology, Honstein named his piece’s three movements Touch, Pulse, and Send. Nathalie Joachim, the group’s radiant flutist, especially shone in the last two movements. In Pulse, she played sustained lines with the cello, under which everyone else “pulsed” with out-of-sync repeated pitches. In Honstein’s final movement, Joachim picked up her piccolo to serve as a gleeful — and virtuosic — musical representation of digital data ferociously hurtling through cyberspace.

For the entire second half, eighth blackbird performed without pausing between pieces. Checkered Shade, by Timo Andres, gave violinist MingHuan Xu an opportunity to step into the foreground. Andres describes the piece in terms of a progressive coalescing of musical fragments. With Xu at the helm, the culminating chorale was a lyrical highlight of the evening.

Ted Hearne’s By-By-Huey features pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall. Although they appeared to be playing loudly and forcefully, their gestures were thwarted because their instruments were muted. Hearne himself describes these sounds as “muzzled and growling.” He intended for the piece to conjure destruction, because it was inspired by a portrait of Tyrone Robinson, a member of the Black Guerrilla Family. Robinson murdered Huey Newton, co-founder of another Black Power party, the Black Panthers.

With an eerie, uncanny twist, the theme of destruction continued in Jacob Cooper’s Cast. Over an undulating vibraphone ostinato, Cooper’s piece gradually introduces three musical ideas. Each idea is originally associated with a particular instrument. Eventually, though, the ideas become dissociated from their initial instruments, and instead, faint and imperfect recollections scatter among the other players. By the end of this musical portrayal of absence, all the players were standing as soundless and still as statues. It was a dramatic, if subdued, end to the performance.

In fact, eighth blackbird’s ability to incorporate such effective theatricality into their performances is especially astounding given both the demanding, pioneering new music they perform and the staggeringly high level of musicianship by which they do. All told, I certainly have no regrets about how I spent my Valentine’s Day — after all, when it comes to eighth blackbird, I think I’m in love.