eighth blackbird sharpens the cutting edge

Acclaimed sextet will be in residence


September 15, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When was the last time you saw members of a chamber music ensemble wander around the stage while they performed? Or play from memory? Or mix up the order of a composition's separate movements at will?

Unless you've already attended a concert by the uniquely named sextet eighth blackbird, you've probably never had such experiences. But, as Baltimore will learn in the weeks ahead, one thing you can take for granted when this group appears is that both the music and music-making will be way out of the ordinary.

The Chicago-based eighth blackbird, acclaimed for its cutting-edge programming and involving performance style, will spend a portion of its 10th-anniversary season in a residency co-sponsored by the University of Baltimore and the Shriver Hall Concert Series and supported by a grant from Chamber Music America.

FOR THE RECORD - Performances by the contemporary music group eighth blackbird are at 5:30 p.m. Monday and Nov. 8 at the University of Baltimore, 3 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The visit will include free public presentations at the university and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The ensemble will also find time to work with students of the Baltimore School for the Arts and Peabody Conservatory.

Not surprisingly, this residency has a strong quotient of novelty beyond the music. The first public event on Monday is all about cross-disciplines - a session with business students in UB's Leadership Management Seminar.

The members of eighth blackbird "will bring in different perspectives," says Peter Toran, vice president for planning and university relations, "and alternative means of looking at corporate structure and leadership. How does a group of musicians without a clear conductor produce a piece of music? And are there things we can apply to corporate business structures?"

Like the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, eighth blackbird is self-governed. "We have to run ourselves as a business and as artists," says Molly Alicia Barth, the group's flutist.

"It's a challenge for musicians to become the entrepreneurs we need to be in order to make ourselves known to the public. We meet every week to discuss touring, residencies, recordings. And we use the majority rule/democracy system to make decision-making a little easier. Of course, there are disagreements. But we're six individuals that respect one another very much."

The musicians will also meet with a UB poetry class. "A certain number of the students will submit poems [to eighth blackbird]," Toran says. "In November, the musicians will perform original pieces putting those poems to music in some way."

The poetic connection makes perfect sense, given the origins of eighth blackbird's name. It's derived from the eighth stanza of a poem by Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know

A free concert at the BMA in October, inaugurating a new series there presented by Shriver Hall, will feature eighth blackbird in a program the group is taking on the road this season, titled after a line in that Stevens verse: "lucid, inescapable rhythms."

Those rhythms will also be exceedingly diverse, in works by such intriguing composers as Derek Bermel, active in jazz and rock, and Jennifer Higdon, well known for her large orchestral scores. And then there's Frederic Rzewski, represented by a piece that poses quite a challenge to players with a mere 65 notes.

Putting together unusual programs is easy for eighth blackbird, which has 12 hands and more than 50 instruments to employ as needed in the process. A few seasons ago, for example, the musicians commissioned four members of the Minimum Security Composers Collective to write a four-movement piece based on a single, short motif. The ensemble then played the movements in whatever order they pleased, and added their own stage choreography to the piece as well.

"Commissioning new music is a big thing with us," Barth says. "And when we commit to play a piece, we're really committing to play it many times. A lot of commissions get heard only once. But with us, there's a second and third and, hopefully, 30th performance.

Although traditional classical music audiences tend to prefer stuff by long-dead guys, this ensemble (like the similarly cutting-edge Kronos Quartet) has been steadily winning fans of all ages and musical persuasions with the work of composers who are very much alive.

"In general, people are open to whatever music that speaks to them," Barth says.

Baltimore audiences are about to discover how successfully eighth blackbird can help open up ears and minds.

eighth blackbird performs at 5:30 p.m. Monday and 3 p.m. Oct. 8 at Langsdale Auditorium, University of Baltimore, Maryland Avenue and Oliver Street, and at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Admission is free. For information, call 410-516-7164.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 32.

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