Blackbird flying high


First things first. The name: eighth blackbird.

OK, it's unusual. Get over it.

"I wanted this to be a different group, so I wanted it to have a different name," says Matthew Albert, the violinist in eighth blackbird, the extraordinary, six-member new-music ensemble that has spiced things up for 10 years.

The name is derived from a poem by Wallace Stevens, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The verse that particularly struck Albert was the eighth:

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know

"I was an English major in college," Albert says, by way of further explanation to a large gathering of Peabody Conservatory students at a recent get-acquainted session with the sextet. Lisa Kaplan, eighth blackbird's pianist, pipes up: "It's better than `It Tastes Like Chicken.' "

The Chicago-based ensemble is making several visits to Baltimore as part of a residency co-sponsored by the University of Baltimore and the Shriver Hall Concert Series that includes a free concert Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Next month at UB, the group will use poems submitted by creative-writing students to generate the partly improvised musical content of another free concert.

Like the now almost-iconic Kronos Quartet, which has proven for more than three decades that an all-contemporary music ensemble really can enjoy a successful career, eighth blackbird sticks to the cutting edge.

The composers on Saturday's BMA program may not ring many bells in the audience - Dereck Bermel, Ashley Fure, Marcus Maroney, Thierry de Mey, Frederic Rzewski, Fred Lerdahl, Jennifer Higdon. But this is a heady collection of talent, some quite young (Fure is in her early 20s), others with long, distinguished legacies. It's a typically eclectic, engrossing eighth blackbird presentation, the kind that has helped the sextet flourish.

Bermel's 2004 work Tied Shifts is a rhythmically intricate, tightly constructed score inspired by Bulgarian folk songs that the ensemble plays from memory, a feat almost unheard of in the chamber-music world.

"Any comments on what we just did?" Albert asks the Peabody students after a performance of the Bermel score. Silence. Maybe they're stunned.

Eventually, the questions come, and so do the insights into what makes eighth blackbird fly.

A sense of ownership is a key factor. Much of the music the group plays is commissioned, so it starts out with a personal connection. And, although the players don't memorize every piece, they develop a from-the-inside-out perspective on each score after extensive rehearsal.

Fred Lerdahl's Fantasy Etudes, which will also be on the BMA concert, is one of the first things the ensemble committed to memory. For most musicians, that would have been accomplishment enough; it's a tough piece. But these guys weren't through. "After we memorized it, we thought, we're just sitting around when we play it," Kaplan says. "What else can we do?"

Choreograph it, of course.

The musicians execute a variety of motions, neatly timed to the alternating bursts of energy and pregnant pauses in Lerdahl's composition. Players wander off in solo reverie or form tight circles to focus the mind and the eye on complex, concerted passages in the work.

There's an uncanny control and clarity in this dual-level performance, the kind of thing that could only come from eighth blackbird.

The six members of the group met when they were students at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. A class assignment resulted in their working together as a sextet. They discovered a rapport, and an enthusiasm for new repertoire.

The process of musical discovery seems to have had an addictive effect on the members of the group. "Every year we said, `OK, let's try this for another year,'" Kaplan says. In no time, a decade had passed.

Eighth blackbird survived a couple of mass moves - from Oberlin, near Cleveland, to Cincinnati ("We rehearsed in a building there with no heat and just a urinal," Kaplan says) and then to Chicago, where they're currently based. "Moving together gave us major shared experiences," says percussionist Matthew Duvall, "and that makes us stronger."

The musicians take sensible actions, not unheard of in chamber-music circles, to continue getting along. "We like to maintain some separation to maintain our friendship," says flutist Molly Barth. "On planes, we all get window seats so we never sit next to each other." At hotels, they get rooms located far apart, too.

But the players "see each other socially," Barth says. "Some of the guys play computer games together. And my husband and our cellist like to brew beer together. They joke about creating an eighth blackbird six-pack."

Facing a UB session for graduate business students, the musicians discuss the mechanics of maintaining the organization, now a nonprofit corporation. Tasks are assigned to the players "based on what they're good at," Kaplan says. "Running ourselves as a business is a huge part of what we do."

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