Sunday, 15 May 2011

eighth blackbird

I had heard of eighth blackbird without knowing much about them, and when I saw they were performing at the Barbican in London, I thought it would be an opportunity to catch them.  As well as performing a lot of Steve Reich they had a more varied program which included something by Missy Mazzoli whom, and whose music I happened upon in New York last month; but this program was shown as sold out.  Then I saw they were repeating the program at the De La Warre Pavillion in Bexhill-on Sea, and in a spirit of adventure I set out to find them there.  It proved to be an excellent adventure:   I heard an exciting concert, experienced the decayed surroundings of Bexhill-on-Sea, saw an interesting building, and learned something of the ninth Earl De La Warr, who was a prominent politician in his day but whose chief memorial is the Pavillion.
A  tourist website describes Bexhill-on-Sea as “frozen in time”; but if it were frozen it would be better preserved.  I stayed at the Cooden Beach Hotel a couple of miles from the Pavilion.  It was pleasant and well run.  I could have chosen a bed and breakfast where “guests are given their own key”, or a larger hotel half of whose population is “resident guests”.  I may have seen some of the residents, as while walking around I was met with the special accusatory stare that inmates of old peoples’ homes give to strangers on their territory.

The colonnade built to celebrate the coronation of King George V was being renovated but Union Jacks still flew proudly above it.  Further along the seafront the Royal Air Forces Association’s Albatross Club was open, but the café next door was no longer operational.  A business called AMUSEMENTS was closed and boarded up.  It had offered ALL WINS PAID IN CASH, but how this happened when following advice of Sussex Police NO CASH KEPT ON PREMISES, I cannot say.
The De La Warr Pavillion which stands near the sea immediately behind the Colonnade, was opened in 1935.  It was the first public building the in the UK built in the modernist style.  Its architects, Erich Mendelsohn  and Serge Chermayeff won a competition for the design of a building that would be “simple, light in appearance and attractive, suitable for a holiday resort”.   It was damaged by bombs in the Second World War and then fell into disrepair.  A refurbishment commenced in 2003 and it re-opened to the public in 2005.

It is still the most modern building in sight, everything around looks Edwardian at the latest so it must now be much the same part of the landscape as it was when first opened.  It has exhibition halls, balconys overlooking the sea and a restaurant as well as a concert hall.  The concert hall interior had some contemporary features and might have been altered in the refurbishment.
The Pavilion was built at the instigation of Herbrand Edward Dundonald Brassey Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr, who was Mayor of Bexhill, among other duties, in the nineteen thirties.  According to the wiki he was the first hereditary peer to join the Labour Party and held a number of ministerial positions between 1923 and 1955.
It will delight genealogists to learn that a De La Warr, known as Lord Delaware at the time, was governor of the Jamestown Colony, and the Delaware Bay in the seventeenth century and is thus the source of the name of the bay, the state of Delaware and other places in the United States.  So what better place to hear eighth blackbird flown in from Chicago.
The name eighth blackbird comes from the Wallace Stevens’ poem 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.
Leaving aside the gnomic conclusion, it’s a very suitable verse for this group.  As I was listening, I realised that a feature of all the music they played that night was texture and rhythm.   You can hear these in almost any music you listen to, but a lot of modern music seems pared down to texture and rhythm alone.  I am increasingly drawn to these aspects of music and particularly in performances where I am close to the players and can hear sounds that get lost in a large auditorium or on record.
It was lucky then, from my perspective that only about 40 people came along to hear eighth blackbird in a hall that would have held many more.  I know this is exceedingly selfish but I hate crowds and will most likely never again hear eighth blackbird in such a personal way.
The group was formed in 1996. It’s present members are:
Tim Munro, flutes
Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets
Matt Albert, violin & viola
Nicholas Photinos, cello
Matthew Duvall, percussion and,
Lisa Kaplan, piano
Their nominated instruments don’t do full justice to their skills.  I think all of them played percussion at some stage, and at at least three played harmonicas of various shapes and sizes. 
The program was:
Missy Mazzoli: Still Life with Avalanche (2008)
John Cage: Aria (1958)
David Lang: these broken wings (2007)
Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion (1969)
Thomas Adès : Catch (1991)
Stephen Hartke: Meanwhile (2007)
It was a journey from self-conscious modernism to the less anxious music of the present time.
My introduction to Missy Mazzoli’s music was her Death Valley Junction  played by the JACK quartet in New York last month.  Still Life with Avalanche, was similarly approachable and lyrical, with the exception of the avalanche: the piece represents the composers response to a rural landscape in New Hampshire punctured by news of a relative’s death.  As a listener, I don’t usually find such programs helpful; there is no way the music itself can convey the details.  As there was no printed program, I didn’t know details of the composers inspiration until it was explained after the piece was played.
The explanation was given by Lisa Kaplan, who was interrupted mid sentence by weird vocalising from Tim Munro.  He sang the voice part in Aria by John Cage.  This is a very strange work and I have since discovered some details of it here.  I didn’t have any of these details at the concert, but the notes explain that while it was written for Cathy Barbarian, who was a suburb interpreter of contemporary music - but quite dissimilar in voice and appearance from Mr. Munro - it can be performed in all kinds of ways by all kinds of people.
I was also unaware at the time that Tim Munro is the only member of eighth blackbird who has joined since its inception, or that he is Australian.  Had I known, I could have shouted the occasional Cooee as he walked through the hall singing and vocalising in many tongues.  No one would have noticed.
The accompaniment included something that looked and sounded like a conch shell and ended with a music box playing There’s no place like home.
It was fun to hear this work, but it is, I think, an example of how strained musical ideas became under modernist influences which have thankfully now retreated.
Next came David Lang’s these broken wings, a 16 minute work in three movements.  This was my introduction to the music of David Lang.  He is a member of Bang on a Can, a collective which promotes new music.  (In 1992, they brought the Bang on a Can All - Stars into being.)
these broken wings was commissioned by eighth blackbird and first performed in 2008.  Its title suggests some whimsical association with birds if not blackbirds but nothing was said about this and the music gave no clue.
Music in Similar Motion written in 1969, must have come soon after Philip Glass established his familiar minimalist compositional style.  The repetitions and layers of sound reminded me of how exciting and different his music sounded when I first heard it, and how soon I tired of the novelty.  It was my mistake to be so easily turned away. His music has changed and developed with time, and I enjoyed the concert he gave in Sydney earlier this year and am still playing the records I bought after hearing him.
Speaking after the piece was played Lisa Kaplan mentioned a notice posted outside the hall …
and wondered if the prohibition was somehow connected with her music blowing onto the floor.  The performance was not affected; I think it was a copy of the full score she had on the piano and played from without missing a note.
I first heard Thomas Adès  Catch played by the Australia Ensemble in 2008.  It was the first of his music I had heard.  Although I have heard more since, including during his appearances as conductor and pianist in Sydney last year, I have a way to go before I hear as much in  Adès  as I could.  So I was pleased that I heard a lot more in Catch than I did the first time.  The clarinettist is required to move around and play on the move, which Catherine McCorkill did at the Australia Ensemble concert; but I don’t think I saw her play while running really fast across the stage as Michael J. Maccaferri did this time.
Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile: incidental music to imaginary puppet plays, the last work on the program, was also commissioned for eighth blackbird.  The composer was inspired by Asian puppet theatre, and the piece is an amalgam of impressions from Japanese Bunraku, to puppets in Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey.  It is in six short movements played without a break.  It is presented in a staging in which the instrumentalists move around to form different groups and configurations.  This emphasised their amazing skills, doubling of instruments was involved, and everyone played from memory.  The music was rhythmically complex, as was much of the other music played, and it was perfectly realised without a conductor in sight. It was a fascinating piece and a perfect ending to a great concert.

eighth blackbird at De La Warr Pavillion Bexhill-on-Sea  12 May 2011

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