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Sounds of Amerıca

Gramophone’s guide to the classical scene in the US and Canada

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:p h o T o g R a p h y

One music ensemble, found in unexpected places A

Experimental sextet eighth blackbird is exploring t 55,000 square feet, the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall is not a venue where you’d expect to hear chamber music. But then, eighth blackbird has a knack for defying expectations – which is surely why the Chicago-based new-music sextet has been invited to curate the Armory’s first Tunein Music Festival in mid-February.

For starters, there’s the ensemble’s dizzyingly eclectic repertoire. Take the group’s upcoming “Still Life” programme, for instance (to be performed this year in New York’s Zankel Hall, at the Library of Congress, and in England at the Elektrostatic Festival in Bristol), that puts Philips Glass’s Music in Similar Motion alongside Pierre Boulez’s Dérive 1. As Tim Monro, eighth blackbird’s flautist, says: “We love to bang up two composers today’s music and putting its power to the test,

finds andrew Farach-Colton who might well kill each other if left in an enclosed space for too long. Our main priority is to reflect the ridiculous diversity of contemporary music, and to make it as engaging for audiences as possible by – well, by playing the crap out of it.”

To that end, eighth blackbird commits a fair amount of what they play to memory. “If you play a work many, many times, you begin to internalise it,” says Munro. “You can play it by memory and that adds an extra layer of intensity.” The group also employs theatrical and visual elements, working with theatre directors, dancers and choreographers. “We like to experiment, throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Now well into its 15th season, eighth blackbird was born at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1996 as an offshoot of the school’s contemporary music ensemble. The group takes its name from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’s poem Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. Pianist Lisa Kaplan explains that the players desperately wanted to avoid any generic appellation. “We didn’t want to be, say, the Oberlin Sextet. Matt Albert, our violinist and viola player, had been studying Stevens’s poetry. We were all struck by the musical references in that stanza: ‘noble accents’ and ‘lucid, inescapable rhythms’. And we all thought that naming ourselves ‘eighth blackbird’ was better than ‘tastes like chicken’, which was another option.”

The six musicians stayed together after Oberlin, collectively furthering their studies in Cincinnati and Chicago before becoming the first contemporary music ensemble to win top prize in the Concert Artists Guild International Competition. From that victory, eighth blackbird quickly took flight, garnering myriad other prizes, including a prestigious Naumburg Award in 2000 and a 2008 Grammy Award for its Cedille recording “Strange Imaginary Animals”. “Winning the Grammy was totally unexpected,” Kaplan recalls. “And because a Grammy has meaning even for someone who


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