Back in 1995, the director of music at Oberlin College, Ohio, assembled a group of six students who were passionate about new music and happy to rehearse under his direction in their spare time. Twenty-one years later, this group has risen to be one of the US’s most celebrated cutting-edge contemporary ensembles under the extraordinary name Eighth Blackbird.
“We date our start to January 1996,” says the group’s cellist, Nicholas Photinos. “At Oberlin, January is ‘Winter Term’, when students do projects of their own choice. We were enjoying playing together and we decided to enter the college’s chamber music competition, for which we couldn’t have a conductor. This was our Winter Term project and we rehearsed probably more intensely than we ever have.” They won the contest, and their success persuaded them to launch their professional lives together.
The moniker is anything but obvious, but its quirky individuality stands out. “Our violinist at the time was studying early 20th-century American poetry,” Photinos recounts. “He found a poem by Wallace Stevens called ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. Its eighth stanza talks about “lucid, inescapable rhythms” – a really beautiful, captivating image – and we knew we didn’t want to be called something mundane like ‘Oberlin New Music Ensemble’…”
Eighth Blackbird, anything but mundane, has had only three changes of personnel in two decades. Today’s six members – or “supermusicians”, as the LA Times called them – are flautist Nathalie Joachim, clarinettist Michael J Maccaferri, violinist Yvonne Lam, percussionist Matthew Duvall, pianist Lisa Kaplan, and Photinos on the cello. This instrumental line-up is derived from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, with added percussion: composed as long ago as 1912, that work inspired numerous pieces for similar scoring.
“When we started in 1996 there were already about 200 published works for this instrumentation,” says Photinos. “We’re adding to that.” They choose their repertoire via a democratic vote in the group, with most commissions – up to 90 minutes a year of new music – evolving “organically” through personal contacts and proven musical affinities.
The performances often involve a theatrical dimension that helps to draw in audiences who also enjoy contemporary dance, art or theatre. “We are aware of the visual aspect of what we do,” Photinos says, “so we’ll often memorise works, then introduce stage movement. That’s a hallmark of the group, something we’ve embraced from the outset.” Its excitements were proved in a recent residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, their home city: “We were literally on display! We were rehearsing in front of the museum’s patrons, we had an exhibition of our productions, we brought in local visual artists to occupy the space. Now this is something we’re looking to develop more in the future.”
The programme for the Musica Viva tour, Photinos says, combines pieces they have worked on in recent seasons with music from two of their recent recordings – one of which, Filament, won them their fourth Grammy.
“Bryce Dessner, guitarist of The National, is also very active as a composer, and he wrote a work for us a couple of years ago called Murder Ballades,” he says. “It takes a strand of American music from the 1900s in which rather pretty melodies and conventional tonality accompany lyrics about gruesome murders and other horrific things that happened in the old west. Based on that idea, he wrote a set of instrumental pieces: some are recognisable from the originals and some are his invention.
“The New York-based composer Nico Muhly is a great friend of ours. He wrote a piece for us called Doublespeak, which was on the Filament album. Nico used to be a copyist and arranger for Philip Glass and this piece pays some tribute to him, but I wouldn’t call it a minimalist work. It’s about ten minutes long, very energetic, winding down to a conclusion that sounds almost mystical.”
Two further pieces are part of a larger project that the group has undertaken with the composers’ collective Sleeping Giant. “Tim Hearne’s music has a certain grittiness, and the piece he wrote for us, By-By Huey, is dominated by a piano ostinato, sounding very restless. It sets up a tension that breaks out into a jazzy solo, which sounds improvised, yet is written out amazingly well and forms a beautiful apotheosis.
“Timo Andres’s Chequered Shade is on an almost symphonic scale. Although we’ve performed it 20-30 times, it always feels as if there are more instruments on stage than there actually are. It’s a huge sound, not only physically, but emotionally. It really grabs you.”
Last but not least, the award-winning Australian composer Holly Harrison has written a new piece for their Musica Viva tour. “Getting to know her work through this commission has been great – we’re very excited about it,” says Photinos. “This will be our fourth visit to Australia, but we’re going to some cities we’ve not toured to before. It will be wonderful to see more of this beautiful country.”
Supported by the Musica Viva Amadeus Society, Eighth Blackbird tour nationally around Australia 20 February – 9 March 2017.
For concert dates and ticket bookings, visit: musicaviva.com.au/blackbird