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
In the below video, celebrated Australian composer Ross Edwards discusses the inspiration behind his new composition, String Quartet No 3 ‘Summer Dances’. The piece will receive its world premier on the Kelemen Quartet’s upcoming Australian tour.
The Kelemen Quartet tour Australia for Musica Viva Australia Februay 17th – March 5th. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/kelemen
When the Elias String Quartet first toured for Musica Viva in 2009, it was just at the beginning of its career as a full-time professional performing ensemble. Since then the group’s achievements and accolades have been steadily accumulating, including selection for the BBC’s prestigious New Generation Artists’ Scheme and an award from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. In 2010, its recording on the Wigmore Hall Live label received the Newcomer Award from BBC Music Magazine, and the Quartet’s recording catalogue now boasts a dozen diverse titles. The group now regularly presents a series of concerts at London’s Wigmore Hall – an outstanding honour reserved for few quartets in the world.
The Elias String Quartet is in the middle of its Beethoven Project, performing all seventeen of the composer’s quartets over four years, scattered throughout its touring schedule. We celebrate the project on this tour with Ludwig’s Eighth Quartet, from his opus 59 set commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky.
The players credit their period working with Baroque specialist Trevor Pinnock as the portal to a new way of relating to the music of Haydn, offering an unexpected sense of freedom, fun and exploration that they will bring to bear on one of the last quartets written by Haydn – op 77 no 2. The group also cherishes its connections with living composers, and eagerly embraced a new work by Australian composer Matthew Hindson, written especially for this tour, and commissioned for Musica Viva by Julian Burnside, AO QC.
Musica Viva Australia
The Elias String Quartet will tour for Musica Viva’s 2013 International Concert Season this month, opening in Sydney on Monday 19th August. For a complete tour listing and more information, please visit musicaviva.com.au/elias
Britain’s leading young chamber ensemble, the Elias String Quartet will join forces with composer Matthew Hindson this August. Commencing their national tour on Friday 16th August for Musica Viva’s International Concert Season, the Quartet will premiere Hindson’s latest String Quartet no 2 (commissioned by Julian Burnside AO, QC), and add Beethoven’s famous “Razumovsky Quartet” as the next installment in their commitment to play his complete cycle of quartets in live performance.
Here, Matthew Hindson reflects on the task of writing for the Elias String Quartet.
For more information about the Elias String Quartet including concert dates and program information, visit musicaviva.com.au/elias