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
There’s a distinct sense of entente cordiale about the Trio Dali. The British violinist Jack Liebeck joined the French cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca and pianist Amandine Savary as the group’s new violinist in 2013, and plenty of good-natured jibing goes on while the players consider their meeting of minds. “We’re still a French group, in a way,” La Marca insists, prompting a mock-outraged “What?” from Liebeck.
Something much more important is behind this, though. “I’ve always found that cultural differences disappear when you play music,” says Liebeck. “When I’ve played with other people and there has been a language barrier, the amazing thing is that music bridges those gaps.
“Meeting ‘Crispy’ and Amandine has brought new things to my playing life, and I think my joining the trio has brought new things to them,” he adds. “It’s different voices, different ideas and ways of working. We’re all pedantic about different things. But I don’t think there is a cultural difference in terms of music.”
The original Trio Dali formed in 2006 and rapidly gained a string of prestigious prizes across three continents. Their teachers read like a Who’s Who of chamber music – Augustin Dumay, Maria João Pires, Gabor Takács-Nagy, to name but a few – and their first two recordings were showered with accolades.
Their name is only partially a reference to the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. “We met in Spain; we were looking for a name and we of course thought about the painter,” says La Marca, “but at the same we won the Osaka Competition in Japan and we wanted to relate the painter’s name to something Asian.
“Finally we found a symbolic possibility. There are some amazing marbles in the city of Dali in China – three pagodas in this city are very famous. So it’s symbolic of taking the music from the notes and creating art.” Liebeck adds: “You take the marble, you polish it and you make something beautiful.”
The trio is bringing two programmes to Musica Viva; both include the 1991 Piano Trio by the Australian composer Roger Smalley, a piece that Liebeck says he especially advocated. “I pushed for it because when I played another piece of his recently I thought it was incredibly effective and very well written for the instruments.”
“If you speak with composers, they all tell you that to write a piano trio is one of the most difficult exercises there is,” says La Marca. “It’s much more difficult than writing a symphony or a string quartet, because there is always a balance to find. And that’s a real challenge for composers. It seems that Smalley combines all the right qualities in his piece.”
Each concert is topped and tailed with masterpieces of the trio repertoire: one programme opens with Beethoven’s first published work, the E flat major Trio Op.1 No.1, and ends with the substantial Trio by Ernest Chausson; the other starts with Mendelssohn’s Trio No.2 in C minor and concludes with Schubert’s B flat major Trio No.1.
“It’s an incredible work,” says Liebeck of the Mendelssohn. “Dramatic and troubled and dark, but at the same time very romantic. The perfect piano trio, really!” Not that the Schubert is less perfect: “I always feel that Mozart and Beethoven are the greatest composers, but they’re earthy – whereas with Schubert, it’s as if he’s from space. The colours he creates are not earthbound for me; they’re up in the sky.”
“I think the Chausson is a masterpiece of the French repertoire,” says La Marca. “We are playing it for the first time this season and it’s a real challenge. We want to continue our tradition of playing French repertoire; one of the first pieces we worked on was the Fauré Trio and our first recording was an all-Ravel disc. I feel we started something very special with the sound. Amandine is absolutely extraordinary in this repertoire. So we already did the Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, but we’ve never actually played the Chausson.”
“It’s really nice for me to be able to play a piece with them that’s wonderful and French and that they love, but that they haven’t done before,” says Liebeck. “Here we can start from the beginning.” La Marca agrees: “Everyone is at the same level. And we try to shape the music together.”
In the final episode of Chamber Music & Me Season Two, mother and daughter, Vanessa and Lena Olofsson, talk about the role chamber music plays in their family. Vanessa, whose mother was a founding member of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, has spent her whole life around music. Similarly, her daughter, Leni, a violinist and student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, has also spent her life surrounded by music. In this candid and emotionally moving video, mother and daughter talk music, love, family, death, and saying goodbye.
Watch all the episode of Chamber Music & Me Season Two at; musicaviva.com.au/chambermusicandme
Meet Luke Brady – plumber, dog owner, food enthusiast, chamber music lover. Luke features in the the first episode of Chamber Music & Me Season Two, a weekly a webseries about people who love chamber music. Each episode focuses on an individual as they tell their story of discovering music, sharing their passion with friends, and what it means to like chamber music. Also featured in Season Two is ABC Classic’s Emma Ayres, young composer Andrew Aronowicz, and mother-daughter music lovers Leni and Vanessa Oloffson. Fore more information, please visit; musicaviva.com.au/chambermusicandme
Music Viva’s much-loved weekly webseries, Chamber Music & Me, returns for a second season. The follow up season to the series that helps break down the stereotypes of people who listen to classical music, features ABC Classic FM’s Emma Ayres, Melbourne plummer Luke Brady, young composer Andrew Aronowicz, and mother-daughter music lovers Leni & Vanessa Olofsson.
Episode One will premier on Friday 4th July. For more information, please visit musicaviva.com.au/chambermusicandme
The other day we were discussing programming with a string quartet and one of them asked ‘So which Beethoven should we do?’ I blurted out ‘The Harp!’, and the musicians and my artistic director turned as one to look at me, and said equally bluntly, ‘Why?’
Because it’s awesome. Because I adore it with a desperate undying passion. It’s brilliantly written, so clever, the compositional technique is crystal clear and the emotional impact is stunning. If you’ve never heard it I’m probably setting you up to say ‘Is that all?’ when you do, of course.
But then I sat there thinking ‘Actually, I really love just 40 seconds of it. Maybe they can play me that 40 seconds on my birthday and then they can play whatever else they want for the concert.’
It’s about 8’27 to 9’08 in the first movement, and essentially it’s just a crescendo. Here’s the Alban Berg Quartet playing it live.
My only criticism is the viola is slightly underbalanced in this recording (microphone placement), but otherwise I think it’s my favourite version on YouTube – and believe me, I’ve heard them all. And they say women don’t get obsessed with work?
If you’re interested, you can find the score here.
The bit I’m referring to begins 42 bars before the end of the first movement. The first violin goes nuts with semiquavers, which gradually get more intense and showy. Underneath it the other three parts are quietly plucking upwards arpeggios (one of the reasons this quartet got its nickname ‘Harp’). The cello keeps going with that idea; the first violin sticks with its busy semiquavers idea; and in the middle, the second violin and the viola ‑ out of nowhere ‑ have this tiny, beautiful, imitative duet which culminates in a resolved suspension, a chord that crunches then releases, that is possibly my favourite bar of Beethoven ever. Big call I know. ‘Ode to Joy’ is no slouch either, etc, etc.
But that’s how much I like this bit. The counterpoint is PERFECT. Like the best Mozart opera ensemble, you can hear what everyone’s saying at the same time. For a while the first violin steals the foreground; then your attention switches to the cello; then just as you realise what the inner parts are doing, and how you want to listen to that because it’s so gorgeous, they’re through it and you’re left saying ‘But I want to hear that again…’
I’ll save my other Favourite Chamber Music Minute for another post (Dvorák). But feel free to share your own obsessions, if only to make me feel I’m not alone.
Director of Artistic Planning, Concerts
In the new weekly web series, Chamber Music & Me, affable family man Matthew Hodge shares the story behind his love of chamber music.
This series gives a great insight into how people discover music, and what it is about the music that resonates with them. The next episode, which features Sydney Conservatorium student Alice Chance, will be released on Friday April 4th at 12PM.