MAZZOLI: Still Life with Avalanche. HUREL: ...à mesure. ETEZADY: from Damaged Goods -- About Time; Eleventh Hour. HARTKE: Meanwhile -- Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays. GLASS: Music in Similar Motion. ADÈS: Catch.
eighth blackbird.
Ç edille CDR 90000 133 TT: 68:28

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Noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms. This disc demonstrates why the ensemble eighth blackbird, for my money, stands as the most exciting group on the contemporary-music scene. The earliest piece on the program (1969) comes from Philip Glass, the oldest composer, and retains its relevance to certain trends in today's music. Minimalism, after all, hasn't died yet. The youngest composer, Missy Mazzoli (in her early thirties), incorporates the techniques Glass pioneered.

Our concert programming, by and large, feeds us on a diet of Certified Masterpieces, relatively a new notion and one I believe unhealthy to musical culture. Audiences seem to have lost the willingness to face the unfamiliar. I've encountered extremes of this: people walking out before the Nielsen symphony, simply because they hadn't heard of Nielsen. I met a guy who insisted that the only three classical composers were Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, simply because he had heard only those at the concerts he attended. He hadn't heard of Bach and had no interest in discovering the composer. Again, I admit these are extremes, but extremes of an attitude prevalent in American (at any rate) classical-music culture. Why wouldn't you want to hear something you haven't heard before? The danger is that you will have usually spent money on something you didn't like when you heard it for the first (or only) time. But it's not really a waste. I strongly believe it lodges in the mind and at least expands your notion of music. If I had gone with my first impressions, I wouldn't have given Brahms a second listen.

However, I certainly don't feel that I have to like everything, and that's the case here. I'll clear away the scrub first. Thomas Adès, a current bright hope of British music, I find inconsistent. For me, his work ranges from wonderful (the Violin Concerto, for example) to why bother. Catch, though difficult as sin to play, strikes me as both ugly and pointless. Adès provides a program of a clarinet trying to join a piano trio -- a game of musical keep-away. However, it seems to fit in just fine throughout. There are some very beautiful moments, but they are moments only. The rest of it strikes me as fussy. Philip Glass's Music in Similar Motion has become a postwar classic. I don't care for it. It bores me, even though I recognize the variations within its ostinatos. I tend to poop out halfway through its eleven minutes, and the oppressive drive of it all wears me down like Excedrin Headache #43. But I go against prevailing informed opinion. Either I'm wrong or it's wrong, and if I were smart, I'd bet against myself.

Missy Mazzoli, a musical polyglot (among other things, she heads an indie rock band), contributes Still Life with Avalanche, in part a memorial to a cousin killed in one. The piece begins, as its title suggests, in stasis, quickly interrupted with attempts at minimalistic pulsation. It's like several attempts to strike a lighter. The pulsation finally catches, and the piece alternates between energetic and suspended. Mazzoli describes her cousin as "exuberant," and the music seems both a portrait and a reflection on loss. The piece ends ambiguously, somewhat surreally, in the middle of a sentence, as it were.

à mesure reveals Philippe Hurel as a super-composer. It brims with breathtakingly complex (and clear) counterpoint and unusual, precisely imagined textures. It reminds me in many ways of something like Pierre Boulez's Sur incises, but not as dour. Indeed, a kind of mania runs through it, like Scarbo capering up the wallpaper. This score introduces me to Hurel. I will be looking for more.

The excerpts from Roshanne Etezady's Damaged Goods (the third and fourth movements, apparently, from the complete suite) play off extreme contrast. "About time" hints at great sadness, while "Eleventh Hour" rushes about like the cavalry determined to arrive in the nick of time. I thought both excerpts beautiful and would like to hear the complete score.

However, Stephen Hartke's Meanwhile counts as my favorite on the program. Inspired by both Japanese bunraku and Balinese shadow-puppetry, Hartke brilliantly re-imagines the gamelan orchestra, not à la Ravel or Colin McPhee, but in a thoroughly contemporary way. The work has no explicit program but spurs a listener's imagination to come up with one -- as the title says, an imaginary puppet play. The percussionist, Matthew Duvall, gets a workout, particularly on the flexatones, instruments that allow glissandos and sound like a struck musical saw, but everyone has the chance to strut their virtuosic stuff. Nevertheless, despite its great craft -- as great as in Adès's Catch -- Meanwhile remains a score full of poetry.

I've not heard a contemporary chamber group better than eighth blackbird. They go far beyond the professionally fine reading, which you get if you're lucky. They absorb scores into their bones, at a level of understanding that becomes artistry and the projection of a point of view. The composers here should be very happy.

S.G.S. (December 2013)