KELLOGG: Divinum Mysterium (2000). CRUMB: Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971).
Eighth Blackbird.
Cedille CDR 90000 076 (F) {DDD} TT: 56:20

Eighth Blackbird has become the "new" new music group, in the tradition of Tashi and Speculum Musicae. It consists of six members, most of whom play more than one instrument, including the über-percussionist, Matthew Duvall. I heard them recently on NPR's St. Paul Sunday Morning. Apparently, Duvall has two vanloads of instruments, each stuffed to the metal. Eighth Blackbird doesn't confine itself to a sliver of the contemporary-music spectrum. On the other hand, I've never heard them perform junk either - astonishing when new-music ensembles, including this one, take chances as a matter of course, practically as their raison d' être.

The program typifies their range: a contemporary classic and a special commission. The classic is the Crumb, and I find it hard to accept the piece as more than thirty years old. Ned Rorem once wondered aloud why people so loved Crumb's music. Clearly, Rorem did not. He put it down to the deplorable state of music at the time, and concluded audiences grateful for any sign of emotion from a new piece. I can think of lots of legitimate reasons why someone would like Crumb. For one thing, the sounds still glitter. Crumb has always had a very precise creative ear. Furthermore, one gets more than just a sign of emotion. Crumb's music sings with intensity, perhaps at times (though not here) with too much. On the other hand, the piece is definitely of its time - the early Seventies - when whales briefly became pop superstars. Also, the music paints pictures rather than tells stories. That is, there's little forward impulse or interest in the process of transformation, as there had been in music from the Baroque era on. Crumb risks losing your attention, one reason why he must increase the "typical" emotional intensity. As ever, the composer faces the question of when to change tack. Perhaps Rorem's complaint stems from this. At any rate, the piece holds me. I especially like Crumb's resistance of the temptation to realism. Although one hears a refined balenean slide or thump here and there, the music makes no attempt to give you actual whale sounds, any more than Mahler's First gives you real cuckoo song. This is music that poetically evokes rather than describes. It also strikes me as prophetic of people like Górecki, with its sense of the power and depth of the individual moment, although I greatly prefer Crumb's original to what came after.

The commission, Daniel Kellogg's Divinum Mysterium, may well become a classic. Like Paul Schoenfield, Kellogg draws from many sources. Inspired by his faith, Kellogg bases the work on the plainchant "Corde natus ex parentis" (in English, the hymn "Of the Father's Love Begotten"), which he had sung from boyhood. After an initial statement from voices (in this case, Chanticleer), the chant appears in various guises throughout five movements. Kellogg elicits from the chant a great range of expression. Where Crumb plumbs deep and narrow, Kellogg casts wide. He shows no fear of eclecticism. The work brims full with references to other composers -- Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Copland the most obvious -- while maintaining its own integrity. That is, Kellogg doesn't "do" these composers. He uses them for his own purposes. The music often comes off like Charles Ives's "Hawthorne," from the Concord Sonata -- a Van de Graaff generator that throws sparks every which way, moving your attention to one thing and another. The overall effects are depth and brilliance. I must confess that the titles of the movements -- "Beginnings," "The Spirit of God Moved on the Face of the Waters," "Light," "Rest," and "Rejoicing" -- initially (that is, piece unheard) made me a little antsy. But Kellogg never does what you think he's going to do, just as his religious sentiments stand at the opposite end of the conventional and genteel. This isn't standard Artistic Piety, but the expression of a particular person. I cannot recommend this work highly enough.

Come to think of it, I'd say the same for the performers. This is one exciting group, and it has already achieved some big things. They're young dynamos and come without the New Age baggage of at least some contemporary specialists. I expect their careers to last a while. The sound quality is good, and the balance is amazing, when you consider the recording problems posed by both Crumb and especially Kellogg, where the music suggests a band far larger than a mere six. One of the more interesting and exciting CDs I've heard this year.

S.G.S. (November 2004)