Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Eighth Blackbird gets its Irish up for "a cantata in doublespeak" on Cedille Records

Michael Maccaferri of Eighth Blackbird and guest vocalist Iarla O Lionaird
Having reached its majority and recently given its name proper capitalization, Eighth Blackbird continues to stake out new musical territory with its recording of "Olagon." It's a cantata by Dan Trueman and Paul Muldoon that bridges modern and ancient Ireland and its two languages of English and Irish.

The instrumental ensemble, founded in Chicago in 1996, here forges a mesmerizing bond with Irish vocal soloist Iarla O Lionaird to put the new work across memorably in a two-disc set (Cedille Records).

The "doublespeak" reference in the subtitle has to do with the the two languages drawn upon for Muldoon's text, reflecting the old European tradition of macaronic poetry most widely known in some of the poetry used by Carl Orff in "Carmina Burana" as well as in the Christmas carol "In dulci jubilo."

"Olagon" skirts the boundary of cantata and oratorio. There is a kind of narrative that might move it toward oratorio, but that lies in the deep background. The thematic textual unity of the cantata form is more to the point in this work. To quote Eighth Blackbird's program note: "It is based on the legendary Irish tale Taiin Boi Cuiailnge, which tells the story of a brutal war — the result of a dispute between warrior-queen Medhbh and her husband Ailill. When Ailill offends Medhbh's pride by declaring his wealth superior to hers, Medhbh forsakes him and enters into a violent conflict with those around her."

Muldoon draws out the conflict between Medhbh and her husband, abstracting it but still celebrating it (with typical Irish ambivalence) in verse that carries stylistic overtones of both flippant doggerel and traditional balladry.

Trueman's  music sometimes settles into the pulsating drive of Celtic music, but often hangs somewhere aloft, with long drones, squalls of dissonance, and moaning shifts of timbre and texture from the ensemble. Riding on top is O Lionaird's intense, precisely ornamented vocal line, shifting fluidly between Irish and English. Guest vocalists contribute support in several sections, emphasizing the communal nature of Irish story and song.

The text, like the music itself, time-travels with a naturalness that preserves the shock of variation between modern-day Ireland, particularly the social dislocation caused by the boom-and-bust cycles of the nation's recent history, and Taiin Boi Cuiailnge. The common thread is an obsession with prosperity and pride as well as the woes of loyalty and betrayal.

Though there is no explicit debt to the late English poet Geoffrey Hill, the tectonic shifts of time upon well-known terrain recall the abrupt shuttling in "The Mercian Hymns." The humor that such juxtapositions generate in Muldoon's verse draws upon the "Irish bull" tradition. Nonsense and plausibility, gossip and retribution jostle rowdily to convey meaning.

The work's characters are likely to  haunt you even if you can't understand them and they remain wraith-like. The atmosphere of lament — the waste of bitter conflict so embedded in Irish history — finally prevails.

I'm not familiar with the vocal tradition O Lionaird represents, but I'm guessing that performances that don't include singing as idiomatic and enthralling as his would fall well beneath the abundant charm of this recording.

On the other hand, Eighth Blackbird fuses so well with any music it takes into its wide repertoire that, given the right collaborators, "Olagon" might attract enthusiastic audiences anywhere it comes up on the group's schedule, far into the future.  Publicity material included with the recording mentions two engagements featuring the work on Eighth Blackbird's early 2018 concert schedule: Feb. 22-24 in Princeton, N.J. and March 23 in Richmond, Va.  Lucky are the adventurous music-lovers to whom these performances will be accessible.

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