Sunday, July 26, 2020

Eighth Blackbird takes flight with a linked program by three composers

Susannah Bielak's cover design hints at the gems within.
An adventurous new-music ensemble teases out the meaning of its name with "Singing in the Dead of Night" ( Cedille Records), a collection of music by three composers whose works under this title are linked to lyrics of the Beatles song "Blackbird."

Eighth Blackbird is named after a stanza in Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which runs like this: "I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know."

I can't guess why the "eighth blackbird" of Stevens' poem attracted the ensemble's attention as a best summation of its artistic mission.  But surely the compositions of David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe in "Singing in the Dead of Night" are loaded with noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms, though the latter in particular might well have escaped less expert musicians.

The three works are presented in the order Eighth Blackbird has settled upon in concert since 2008. The three movements of David Lang's "these broken wings" (no caps in any of the titles, the way Eighth Blackbird used to style its name) are in the first, third, and fifth position. The division makes sense both in complementing the Gordon and Wolfe pieces and in representing the unique blend of percussive sounds (including deliberately dropped items) and wind and string sonorities that Lang calls for.

Recorded last fall at the University of Chicago, a Midwestern "hot spot" for new music since the palmy days of Ralph Shapey, "Singing in the Dead of Night" is a worthy contribution to the celebration of Cedille Records' 30th anniversary this year.

Julia Wolfe's long piece, which lends its title to the recording, most deeply represents this Paul McCartney line in "Blackbird" — "into the light of the dark black night."  Its intensity and thick figuration seem  to struggle to evince light in the imagination's darkest night. The music is frankly irritating at times in order to plunge, with no textual underlining needed, into the mystery of that line and the obstacles to any flight out of darkness. It's a work that actually seems to want to be longer than it is (nearly 19 minutes); no easy escape is suggested. Ending with the cryptic rubbing of sandpaper, "singing in the dead of night" adds to my impression of the strong personality this composer shows in the compositions of hers known to me.

Michael Gordon's "the light of the dark" follows up on the rhythmic jumpiness of the opening track, the first movement of the Lang piece, after moaning cello glissandos set out troubling portents relieved by skittering violin, flute and clarinet skittering and steadying accordion chords. The relentless pulse of "the light of the dark" is subject to stunning pauses. A buoyant, rapid lyricism emerges from the clarinet. The passacaglia form organizes the bafflement inherent in the topic and the changing instrumentation.

The second movement of Lang's piece, alluded to above, evokes feelings of stasis associated with the subject of this program. And his finale, which concludes the CD, bears the apt title "learn to fly'; the style is a kind of rambunctious minimalism.  It seems to point the way to a resumption of vitality and the shedding of any dark black night's most troubling implications — especially in the current time of political and pandemic anxiety.

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