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eighth blackbird
strange imaginary animals
Jennifer Higdon: Zaka.
Gordon Fitzell: violence; evanescence.
Steven Mackey: Indigenous Instruments.
David M. Gordon: Friction Systems.
Dennis DeSantis: strange imaginary remix

Review By Joe Milicia
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  This is Cedille's fourth CD featuring eighth blackbird (still lower case after all these years). The contemporary music ensemble took their name from Wallace Stevens ("I know noble accents/And lucid inescapable rhythms;/But I know, too/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know") and their instrumentation from Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire: piano, violin, viola, flute, and clarinet, plus a percussionist in place of Pierrot's singer. strange imaginary animals features four world premiere recordings, one older work, and, to top off the CD (another review called it an envoi), a playful remix of the other pieces on the program created by composer/sound designer/DJ Dennis DeSantis.

In place of Cedille's usual copious program notes, we are given a foldout with a panel for each piece, featuring artwork by the composer. Jennifer Higdon offers a mock definition of "Zada," her made-up title, plus some funny drawings. Gordon Fitzell does offer a short commentary on his piece violence plus a little poem and a squiggly animal; for his second work, evanescence, he gives us four words that look like a threatening note with pasted letters:

"violence/metamorphosis/sublimation/evanescence." Steven Mackey features a humorous description of his Indigenous Instruments plus a drawing of some doglike or sheeplike animal. Most ingenious of all is David M. Gordon's word search puzzle, with his name and his piece's title circled, but there are more words to be found in the puzzle: I noticed "preparedpiano," "brakedrums" "intensity," "gamelan," and "polyrhythms" just in the horizontal columns. (Gordon also does the cover drawing shown above.) Finally, DeSantis' remix panel simply has more drawings, labeled "exquisite corpse" ones, by the four composers. (The name refers to a Surrealist game of assembling contributions from different artists or writers.) No background on the composers or works is given, so the listener has only a few quirky "handles" for grasping the music: it's all up to our ears. At the risk of going against the spirit of the enterprise, I will offer a few background details as well as impressions of the music.

Jennifer Higdon has received the most attention for her orchestral works, notably Blue Cathedral and her Concerto for Orchestra, but her Zaka is a strong opening piece. Its beginning reminds me of one of those electronic scores that Alwin Nikolais used to write for his dancers — spiky, bustling but not quite frantic, glittering, steady in its rapid pace. But Higdon uses the conventional instruments of the six players, though with prepared piano and some highly unorthodox scrapings and twitterings from the others. The texture thins, thickens again, then seems to evaporate as the piece moves into a slow section with some lovely piano chords interwoven with lyrical passages for the strings and winds. The tempo picks up for a final rapid section, echoing but not repeating the opening. Touches of Stravinsky don't prevent the piece from sounding altogether fresh and contemporary. This would surely be an exciting piece to see performed live — the precision and intricacy of the playing are virtuosic indeed — though the same can be said of everything on this disc.

Steven Mackey's Indigenous Animals inspired the title of the CD, and is the only non-premiere recording on the disc: the 1989 piece, over a decade older than any of the other works, was recorded in 1993 on a Newport Classics disc I have not been able to hear. Divided into three movements simply labeled I, II, III, it is played without pause, but there is a traditional fast-slow-fast pattern (or more accurately, "I" starts out moderate, then gets fast; "II" is very slow; and "III" moderately fast). . Mackey provides a playful description: "De-tuned instruments groan and wail, broken clocks tick irregularly, and funky riffs alternate with calm, floating tunes." Actually, the piece has a more Stravinskian or Apollonian cool about it than that description might suggest. A few observations: The piano is the most prominent instrument throughout, with strong contributions from flute and clarinet, all tending to play in a high register, with repeated patterns of a few (usually two) alternating notes but with irregular rhythms. The violin and cello occasionally punctuate the texture—most strikingly in the finale, where a string or two is tuned an octave low to make scratchy growls — and there is no percussion. Notes are sometimes "bent" to reach quarter-tones, so that some passages sound halfway between jazzy and mildly drunk.

Percussion dominates parts of Friction Systems by David M. Gordon, the youngest composer represented. The opening is quite a jolt, with repeated clanging and banging patterns, though later we hear gentle gamelan-like sounds. The variety of sound textures, constantly overlapping in new patterns, though with a few recurring motifs, is quite fantastic. Here in particular one wants to see eighth blackbird in action: according to reviews of live performances, the piece calls for a battery of unusual percussion instruments from brake drums to toy piano.

Canadian Gordon Frazell's 2001 violence is anything but conventionally violent in sound: it's mostly quiet and mysterious. The composer's program note expresses an interest in "violence inherent to the very structure of the art object." He asks several questions, including "What elements conspire to wage aesthetic war in a work of art?" and "How is violence sublimated?" Maybe the last question suggests a reason for the subdued tones of the piece, sometimes fluttery, sometimes somber, occasionally threatening. In any case, the piece might be best appreciated in terms of what Schoenberg called Klangfarbenmelodie: essentially a sequence of sounds appreciated as patterns of color, like drifting clouds or impressionism floating into abstraction.

evanescence, Franzell's other piece on the disc (separated by the Mackey and Gordon works), is electronic, and began as a revisiting of violence by means of electronics. Without program notes I can only make guesses about how the live performances of the players are transformed into what we hear, though I can report that in a 2004 Georgia Tech performance (not by eighth blackbird) a local music student designed "software to perform real-time signal processing on the sounds created by the live musicians and [combined] these effects with pre-recorded sounds created by the composer." The work is © 2006 according to the CD folder (though the performance was recorded in 2005), so I assume more modifications have been made. In any case, the sounds are typically electronic but with ghostly hints of, say, flute or violin or piano as the originating source. As in violence, the mood is quiet but restless, perhaps more ominous, certainly more tense, with long-held notes that have presumably been stretched out electronically. The piece fades slowly, very gradually, until it melts into the final track, DeSantis' "mix" of the other pieces on the CD. This wittily adds a moderate dance beat, with some trance-like repetitions. Listeners can have the fun of spotting what moments earlier in the CD are being reprised in the mix.

 

 

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