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Missy Mazzoli: Still Life with Avalanche
Philippe Hurel: …à mesure
Roshanne Etezady: Damaged Goods: iii. About Time; iv. Eleventh Hour
Stephen Hartke: Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays
Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion
Thomas Adès: Catch, for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano
eighth blackbird
Review By Joe Milicia


  Meanwhile is Cedille's sixth release of music performed by eighth blackbird, the lower-case contemporary-music sextet named after the eighth section of Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." ("I know noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms;/But I know, too,/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know.") Those who have enjoyed earlier releases (I especially recommend Strange Imaginary Animals [2006] or Jennifer Higdon's concerto On a Wire for eighth blackbird and the Atlanta Symphony/Robert Spano, on the ASO's own label) can rest assured that the new CD will provide similar pleasures, especially considering Cedille's usual exemplary sound.

The program opens with a 2008 piece by Brooklyn-based Missy Mazzoli, whom Nancy Bieschke's program notes describe as "the force behind the all-female indie band Victoire." Although the title, Still Life with Avalanche, seems to portend a traumatic interruption of a peaceful scene, the work in fact features no shattering changes of mood or style. It opens with a drone of strings and ends with a similar "buzz" of harmonicas, but even the vigorous rhythmic passages that thread through the piece (hints of Philip Glass with a bit of a Latino flavor) have a pervasive melancholy. The piece skillfully brings out the particular colors of the eighth blackbird ensemble — the PierrotLunaire quintet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, plus percussionist. (The booklet notes don't tell us who doubles on the harmonicas at the end).

Philippe Hurel is a French composer (b. 1955) who has been associated with IRCAM (the Pierre Boulez-founded, Pompidou Center-based organization), and whose list of compositions is dominated by works for chamber ensembles of all sorts. His 1996 …à mesure has a title derived from the hard-to-translate expression "Au fut et à mesure" (roughly, "gradually"). The piece is a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of mostly bright sounds, recalling the sonic world of early Boulez works like Le marteau sans maître. (The percussionist plays vibraphone throughout.) It's an engaging work, doubtless very challenging to play, that would be exciting to see live.

American Stephen Hartke's 2007 Meanwhile, providing the CD's title, is equally engaging, especially for its "colors": in creating music for "imaginary puppet plays," Hartke evokes Asian sonorities by preparing the piano with "large soft mutes" to make it sound like a dulcimer and using flexatones to "mimic the sounds of small Javanese gongs." Why not use actual Javanese gongs, other than issues of availability? Maybe because the eerie flexatones make the piece more "imaginary," i.e., dreamlike or distanced, a step away from imitation of actual folk music. Each of the six movements, transitioning without pause, tends to favor certain instruments: percussion in the opening "Procession," bass clarinet in "Fanfares" and "Narration," strings (naturally enough) in "Spikefiddlers," flute at the beginning and end of the moody "Cradle-songs," and prepared piano in the lively finale, "Celebration."

The "classic" on this program is Philip Glass's Music in Similar Motion. This is early Glass (1969) an 11-minute piece that "can be played by any combination of instruments," according to the notes. It is Glass at his most minimalist, with a steadiness of rhythm and consistency of volume (medium loud) that some listeners will find hypnotic. I personally prefer the much less austere Glass of the late 1970s onward, starting with the opera Satyagraha and the film score for Koyaanisqatsi, but eighth blackbird's performance shows strong commitment to this uncompromising aesthetic.

I'm not quite sure how to assess Thomas Adès' Catch via mere listening, since according to the booklet notes the clarinetist is supposed to run about the stage in a game of Monkey in the Middle, the "outsider" against the stationary members of a piano trio. I heard no striking stereophonic staging of the piece, but could appreciate (though not especially enjoy) how "Frenzied and phenomenally difficult parts for all four instruments evoke the childish chaos and exuberance of the game." Extreme high registers of all the instruments are frequently used, along with glissandos and other veerings off pitch. The booklet mentions fragments of "waltzes, a passacaglia, a child's taunt," but I could find no waltz whatever, though an occasional repeated note or figure could suggest a passacaglia, I guess, and the familiar childish "NYA-nya-nya-NYA-nya!" does pop up briefly.

Finally, the CD includes the final two (out of four) movements of Roshanne Etezady's 2000 Damaged Goods. These are separated, with "About Time," a slow movement, coming between Hurel and Hartke, and the fast finale, "Eleventh Hour," appropriately ending the program. I wondered why only these movements were included, since they total 6 minutes and the CD would have had room for another 11; but some Internet research indicates that Damaged Goods was written as part of a collaboration with three other composers, each contributing a four-movement piece, and that eighth blackbird gave a concert with the 16 movements shuffled amongst one another. So the performers clearly see these as stand-alone pieces. In any case, "About Time" is gentle and quite lovely, and the hard-driving "Eleventh Hour" could be chase music for a thriller.

Cedille provides clarity across a very wide range of dynamics, with the distinctive timbres of each instrument (sometimes required to emit very untraditional tones) beautifully conveyed.





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