The Loops and Variations concert series at Millennium Park usually features a contemporary classical act as well as another artist playing electronic music. Last week, on June 19, there was just one set, but it was varied enough to fit the concept. One of Chicago’s best new-music ensembles, eighth blackbird, had the whole show to itself — but with a guest musician sitting in on several pieces, composer-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman. The evening started with his beautiful composition “Barbeich,” which blended the lyricism of Argentine accordionist Raúl Barboza with the subtly shifting patterns of Steve Reich’s minimalism.
Ward-Bergeman left the stage for a while as eighth blackbird played Bryce Dessner’s “Murder Ballades” suites followed by a set of works by Richard Parry, Claudio Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo and Bon Iver. Then he was back to play — and sing — the final three songs, as the eighth blackbird sextet turned itself into a New Orleans party band, performing “Mardi Gras,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Mississippi.”
The worlds of classical music and indie rock have been intersecting in some interesting and exciting ways lately. I get the sense that certain musicians and composers feel completely free to cross over the old genre boundaries — if they even recognize that such boundaries exist. Several of these category-defying artists came together this past week for two concerts at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Top billing went to Chicago’s eighth blackbird, a chamber ensemble that champions contemporary classical music (or “new music,” if you will). But the group’s guest performers — Shara Worden, Bryce Dessner and Nico Muhly — were a big draw, perhaps explaining why the concerts sold out.
Dessner and Muhly both wrote pieces that eighth blackbird played during the concert, but they also sat in with the ensemble during other pieces, performing like integral members of the team. (Afterward, on his blog, Muhly wrote: “it’s always a pleasure to interfere in their patterns.”)
Worden, who performs her singular style of rock under the name My Brightest Diamond, is also a classically trained singer and composer — and that pedigree came in handy as she took on the role of the soprano for two movements of David Lang’s“Death Speaks,” which has just been released on CD. It was delicate and mournful music, with sublime singing by Worden giving it a strong emotional undertow.
The concert also featured playful moments, including the opener: Tristan Perich’s aptly titled, “qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq,” which used three toy pianos and electronics to create an undulating, mind-bending pattern of notes. Eighth blackbird member Lisa Kaplan wrote three piano pieces for four hands and played them alongside Muhly, their arms crossing but never tangling.
Dessner, best known as a member of The National, wrote a set of four “Murder Ballades” for eighth blackbird, and this was the U.S. premiere of that suite. Dessner drew on old folk songs for his material, and it did sound distinctly American, with woodwinds and strings taking over for the human voices that might have announced tragic crimes via the folk-music medium in the 19th century.
Muhly wrote his composition, “Doublespeak,” for eighth blackbird in 2012 as a contribution to a festival honoring Philip Glass. It echoed the cycling arpeggios and looping melodies that are Glass’ trademark, without sounding like a slavish imitation.
Appropriately, the concert also included an early Glass composition, “Two Pages” from 1968. Introducing it, eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro said, “Philip Glass is sort of the grandfather of this entire concert.” He noted that performing “Two Pages” requirers such intense concentration that it feels like “running an ultra-maration,” and that the musicians are really “freaking out” during the piece even if they seems expressionless. That rigorous Glass composition also proved to be something of an ordeal for the audience — harsher and less yielding than Glass’ later music — but it was an impressive feat in its own way.
Throughout the evening I attended (Wednesday, May 1), eighth blackbird and its guest stars played compositions that were equally intriguing and accessible, performing it all at a high level.
The rainy weather on Sunday (Aug. 26) seemed at first like it might ruin eighth blackbird‘s plans to perform composer John Luther Adams’ piece “Inuksuit” with a hundred or so musicians in Millennium Park. After all, these musicians weren’t just going to be playing on the Pritzker Pavilion’s stage. The idea of this performance (and Adams’ concept) is that the musicians would perform at various scattered spots all over the park.
Some daring concertgoers took seats in front of the stage, staying dry under the pavilion’s roof, but then one of the ensemble members explained that we’d have to venture out onto the lawn to experience the music in the first section of Adams’ piece. It was hard to tell at first that the music had even begun. Some people carrying umbrellas or wearing ponchos formed a circle in the lawn, watching something and a sound emerged from that circle — the sound of people blowing into seashells.
First came the hornlike sound of seashells. And then people waved plastic tubes, making a high-pitched hum. Then came a clatter of drums from all over the lawn. And then other participants began cranking hand-operated sirens. What had begun like an atmospheric backdrop of sounds recorded on a beach sounded like a man-made thunderstorm, complete with sirens warning us all to take shelter. And almost as soon as “Inuksuit” reached this dramatic sensation of alarm, the rain really began to pour down. As it happened, the drummers assembled in front of the stage were playing now, which made it a convenient time to seek shelter up there.
I couldn’t see what happened to the musicians out on the lawn after this — how many of them stayed out there. Adams’ layers of percussion eventually gave way to a tranquil coda of glockenspiels dueling with bird-mimicking piccolos. The peaceful ending of this stormy composition lingered awhile, finally fading into silence. Silence except for the ambient sound of that rain, which was still coming down hard. The audience paused. If others were thinking the same thing as me, they were uncertain whether the music had actually ended. Finally, someone shouted “Bravo!” and the crowd gave the performers a rousing ovation. It felt like we had been part of the performance.
Composer Steve Reich turns 75 on Oct. 3, and musical ensembles have been celebrating that landmark birthday this year by performing Reich’s music. Two estimable new music groups based in Chicago, eighth blackbird and Third Coast Percussion, joined forces and brought in assorted friends to play three pieces by Reich Monday (Aug. 22) at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It was a magnificent way for Millennium Park to wrap up this summer’s series of “Dusk Variations” concerts.
The four members of Third Coast Percussion started out the evening with Reich’s Mallet Quartet, which was followed by a mixed ensemble playing the Double Sextet (with two sets of musicians on flute, cello, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone) — a piece that Reich won the Pulitzer Prize for, after eighth blackbird played its world premiere.
But the main attraction was the hourlong composition in the second half of the concert, Reich’s seminal masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians. The interlocking, interwoven patterns of notes rising up from the Pritzker stage sounded like a living organism, a whole greater than the sum of its parts — although it was fascinating to focus in on the individual parts as well. The music of Reich and other minimalists such as Philip Glass has a mechanical quality, evoking electronica as well as old wind-up music boxes, but a live performance is never completely mechanical. On Monday evening, the precision of the playing was impressive, but it was the human quality of how those notes meshed together without ever being completely robotic that made Reich’s music sound so sublime.