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.