Review: eighth blackbird and other new music at Ojai Music Festival


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Although we never really know where music is headed, sometimes we think we do. This is one of those times. The Chicago-based new music sextet eighth blackbird took over this year’s Ojai Music Festival in Libbey Bowl for four days and packed it full with more and more varied music (and music theater) than ever before in the quirky, famous festival’s 63-year history.

The players, in their early 30s, are musical omnivores, convinced that nearly anything goes and goes together. A non-stop series of concerts, demonstrations, a symposium and a film screening that began last Thursday night and concluded with a five-hour marathon Sunday was not always convincing. But with these blackbirds singing morning, noon and in the dead of night, horizons could not but expand.

Formed in 1996 by students at Oberlin College, the blackbirds are examples of a new breed of super-musicians. They perform the bulk of their new music from memory. They have no need of a conductor, no matter how complex the rhythms or balances. They are, as Juilliard Dean Ara Guzelimian said at the festival symposium Friday, “stage animals,” often in motion, enacting their scores as they play them. They are without stylistic allegiances. Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, experimentalism, New Romanticism, old Expressionism, rock, smooth jazz, not-so-smooth jazz — all come easily and naturally.


They brought to Ojai several of their like-minded, and in some astonishing instances, similarly multi-tasking, multi-talented friends. In addition, resident at Ojai this year were three barrier-breaking artists interesting enough to be subjects of their own festivals.

Trimpin is often called a mad genius, because that’s a lot easier than describing the way his startling mind works as he assembles toys, junk and what-not into fantastical, joyously interactive sonic installations that sweep the observer/participant into states of sonic wonderment. His “Sheng High” in Libbey Park translated the images of a martini and other unlikely things into the sounds of an otherworldly underwater organ. The fine, funny new documentary, ‘Trimpin: The Sound of Invention,’ which was screened Saturday, proved a marvelous mood enhancer.

Jeremy Denk -- a young American pianist who also happens to have a background in chemistry and who also happens to be a gifted writer (his blog, Think Denk, is marvelous) with a deep and original musical mind -- was another hero of the festival. If he had done nothing more than rescue Ives’ First Piano Sonata from obscurity, which he did in his glorious Saturday morning recital, I would say the weekend would have been worthwhile.

The third resident genius was the curious singer, actor Rinde Eckert. He was, along with composer Steven Mackey, the co-creator, and central figure in the centerpiece of the festival, “Slide,” which received its world premiere on Friday night.

“Slide,” in many ways, epitomized the kind of new musical world that eighth blackbird is ushering us into. Like most at Ojai this year, Mackey is more than one kind of musician. He is an electric guitarist and his music is influenced by rock and jazz. He is a Princeton music professor, and his music equally includes subtle metric shifts and rhythmic intricacies found in sophisticated contemporary classical music.

He doesn’t completely manage the merger of raw rock and cooked classicism in “Slide,” but the stylistic sliding is nonetheless powerful and impressive. Unfortunately, he saddled himself with a sophomoric theatrical concept – a lonely psychologist who studies how people interpret images seen in and out of focus. This mirrors his own soft-focus life.

The show, which was directed by Eckert, is an elaboration of a series of elliptical songs. At 80 minutes, “Slide” slipped a lot and will surely have significant refinement as the blackbirds begin to tour it. Mackey wailed away on his guitar and served as effective narrator. Eckert enacted a sad-sack who could boogie. The blackbirds brought their irresistible élan.


Mackey was born in 1956, so the blackbirds can’t be accused of age discrimination, but I was particularly struck by how many of the major works they chose were written by composers in their 30s. Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” was one, and it was given an elaborate staging Saturday night by choreographer Mark DeChiazza. Five of the blackbirds – pianist Lisa Kaplan, violinist and violist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri and flutist Tim Munro – played from memory while assuming both meaningful and meaningless poses around soprano Lucy Shelton.

Percussionist Matthew Duvall, who is given no part by Schoenberg, enacted Pierrot and a dancer, Elyssa Dole, added further extraneous activity. The intense interaction of the players and Shelton turned this performance into a genuinely new way of looking at a 20th century musical icon. But all the rest made it a pointless ‘Pierrot.’

Ives was an exact contemporary of Schoenberg, and his First Sonata was roughly contemporary with “Pierrot.” Steve Reich was in his late 30s as well when he wrote his groundbreaking ‘Music For 18 Instruments’ in 1976. The blackbirds, with a lot of help from their friends, put together a winning performance of the hour-long piece in a couple of rehearsals for our Sunday morning wake-up call.

“Pierrot” was preceded on Saturday night by a recent work by yet another thirtysomething, David Michael Gordon. His Quasi Sinfonia for 16 musicians goes to town with 19th century musical hymns, which the composer said in his program note suited his evangelical Christianity. Gordon uses a lot of percussion and by the end I felt as though he wanted to smash the hymns down a listener’s throat. But his harmonic skill is formidable and, for all his gimmickry, he writes strong, disturbing music.

Programming contrasts such as Gordon with Schoenberg were common all weekend. Denk paired Ives’ hard-edged sonata, which also uses 19th century hymn tunes, with Bach’s celestial “Goldberg” Variations. Tin Hat, a four-member ensemble, played light jazz before “Slide.” This new contrasting aesthetic suggests a clicker mentality but without the short attention span. Concentrating hard and long on one thing, then moving on to the next, unrelated thing becomes the new way of paying attention.

I was ready to dismiss Tin Hat as pleasant brunch stuff until I heard what these players could do in other contexts. Most impressive was the violinist and soprano Carla Kihlstedt. She is a really good violinist and a really good soprano at the same time, and her solo performance of Lisa Bielawa’s haunting “Kafka Songs” on Sunday was memorable, and all the more so for her achieving it in a late stage of pregnancy.


There were many highlights. Stephen Hartke’s “Meanwhile” had the blackbirds entering into the world of Asian puppet theater. Nathan Davis’ “Sounder” included remote-controlled nutty percussion hanging from a nearby tree, courtesy of Trimpin. QNG, a quartet of four German recorder players, chirped alluringly in music new and ancient.

Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, was given full-out with 12 players (eighth blackbird performed it last year in Orange County against a recording of itself). Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union” – written in 1975 and another ground-breaking piece by a composer in his 30s – ended Sunday’s five-hour marathon with all the festival participants magnificently banging away.

John Cage once said, anything goes, but that doesn’t mean you can do anything you want. Eighth blackbird does anything it wants, and gets away with it much of the time. I think greatness for this ensemble will come when it learns a little more discrimination and when it works more with top theater artists. Still, blackbirds loosened on Ojai last weekend are unquestionably birds of bright promise.

Next year the British composer George Benjamin will be music director.

-- Mark Swed