Live: ‘Blackbird,’ by the numbers

GROUP ENSEMBLE: Eighth Blackbird plays at the Orange County Performing Artscenter.
GROUP ENSEMBLE: Eighth Blackbird plays at the Orange County Performing Artscenter.
(Lori Shepler, Los Angeles Times)
Times Music Critic

The math behind eighth blackbird’s program Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Artscenter, titled “The Only Moving Thing,” was this:

The ensemble, based at the University of Chicago, takes its name from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” an inspiration for many composers. The musicians number six: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (the grouping Schoenberg came up with nearly a hundred years ago for “Pierrot Lunaire”), plus percussion. The concert, given in the intimate Samueli Theater, contained two major new pieces -- Steve Reich’s Double Sextet and “singing in the dead of night” by the Bang on a Can collective -- but involved four composers. One piece was for 12 players. There were more instruments onstage than I could count. Is birdseed poured on an amplified table one instrument or many?

The eighth of Stevens’ blackbirds is involved in “noble accents / and lucid, inescapable rhythms” and so, certainly, is Reich. His Double Sextet requires the ensemble to record one sextet and then play another live against that. The musicians wore headphones to commune with their alter egos.

That kind of amplified multiplication is a favored technique in Reich’s late music. So too are many other characteristics of this work. The composer is, more often than not, a regular three-movement man (fast-slow-fast). Each movement has four harmonic sections. Lucid, inescapable rhythms tend to be, in Reich, a long note or two cut off by a sharp, noble accent.

Logic and math are Reich’s strong suits, and the composer, 71 and a towering figure on our musical landscape, has found the formulas that work for him. Double Sextet didn’t surprise me, in that every instant it sounded like Steve Reich. And yet the new score (it had its premiere, as did “singing in the dead of night,” in Richmond, Va., last month) is the kind of explosion of fractured rhythms that never ceases to amaze the ear. Six players, through technology, become 12. Then 12 players, through psychoacoustics, become at least 24. Violin plays against prerecorded, slightly off-phased violin, and multiplication seems to occur, with notes flying all over the place. The same goes for cello, piano, flute, clarinet and vibraphone.

Musicians, forced to keep count as though their lives depend on it, typically treat Reich’s music as a left-brain activity. But the left brain can’t hold all that music, and for listeners, all those fractured rhythms spill over onto the right side, where there is room for spatial perception. A really good performance, then, feels like a barely controlled explosion between your ears.

Tuesday’s was a really good, rocking, rollicking performance.

David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julie Wolfe, who were responsible for “singing in the dead of night,” formed Bang on a Can a quarter of a century ago. Each has gone on to an important career -- Lang won a Pulitzer Prize last week for “The Little Match Girl Passion” -- yet they remain close (Gordon and Wolfe are married) and like to collaborate now and then.

Lasting 50 minutes and staged by the choreographer https://:// "> “singing in the dead of night” is a raucous, sad, scary, often disturbing conjuring-up of night images inspired by the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Each composer takes a line from Paul McCartney’s lyrics. Lang’s is “these broken wings,” and he uses it in a prologue, middle episode and epilogue. At grating volumes, slow-moving pitches pierced the room. In the middle episode, a sad-sack player is loaded up, head to foot, with buckets, metal pipes and doodads, which slowly clank to the floor.

Gordon describes his episode, “the light of the dark,” as a drunken, late-night jam session. The cello wails, the violin jigs, the pianist plays mad accordion, the violinist strums a guitar, a percussionist has a tableful of tools. Wolfe, in “singing in the dead of night,” brings out the birdseed, poured from buckets onto a table. Pairs of players take turns rubbing the seed, putting their heads down in it, sleeping restlessly.

After a while, “singing in the dead of night” wears out its welcome just as some long nights do, but the ambitious work tries much. The blackbirds enjoy moving around the stage and seem willing to try just about anything. Collaborating with a significant theater artist, such as Marshall, is an important next step.

“The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds,” Stevens wrote. “It was a small part of the pantomime.” Not so small for these blackbirds, but they are six -- and able to make themselves appear a much larger flock.