Eighth blackbird lands at Ojai Music Festival

The Ojai Music Festival has a long tradition of picking some of the era’s most important artists to serve as its music director, a position that rotates annually. But though the festival has sometimes chosen more than one person at a time for the job, only once before has an ensemble held the distinction -- in 2002, when the Emerson String Quartet was selected.

This year the title will again have multiple holders: six, to be exact, as the Chicago-based contemporary-music collective eighth blackbird (the group favors the lowercase spelling) takes charge of the 63rd festival starting Thursday.

Eighth blackbird’s assumption of the prestigious post -- previously held by Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen -- marks a milestone in the sextet’s 13-year history, conferring on it an elevated status among new-music groups. The appointment also signals a generational shift in the festival, since the ensemble’s members were all born in the 1970s.

Thomas W. Morris, the festival’s artistic director since 2004, offered the group members their present role at the conclusion of the 2006 festival, when they were guest musicians. “I was completely knocked out by them -- by their calm virtuosity, their incredible showmanship,” he recalled. “I was really bowled over. I’d been thinking about future music directors and doing different things. I want to build a ‘next generation’ around Ojai.”

Lisa Kaplan, eighth blackbird’s pianist and sole female member, was thrown for a loop by the proposition. “This is kind of a funny story,” she said this spring when the ensemble was in residence at the Colburn Conservatory downtown. “During the 2006 festival, there were these video interviews, and we were asked if we’d considered being appointed music director. I said that would be like the coolest thing ever, an incredible opportunity. Then, at the end of the festival, Tom Morris came up to me and actually offered us the job for 2009.”

That was the easy part. Compiling Ojai’s four days of programming and deciding with whom eighth blackbird would collaborate over the long weekend proved more complicated.

“I felt it was very important that if we were going to have a group like eighth blackbird be music director, the whole festival ought to fit what they do and not just in terms of artists and sequence of pieces,” said Morris. “The whole feeling ought to be unusual and reflect their spirit and what they represent. And as we talked and talked and talked about this, what emerged was this idea of treating the entire festival like a large ensemble.”

The result is a roster of some 30 other musicians, including pianist Jeremy Denk, soprano Lucy Shelton, composer-electric guitarist Steven Mackey, singer-actor Rinde Eckert and two other ensembles -- Tin Hat, a San Francisco-based new-music group, and QNG, an all-female recorder quartet from Europe.

“Basically what we’re doing is making it an all-weekend-long jam session, in which we mix and match everybody according to the repertory,” said Morris, noting that eighth blackbird appears unaugmented only once during the festival, when performing Stephen Hartke’s “Meanwhile.” They will be surrounded by the greatest number of colleagues as the festival comes to a raucous conclusion with Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union.”

Some of their partners, like Shelton, known for her interpretation of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” are colleagues with whom eighth blackbird has an established rapport. But others represent new relationships, including Eckert, whose multimedia work “Slide” (a collaboration with Mackey receiving its premiere on Friday night) is touted as the festival’s anchor work.

Eighth blackbird -- whose members also include Matt Albert, violin and viola; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Tim Munro, flute; and Nicholas Photinos, cello -- has been forging relationships with composers and other musicians almost since the group’s inception in 1996.

Back then, all except Munro (who replaced flutist Molly Barth in 2006) were students at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where an instructor picked them for a then-unnamed new-music ensemble. Not long after, they found they played better without their teacher’s direction.

The following autumn, all six enrolled in the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, agreeing to remain together for two years in the hope of forming a viable ensemble. The experiment paid off -- despite some people’s misgivings about their unusual combination of instruments -- and the group moved to Chicago at the turn of the millennium, then not long afterward became artists in residence at the University of Chicago. (Since 2004, they have also enjoyed a similar relationship at the University of Richmond in Virginia.)Credit for the sextet’s unusual name goes to Albert, who majored in English and was struck by the eighth stanza of a poem by Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which mentions “noble accents” and “lucid, inescapable rhythms.”

Those who wonder how a sextet of diverse instruments -- as opposed to, say, a string quartet -- manages to find enough music to play might be surprised at what they have unearthed, something attested to by their five albums, including a Grammy winner. “There’s actually more repertoire out there for our group than people think,” said Photinos. “We did a search and found about 200 works for our instrumentation, though not all of them are masterpieces.” To augment what exists, eighth blackbird has taken to commissioning works, which has become easier with their increasing recognition.

Besides Hartke’s “Meanwhile,” two other works written for the ensemble will be performed at Ojai: “Slide,” a festival co-commission with music by Mackey and lyrics by Eckert, and Steve Reich’s “Double Sextet,” winner of a Pulitzer Prize this year.

The Reich was a product of persistence, specifically Kaplan’s. She had met the composer early this decade in Cincinnati, where he heard her play his music. “We kind of hit it off, and I remember saying, ‘You should write a piece for us,’ ” the pianist recalled. “He didn’t say no, but he did say that he always writes for doubles, and we only have one of each instrument.” She kept in touch.

Eventually, Reich had a breakthrough: “I thought about using tape,” he said. “They could record themselves, thus doubling themselves. It works marvelously well with tape, but it’s even better with 12 musicians,” which is how “Double Sextet” will be performed.

“Slide,” a 75-minute work with no intermission, was six years in the making. “It summarizes all the things we like to do,” said Munro. “It’s this wonderful amalgam of visual and theatrical elements. We even have cellphone conversations in it. It’s everything but the kitchen sink.”

Mackey, who first worked with eighth blackbird in 2003, characterized the work as “discrete musical numbers connected by a character rather than a play supported by music.” The composer and lyricist are also featured performers, with Mackey on electric guitar and Eckert, who directs the production, singing, speaking and playing the euphonium. The drama centers on a character named Renard, an enigmatic psychiatrist who had conducted a study of people’s reactions to out-of-focus slides, a metaphor for issues like doubt and clarity.

Like up to half of eighth blackbird’s repertory, “Slide” will be performed from memory, to afford the group greater potential for expression. “Memorizing allows us to add a visual element,” Munro said, “which means bringing the music closer to the public.”

They’ll take a similar approach in a fully dramatized “Pierrot Lunaire,” in which, because there’s no percussion in the piece, Duvall will play the part of Pierrot. A dancer, Elyssa Dole, will mirror Shelton, the soprano, and both will interact with Duvall. “This is sort of the idea that we want to get across the whole festival,” said Munro, in effect distilling eighth blackbird’s ethos. “We want to take chamber music and expanded its horizons.”