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Review: Eighth Blackbird’s PowerFUL

January 25, 2011

I’ve never really taken Stravinsky’s famous quote “Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” at face value.  It strikes me as flame bait on an Internet message board, inciting people to furiously type out responses and critiques, but most importantly drawing a whole lot of attention to the flame baiter.  Stravinsky was simply exercising his hyperbole muscles – he has too much music with specific dramatic story arcs or emotional destinations to entirely believe it.

Regardless, the quote formed the basis of eighth blackbird’s mini-series called PowerFUL/LESS, of which I heard the first part on January 22 at the MCA Chicago.  Tim Munro’s idea was to present music forming the poles of the argument Stravinsky raises, a sort of Point/Counterpoint concert series.  The program I took in was the counterpoint, and it featured John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man, John Luther Adams’ The Light Within, and Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together.

I wrote about the Corigliano work many months ago, based on the recording of the orchestral version.  I feel nearly entirely the same about the work.  I was pretty excited to finally hear the work live, with a little concern about how the vocal part would function in a chamber setting.  Corigliano expects a lot of power from the singer, to the degree that it could overpower six instruments.  Hearing Katie Calcamuggio, it was pretty clear she could effortlessly cover up all of the instruments, but she impressively managed to control her voice and fit it inside the group.  She managed to navigate both extremes, the pure “Forever Young” and violent “Masters of War” even better than I remember on the recording.  While eighth blackbird played spectacularly, I think the reduction doesn’t work perfectly.  There is too much sustain built into the orchestral version for the soprano to sing on top of that isn’t felt in the chamber adaptation.

The John Luther Adams is really cool piece on paper, but I wasn’t entirely engaged during the performance.  Built around trying to convey the image of light, the musicians build a texture over top an electronic ‘aura.’  This is music that I feel functions best when the listener opts in to listening.  Myself, I would like to listen to the work in the dark so I could try to imagine the light, and I would want place myself in a comfortable setting, not a medium-sized concert hall.  I wish there was a recording of the work.

Very familiar with eighth blackbird’s album fred, I was pretty excited to hear Coming Together at the end of the program.  The work is centered around a letter from Sam Melville, a prisoner at Attica, written months before the 1971 riots.  The piece’s form is built on a strict process involving repetitions of the eight sentences reaching an intense climax.  I love about 95% of the piece, but every so often I feel like the group’s arrangement borders on a bit of a sunny disposition, considering the very intense subject matter, and I felt this both live and in the recording.  The difference is that live, the emotional apex is much more aggressive.

Afterwards, some of the group discussed the works on the concert, which was light and informal.  The most illuminating part of the talk was when Matt Albert discussed performing the text from Coming Together. He talked about how political art in general and this piece specifically allows him to explore worlds that he has no experience in, such as Melville’s life in Attica.

As an exercise in exploring music that can say something, I think the concert was a success.  Coming Together in particular is able to express political issues without sloganeering, which is the most difficult and valuable type of political art to write.  People can walk away from Coming Together with very different reactions to the riots at Attica, not only informed by their own personal histories and beliefs, but also by the twenty-minute exploration in the life of an inmate.  This is clearly valuable in our society and for our democracy, regardless of one’s political outlook.  This is why the National Endowment for the Arts supports projects like this.

Unfortunately on my way to the venue that evening one of the topics of conversation was the plan to Zero Fund the National Endowment for the Arts.   As a responsible credit card holder that feels weird whenever I owe anyone more than a few bucks, I entirely understand with the desire to have a financially sound government.  At the same time, I think it’s unfair, and honestly politically motivated, to target Arts funding.  I may not have been aware of the Culture Wars at the time they were going on, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that they were an attack on misrepresented artists in order to energize the conservative base to vote.  The arts were a decoy in order to solidify power, and I think two decades later its important we don’t fall into this trap again.

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