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Less powerful

February 20, 2011

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in eighth blackbird’s PowerFUL concert program in Chicago which was excellent, and I wrote about here.  When I started to plan out what music I was going to see this February, balancing the various festivals and other programming going on, I ended up selecting PowerFUL again to see during eighth blackbird’s Tune In festival at the Park Avenue Armory on February 17.  Unfortunately, I didn’t leave with any of the same warm fuzzies that I had walking out of the MCA.

I would have liked to hear Mr. Tambourine Man, which was on the MCA program, partially because the idea of hearing Masters of War in a former drill room would have been thrilling and partially because I wondered when I heard the chamber version of the piece if a more reverberant room would have improved it.

Instead, eighth blackbird chose the only piece to be on both programs to be Coming Together. This reading seemed a little more patient and at  relaxed than when I heard it in Chicago.  Also, the mic work was not quite as crisp.  Coming Together is an extremely intense piece that requires some sort of reflection when it is over.  What happened when the piece finished, though, is that a quote from John Cage was read about how he didn’t very much like Coming Together, and then red fish blue fish played Cage’s Credo in Us, which left me bewildered and unnerved.

Why attempt to open that sort of dialogue if you’re not going to continue it?  Let’s not forget that the theme of the concert was music that has the power to express something.  How does that quote, or most of Cage’s music, which focuses on the idea of removing the ego from music, fit this theme even remotely.  Based on the limited program notes for the piece I can find anywhere, Credo is a vague, unfocused, and satirical response to the overly patriotic music that was being written in the wake of Pearl Harbor and does a fairly poor job of expressing a clear message.  It also was written decades before the Rzewski piece or Cage’s quote, making it even more of a non-sequitur.  I’m glad I was able to hear the piece live, but if eighth blackbird was seeking out a piece by Cage that fit this theme, how about the Etudes Boreales?

Following red fish blue fish was Newspeak, who did three pieces: David T. Little’s sweet light crude, Stefan Weisman’s I Would Prefer Not To, and Matt Marks’ A Portrait of Glenn Beck.  sweet light crude unfortunately got off to a rocky start, which I think was because of some nasty feedback throwing off the performers.  It began to gel by the midpoint of the piece and from there on out they played and sang great.  I think that hall takes away a bit from a group like that because some of their colors can get eaten up, but I enjoyed it.

Another odd programming choice though may have been Glenn Beck. In context with all of the other works on the program, the piece can be easily misconstrued as a satirical caricature of the man, but I don’t believe that is the intention.  To me, I get the impression that the setting of the speech is a patchwork of American music that Glenn Beck would have used, if he had musical abilities, to back up his words.  The commentary from Marks, or the music part of the music, is minimal.

The concert finished with Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, which doesn’t sound as good as the concept.  It feels like it starts to meander a bit of the way through the piece, which in the end was a unison of all 30 performers from the night wailing away.  It might have been a tad bit too loud, but I think that’s sort of the fun of the piece.

Ultimately, what struck me about the PowerFUL program I heard in Chicago was a musical conversation between the pieces that was made even more intriguing by the musicians addressing the audience during the program.  On Thursday night, I didn’t hear that conversation between the works, and I was disappointed that the musicians remained silent during the concert. If the argument being made is that music is saying something, why are musicians silent?

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