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March 11, 2013


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The name "eighth blackbird" comes from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


eighth blackbird performed several pieces by the American composer Tom Johnson during the first half of their concert.

More on those wild pieces tomorrow.


The review of the concert from this morning's Washington Post:

Fresh off its third Grammy win last month, Eighth Blackbird, the Chicago-based sextet, proved worthy of its acclaim, presenting “Shifted During Flight” on Friday night at the Clarice Smith Center. The program, a metaphor for not knowing what might drop from an airliner’s overhead bin, packed a contrasting range of contemporary music that flowed intelligently.

Beginning with a section from Derek Bermel’s pulsating “Tied Shifts,” the evening bounded and never looked back. The music, a virtual chase scene of frenetic Balkan rhythms, halted only briefly when musicians physically confronted each other in unpredictable “conversations.”

While real conversation, of sorts, provided amusing contrasts in Philip Glass’s “Knee Play 2,” where Yvonne Lam’s rigorous violin ostinatos careened off spoken poetry, the breathless barking of numbers was key to Tom Johnson’s humorous “Counting Duets.” Blackbird flutist Tim Munro and cellist Nicholas Photinos bombarded one another with numerals shouted in various patterns, beginning on stage and progressing through the auditorium.

Munro and Blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan are also skilled arrangers. They transformed two of Gyorgy Ligeti’s tightly packed piano etudes into transparent, colorful chamber music, leaving one wanting more. Brilliant too was Nico Muhly’s “Doublespeak,” a sparkling homage to minimalism’s early days, with quotes from his mentor Philip Glass. Pizzicato strings with a wash of clarinet was one of many lovely, fleeting textures.

But it was Steve Reich’s Pulitzer-winning “Double Sextet” that brought the full house to its feet. Written for Eighth Blackbird, the hard-driving, densely woven music proved an effective cap to the evening as six University of Maryland students joined the pros on stage in an edge-of-the-seat performance. Although fueled by relentless, interlocking pulses in pianos and vibraphones, Reich’s “Sextet” is about more than rhythm. Unique timbres grew from in-unison playing and tangy harmonies in strings and winds, and a central movement slowed to a jazzy, almost tango beat.

Judging from the passionate response, perhaps attitudes are shifting too. When new music sounds this good, who needs Mozart and Brahms?


WOW!!! (otherwise speechless)


"Double Sextet" was an incredible piece to hear performed live. I was also very impressed by the UMD students, as were eighth blackbird.

Before the piece began, Lisa Kaplan (the pianist) introduced the piece and spoke of the limited time they had to practice with the students. eighth blackbird was delayed by a storm in Chicago and arrived a day late, so they only had hours to practice. She went on to say how prepared the students were and how impressed the group was. I thought she was just being kind.

But it was obvious in the performance, the time the students put into preparation. It went off without error. Also so enjoyable to see the joy in all of the musicians faces, while playing and afterwards. Almost infectious. It was the highlight for the audience, but I cannot say a negative thing about any of the pieces performed. A real variety.

I feel fortunate to have discovered the group and see them play live.


I liked that they had fun and didn't take themselves too seriously, but were still enthusiastic and passionate about the music. For those who think classical is "boring", especially younger listeners, this would be a good group to introduce them to. Classical compositions can be modern and fresh.


Rather than post about the composer Tom Johnson tomorrow, I'll just add this description of his piece, "Counting Duets" that two members of eighth blackbird performed on Friday night. This is from a performance in early February in Austin, TX:

Described by Lisa Kaplan [eighth blackbird pianist] as “Sesame Street on crack,” the work was performed by Maccaferri [clarinetist; when the Sassistas! saw the performance, it was the cellist and flutist] and flutist Tim Munro in another duet, this one involving numbers spoken. While the cheeky introduction was endearing, it was the piece itself that hooked the audience, many of whom (present company included) were laughing out loud by the time the work ended. The four movements involved Maccaferri and Munro counting, hocketing, whispering, and yelling simple number sequences to/at each other while they constantly changed their physical position on stage relative to one another. I could talk about the simple additive processes (though written in 1982, similar at a DNA level to the final movement of David Lang’s So Called Laws of Nature) but at the risk of assuming composer intention here, I think that’s missing the point. The piece engaged the audience by laying bare the processes that drove it, giving them an opportunity to figure out each short puzzle as it played out. This, coupled with the visual impact of the tall and lanky Munro and the less tall Maccaferri rapidly yelling numbers back and forth at one another, made for one of the most engaging moments of the night: when both performers walked off stage and the lights were dimmed, seeming to indicate the end of the piece. As the audience began to enthusiastically applaud, Munro (now slightly horse from yelling) began the final sequence from stage right as Maccaferri responded from stage left. Everyone quieted down until they finished and returned to the stage to some of the loudest applause of the night.

Same was true for last Friday night.


About the composer Tom Johnson:



Went on a loooong walk today, listening only to "Double Sextet", playing the last movement in parTICular several times.


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