May 2, 2016 by TOM HUIZENGA • The Chicago new-music ensemble eighth blackbird is on a roll. Just after winning its fourth Grammy in February, the group received a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions; the prize came with a $400,000 grant. Hand Eye — eighth blackbird's second album in seven months — just came out, and this season the group marks its 20th anniversary. The celebration includes an extensive tour, with world premieres of music by Bryce Dessner and David T. Little, as well as a gig as a "living installation" at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, where eighth blackbird has commandeered the third-floor galleries as a space to rehearse and perform.
It's an understatement to note that there's far less space behind Bob Boilen's desk. But after a few discussions about placement, the sextet squeezed in while making sure everyone could see each other — one of the keys to navigating rhythmically challenging pieces by David Lang, Bryce Dessner and Robert Honstein.
Right out of the gate, we meet the group's newest member, flutist Nathalie Joachim, who opens the first of two short pieces, "Wave The Sea," with a scurrying theme of nervous energy. The music is by Bryce Dessner, perhaps best known for his work in The National but increasingly in demand as a classical composer. It's Dessner's take on the folk tradition of grisly story-songs collected in his larger suite, Murder Ballades.
"Pulse," from Robert Honstein's three-movement Conduit, seems to hover in midair. Throbbing notes from Matthew Duvall's vibraphone, Yvonne Lam's violin, Lisa Kaplan's piano and Michael J. Maccaferri's clarinet fold in one by one, as if in a round. Joachim's flute floats above while Nicholas Photinos' cello secures the bottom end, fleshing out a mesmerizing wash of sound.
David Lang's "learn to fly," also from a larger work, pumps up the energy with a motorik beat, fueled by Kaplan's syncopation. The interlocking parts race on until Lam finally breaks out of the pattern, soaring in a sweepingly romantic solo.
For those who persist in predicting the death of classical music, eighth blackbird once again demonstrates that it remains vibrantly alive.
The group's new album, Hand Eye, is available now
Bryce Dessner: "Wave The Sea," "Brushy Fork"
Robert Honstein: "Pulse"
David Lang: "learn to fly"
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Niki Walker; Audio Engineers: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Niki Walker, Kara Frame, Colin Marshall; Production Assistant: Jackson Sinnenberg; Photo: Brandon Chew/NPR.