Review: eighth blackbird - "Slide"

Before going to eighth blackbird's concert Wednesday at the Harris, I had a vague idea what to expect.  Vague, as in, fuzzy, out of focus.  Before seeing it I called Steve Mackey's piece a "genre-blending song-cycle", which isn't totally wrong, but not quite right.  The program notes helped to clarify the picture quite a bit but still didn't quite prepare me for what I saw.  Along the way, ironically, I continually had to discard my preconceptions to reformulate them.  Now that I've seen it I'm still not quite sure what to call it, but it was the best thing I've seen in a long time.

The star of the show is actor/singer Rinde Eckert, who collaborated with Mackey in the creation of "Slide".  He plays the role of Renard, an aging psychologist looking back on his life through one of his favorite experiements.  At first, I thought he was a primarily a singer, but once he started singing I was sure he was an actor who tries to sing.  A few moments later, the picture clarified once again as he demonstrated the versatility and power of his voice.  If there was anything off about his singing it must have been intentional--some sort of sprechstimme.  
Mackey, the composer, also plays both the guitar and the role of narrator and so, by writing himself into his own work, tears down the wall between composer and performer.  This happens all the time in rock music but rarely in contemporary classical music--though it was fairly common for composers like Mozart.  
Mackey wrote "Slide" for eighth blackbird and it shows.  The work demands so much of the performers that I can't imagine any other ensemble being able to do it in such a convincing manner.  The musicians have to act, move about the stage, and play a variety of other instruments.  8bb has the panache to pull it off--it's their M.O.--whereas most classical musicians keep their eyes buried in their music and look plenty awkward walking to and from their seat.
I think the best way to approach "Slide" is as a play with omnipresent music--both incidental and diagetic.  Or maybe better to think of it as an chamber opera with spoken recitatives.  Or better yet, a chamber prog rock opera: you should expect a wide range of music, from hints of Dowland to Dream Theater.  SWAT opera?  Maybe.  Musical theater?  Probably not.  Though there are a few hints of it in Eckert's voice, it's not that.
And I haven't even mentioned the dancing.  Let's call it "possessed" and leave the rest to your imagination.
Ultimately, "Slide" works because these various forces come together in a cohesive mix of styles to tell a moving story that is equal parts narrative and non-linear.  It is one of the few pieces I've seen recently that I would not only see again but bring friends.  
Errata / Minutia:
  • Few instrumentalists can act.  8bb can and has made it part of their M.O.,  moving around the stage with grace and purpose.  Even when they speak (or sing) they make it work.  But no one can make moving chairs look interesting.  Can we avoid this?
  • 8bb uses "sound reinforcement" to fill halls like the Harris--rightfully so.  The balance was, in general, pretty good in spite of challenge of having to mix acoustic instruments with electric guitar (with varying amounts of distortion) and drum set--all while keping the speaker/singer on top.  And yet, I could have used louder power chords on the guitar and more low end on the piano in the louder sections.
  • I am a fan of genre-blending as long as it emerges from the composer's own experience.  Mackey has been both a rock guitarist and a lutist, so incorporating those elements seems genuine, as does the resulting music.  Eckert has been both an opera singer and an actor, both of which emerge in his performance.
  • There were a couple moments of gratuitous walking--like back and forth between the drum set and mallets--that seemed avoidable.
  • If you missed my last couple of reviews, I've recently been bombarded by works trying to redefine opera: at the LyricOpera CabalChicago Opera Vanguard, and now this.  Coming after years of deconstructing opera, "Slide" seems like the closest thing so far to a way for opera to move forward.  If it's not growing, it's dying.
  • Tell me what you thought.  Bonus points if you disagree with me.

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  • This performance sounds as though it was amazing. I am very much a fan of eighth blackbird, and I am sad that I missed this particular program. However, I have to wonder why there was only one performance, and I had the same thought about their unique rendering of Pierrot Lunaire (I was able to see that performance, but I had friends who were unable to make it on a weekday). My understanding is that eighth blackbird is a Chicago-based ensemble, so I can't imagine that it would be terribly difficult to arrange a multiple performance run for interesting productions of Pierrot Lunaire and, judging from this description, Slide.

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