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.
Review: eighth blackbird - "Slide"
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: