rvw: 8th blackbird at MCA

"If lyrics make people do things, then how come we don't love each other." - Frank Zappa
At the MCA Saturday night, eighth blackbird, the reliably flawless Chicago-based ensemble, attempted to show music's power of expression, offering a counter-argument to  Stravinsky's famous aphorism that music is "essentially powerless to express anything at all."  
The 3-concert program, dubbed PowerFUL, included Bob Dylan's lyrics, moments of near stasis, and members of the ensemble spitting and screaming at the audience--molto espressivo.  In 2 weeks, the group will perform PowerLESS, featuring unexpressive music.

To open, the birds were joined by mezzo-soprano Katherine Calcamuiggio in John Corigliano's Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Songs of Bob Dylan.  Corigliano had the task of writing a song cycle to an American poet and somehow stumbled across and chose the iconic 60s folk musician--with whose music he was not yet familiar.  [I could see an aging folkster crying foul at the cultural appropriation, but, correct me if I'm wrong: folk music and new-classical-art-music seem to attract different crowds.]  

For me, the lyrics were somewhat familiar--more from Hendrix and the Byrds than Dylan's original warble--and Corigliano's version was an recontextualization, a reinterpretation of the classic lyrics, either revealing or imposing a drama in/on the lyrics.  Blowin' in the Wind, for instance, was set to a dirge, Nacht-like, of descending bass lines, betraying more of an existential angst than the original's rhetorical, folksy zen.  Masters of War went from being a protest song, a rallying cry behind the anti-war movement, to expressing unadulterated anger.  The closer, Postlude: Forever Young, was a simple hymn, like a blessing, offering resolution to the dramas perceived and instigated.  [For more info: a review of the work in the NYT.]
After intermission, John Luther Adams' The Light Within was a slowly drifting wall of sound, starting as a dense cluster in the middle of the register, moving up, and then slowly drifting into the lowest register.  Adams' music is minimal in a wholly other sense than traditional minimalists like Reich and Glass. His music often starts with an idea--in this case, an experience the composer had with a sunset--which gets translated into sound.  There's no complex musical form, no real layers, just a texture transforming over time.  So you either like the sound or you don't.  I still haven't found any of his textures particularly engaging, just masses of sound--bland even.  That's the danger with one-idea music: if you don't "get it", you hardly get anything from it.  [Maybe his music merits a literal, visual light accompaniment, changing along with its sonic representation?]  [Also, I still can't help but be reminded of James Tenney's Having Never Written a Note for Percussion which I find far more successful.]
To close, an intense, expectorating arrangement of Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together--arranged by violinist Matt Albert: a paragraph of text, a letter written by prisoner Sam Melville months before his death, orated by Albert along with interjections from the rest of the birds, accompanied by a motorhythmic pentatonic bass line, which Albert's arrangement orchestrates and from which it extrapolates other melodies.  Although the key never changes, the piece never lacks forward momentum as the speech progresses from lucid clarity to raving lunacy--chilling.  Albert--and the other birds--deserve Jeff nominations 
So is music powerful to express anything at all?  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."  So yes and no.  It was almost a cop-out for two-thirds of the program to involve words.  However, in both pieces, the music did seem powerFUL.  In the Corigliano, the music succeeded in giving the words a different shape and, at times, expressing a contrasting meaning than the originals.  In the only instrumental piece, however, the John Luther Adams, the music seemed less expressive than depictive, painting a picture.  [Or does this count as expression? I say no.]
The Tribune, however, says no to all of PowerFUL.
This guy screams yes!
Overall, I say yes with moments of no, making me feel like quite the first-rate intelligence.  The next program. PowerLESS should prove to be even more convincing.

Filed under: eighth blackbird, review

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