University of Chicago resident ensemble eighth blackbird rarely is described the same way twice. The contemporary classical sextet has been called everything from “the ascendant generation of post classical music” to “a new breed of super-musicians.” But according to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, one term bears repeating: Grammy winners.
The Chicago-based wind, string, piano and percussion group won in the category of small ensemble performance for its recording of Steve Mackey's "Lonely Motel: Music from Slide" at the 54th Grammy Awards held Sunday, Feb. 12 in Los Angeles. The group previously won two Grammys for its 2006 recording, “Strange Imaginary Animals.”
Martha Feldman, Chairman of Music, said the Department of Music is proud of eighth blackbird’s accomplishments in the recording industry as well as their work at the University in their music residency.
“We are especially proud of their work as the new music ensemble-in-residence with Contempo, our flagship new music collective, not least their superb performances of new compositions by doctoral candidates in our cohort of graduate students in the Composition Program.”
“Lonely Motel” features songs from Slide, the innovative music and theater work that eighth blackbird originally performed with composer-electric guitarist and Princeton professor Steven Mackey and singer, actor, and librettist Rinde Eckert as the centerpiece of the 2009 Ojai Music Festival in Southern California.
Eckert plays the character Renard, a lovelorn psychologist who, after being jilted on his wedding day, reminisces about research he conducted using projections of photographic slides to explore the fallibility of human perception. Cedille Records, eighth blackbird’s recording label, likens the music to “a dish by and for musical omnivores,” seasoned with homages to Dowland, Mozart, Stravinsky, Piazzola, and The Beatles.
Reviewing the performance of Slide at Ojai, Los Angeles Times reviewer Mark Swed called eighth blackbird a prime example of emerging “super-musicians” for the group’s free-form, genre-defying, plucky performance. “They perform the bulk of their new music from memory. They have no need of a conductor, no matter how complex the rhythms or balances,” he wrote. “They are without stylistic allegiances. Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, experimentalism, New Romanticism, old Expressionism, rock, smooth jazz, not-so-smooth jazz — all come easily and naturally. “
The group’s collaboration with Mackey and Eckert is one of many times it has reached out to other artists to delight, provoke and entertain audiences with a style ensemble members self-describe as mingling “the finesse of a string quartet with the energy of a rock band and the riskiness of a storefront theater company.” Since its founding in 1996, eighth blackbird has commissioned new works from composers such as Steve Reich, George Perle, Frederic Rzewski, Joseph Schwantner, Paul Moravec, and Stephen Hartke, as well as works from Jennifer Higdon, Derek Bermel, Nico Muhly, Daniel Kellogg, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and the Minimum Security Composers Collective.
In addition to its Department of Music residency, eighth blackbird participates along with other University artists-in-residence, including the renowned Pacifica Quartet, in the new music ensemble Contempo. Members will perform “Tomorrow's Music Today,” concerts 1 and 2, on Friday, May 11, and Friday, May 18, respectively. The May 11 performance is at the University of Chicago’s Fulton Recital Hall, and the May 18 performance is at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall in downtown Chicago.
Taking its name from the 1917 Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” eighth blackbird is composed of players Tim Munro on flute, Michael Maccaferri on clarinet, Yvonne Lam on violin and viola, Nicholas Photino on cello, Matthew Duvall on percussion, and Lisa Kaplan on piano. Four of the group's six members are founding members; Munro replaced the ensemble's original flautist, Molly Barth, in 2006, and Lam replaced violinist and violist Matt Albert in 2011.