On record – Eighth Blackbird: Singing in the Dead of Night (Cedille Records)

Eighth Blackbird [Matt Albert, Matthew Duvall, Nathalie Joachim, Lisa Kaplan, Nick Photinos, Ken Thomson]

Cedille Records CDR90000 195 [46’02”]

Producer Elaine Martone
Engineer Bill Maylone

Recorded 30 September – 2 October 2019 in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A major new work from the three composing members of Bang on a Can, which both fulfils a commission from Eighth Blackbird – among the most enterprising of American ensembles who are devoted to new music – and also finds these composers at something near their best.

What’s the music like?

In an introductory note, David Lang explains how he, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe have often collaborated on projects, but here determined to create something where their own and naturally gregarious personalities were subsumed into a composite whole. The resulting work offers a stern test even for such virtuosic musicians as those in Eighth Blackbird; in addition offering opportunities for their sometime collaborator, the choreographer Susan Marshall, to create a theatrical context for a score whose often stark contrasts belie its modest dimensions.

The first part of These Broken Wings is the most archetypal in its tightly interlocking patterns along with hard, bright sonorities and rhythmic clarity. The music’s near clinically objective progress continues until being suddenly curtailed then replaced by several seconds of silence.

In contrast to the foregoing, The Light of the Dark focuses on not always controlled anarchy. In addition to this ensemble’s regular line-up, instruments such as guitar and accordion take their place in what the composer terms a ‘‘late-night jam session’’. From the swerving drone of its initial cello solo develops an often deliriously OTT interplay, given unlikely definition by the pauses which cut right across the activity and for no other audible reason. The closing stage initially unfolds in a crescendo of velocity before hurtling into a ‘brick wall’ of silence.

The second part of These Broken Wings is very much the ‘slow movement’ in its held chords and ethereal harmonies. An undetermined element is introduced with musicians told to ‘‘drop things when they are not playing’’, as though smearing paint on an otherwise pristine canvas.

The longest and also most intriguing component, Singing in the Dead of Night (seemingly a reference to a certain Paul McCartney song) is also the most varied in its superimposing of distanced and otherworldly timbres that evolve as dissonant cluster-chords, before suddenly exploding in a maelstrom of undirected energy. This duly alternates with more introspective passages, in the process suggesting a kind of morphed variations on those opening chords as ultimately blow themselves apart in what feels an unnerving corollary to nocturnal isolation.

The third part of These Broken Wings restores something of the initial extroversion, with its heady interplay for ensemble. Not that this is wholly a reversion to type, the melodic line that eventually crests the ensemble opening-out the rhythmic activity on its way to a hectic close.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that the level of cohesion between the three component pieces (necessarily) overrides the contrasts between them. It helps, of course, that the members of Eighth Blackbird are in their collective element as regards the rhythmic and co-ordinational intricacies of this music.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and its relatively short measure no doubt matters less in the post-CD era. The booklet, which includes succinct and informative notes on each piece from its composer, is enhanced by Susannah Bielak’s cover art such as sets almost all the pages in appealingly varied relief.

Listen & Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Cedille Records website

 

On record – Devonté Hynes & Third Coast Percussion – Fields (Cedille Records)

Devonté Hynes
For All Its Fury
Perfectly Voiceless
There Was Nothing

Devonté Hynes and Third Coast Percussion

Cedille Records CDR 90000 192 [60’49”]

Producer Jesse Lewis
Engineer Kyle Pyke

Recorded 17-20 July 2018, Chicago Recording Company & 13-14 October 2018 (Electrical Audio)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

It has become quite a challenge keeping track of Devonté Hynes’ musical activities of late. While releasing a mixtape of quality offshoots from his Blood Orange project (reviewed on Arcana here), he has also released the soundtrack to Queen & Slim. With those in the can, there was always a danger this set of compositions, his most ‘classical’ opus to date, would fall below the radar. Indeed it did on its release in October – but Arcana decided to pick it up and write about it!

There are three pieces here – the substantial For All Its Fury and two shorter pieces, Perfectly Voiceless and There Was Nothing. Hynes wrote them on a Digital Audio Workstation, sending them to Third Coast Percussion for arrangement and orchestration, before meeting up with them to record the works in the second half of 2018. All three pieces have their roots in dance, and were originally written for choreography by the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company.

What’s the music like?

Accomplished, stylish and with a few surprises in store – but Hynes’ music needs the chance to establish itself. Those familiar with his language might expect his forays into longer compositions to be relatively simple in content, but Fields shows that not to be the case. Instead he takes his lead from the shorter form songs for Blood Orange, picking motifs and textures with the flexibility to blossom into something more substantial.

Reach and Blur, the first two movements of For All Its Fury, set out a picture of cloudy ambience, reminding us of Hynes’ love of Debussy. Only in Coil does the music really begin to flex its muscles. This takes place through a deceptively simple marimba riff that Hynes takes through a number of settings and developments. The murky ambience returns, with warm synthesizer chords, and the music – though sonically attractive – threatens to lose its direction.

Gather, the seventh section, restores the momentum with busy xylophones and chimes, creating a lovely space with bowed marimbas, after which the music floats and creates an enchanting world with the chimes of Tremble. Those chimes spill over into the treble-rich Cradle, before Hynes starts to work in the lower reaches and rich sonority of the marimba sound. This section – Press – generates the most energy, before evaporating into the ambient wash of Fields itself, which then builds to a substantial and satisfying finish.

The other two pieces are self-contained. Though their titles indicate they will be lacking, Perfectly Voiceless and There Was Nothing do have some appealing music. The former busily gets on with creating loops and developing them, though doesn’t quite break free of the influence of Philip Glass. The instrumental colours are again really attractive, and the surrounding musical ambience is rather beautiful, with the shrill treble of chimes complemented by rich, lower marimba writing. There is a sense of petering out at the end, however.

There Was Nothing starts with more soft, starry-eyed ambience, the colours familiar from the other pieces, but there is more evidence of electronic manipulation here with a warm backdrop to the fluttering marimba figures. There is a less obvious shape to this piece – inevitably, given the title – but it has a broader set of textures which are charming on headphones.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. On occasion it feels as though Hynes’ music loses its sense of direction, but given the context of the pieces they serve their brief well. Fields is certainly an appealing album to listen to for its warm colours and consonant harmonies, and Hynes shows enough technique in his mastering of percussion instruments to suggest there is a lot more potential here.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you’ve followed Hynes’s various pseudonyms, but especially Blood Orange, you will enjoy the warm colours presented by Fields. Hynes’ understated and poignant vocals may be missing, as well as an electronic drum kit, but his next level of expression – analogue percussion instruments – serve him well.

There is however the nagging feeling that these are works in the early stages of progress, but that in itself is intriguing. It will be very interesting to follow where Hynes goes next, and how his obvious talents are harnessed.

Listen

Buy

You can read more about Fields at the Cedille website, together with options for purchasing on analogue and digital formats