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


Proms interview – David Lang (Bang On A Can)

This year the pioneering ensemble Bang On A Can reaches the grand old age of 30. Directed by three composer-performers – Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang (above) – the ensemble are to celebrate the occasion with a late night Prom. In it they will pay tribute to Philip Glass, but typically the concert will include a world premiere in Gordon’s Big Space, a London premiere in Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark and Scary, an established work by Louis Andriessen (Workers Union) and Lang’s own Sunray, written for his father. In this interview he tells Arcana about the challenges and rewards of running an ensemble regarded as one of the very best in contemporary music making.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

My parents weren’t music people and there was no classical music in my house growing up.  My first real spark of interest came from seeing a film of Leonard Bernstein leading the New York Philharmonic in Shostakovich‘s 1st Symphony – it was raining in my school when I was 9 years old and they played this movie during lunch, to keep us quiet.  Everyone was throwing food and making noise, but I was mesmerized, and after that, hooked.

You’ve described yourself as a ‘deep classical music nerd’. Does that mean you need to study classical music a lot more closely to get maximum enjoyment from it?

I wouldn’t say that what I get from the study of classical music is maximum enjoyment.  Music is a means of communicating things between people and many of the things people need to communicate aren’t enjoyable!  But I am really interested in the messages that underlie classical music and getting deeper into the music lets me find out more about what the music can mean.

If you could somehow sum up what you learnt from studying with Andriessen, what would you say has left a lasting impact?

I never studied directly with Louis, although when I was a young composer I spent many many hours talking to him about music.  I learned many things just from watching him – about how to be an active musical citizen, how to be generous to other musicians, how to be supportive of young composers, how to be engaged with the larger culture that surrounds us.  Those are all very important.  In his music he always has tried to push his curiosity as far as it will go, in the most honest and direct way possible.  Those are also very useful lessons.

Congratulations on 30 years of Bang On A Can. What has been the biggest challenge to the ensemble in that time?

Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and I started Bang on a Can 30 years ago, because we were passionate about ways we thought the world needed to change, in order for experimental music to take its rightful place in our culture.  The biggest challenge for me personally has been setting aside the time to make sure I keep my focus on all the things I am passionate about.

Is the ensemble all about ensuring there are no boundaries between classical music and all the forms around it?

The ensemble was built to be flexible – just the instrumentation itself is hybridized between musical genres, and the players have backgrounds in different kinds of music as well.  We didn’t start the All-Stars so that the band could have no boundaries between it and the world, but so that it would be maximally useful to the widest assortment of composers who might want to work with it.

How do you keep Bang On A Can fresh and innovative?

Again, Bang on a Can exists to do the things we are all passionate about – playing new music, building new audiences, educating young composers and performers, commissioning new and stranger musics.  It is the kind of challenge for ourselves that keeps us going.

Do yourself, Michael and Julia have specific skills to bring to Bang On A Can, and what is the dynamic between the three of you?

The three of us have different strengths and weaknesses, and we complement each other pretty well.  Most of all we are close friends, which made it all possible.  I think in the first years of Bang on a Can we would sometimes get exhausted and might have quit if we were doing this alone, but because we were friends we didn’t want to let the others down, and so we persevered.

The Proms program looks to be a very personal one for you. Could you offer a short description of each piece and how or why you chose it?

I don’t know what Michael’s piece is about, so I can’t say how personal that is, but Julia’s piece is an intense examination of an inner terror, mine is a birthday present for my dad, in which I try to made solid a wispy ray of sunlight, and we have pieces by two of our mentors, Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen.  So I guess it is personal!

Does the program reflect how the ensemble has progressed in its 30 years?

I am not sure this program reflects any kind of progression – just challenging music by living composers, played fiercely and really well.  We have been doing that for a long while…

You are performing music by Philip Glass. Do you think minimalism is now a very established part of the classical music canon?

Philip Glass is one of the most successful and influential composers, ever.  And when the question asks if he is now an ‘established part of the classical music canon’ it reveals how odd the idea of that canon really is.  Philip Glass was already the most performed composer on the planet before the classical music world felt comfortable inviting him in.  Isn’t that backwards from the way the world should work?  Shouldn’t classical music be actively refreshing itself, all the time?

Do people look to you to set standards with performances of new music?

I hope so!  The idea of creating an amplified group that is part classical ensemble and part rock band, and that can play lots of kinds of music, including music that is technically really difficult, has been influential in New York and we are starting to see more musicians with a wider range of experiences and abilities.  I wouldn’t claim that we started that trend but we certainly have been a big part of it.

Is it difficult to say ‘no’ to things when new music is involved?

Why would you ever want to say no to anything?  Not just in music, but in life?

What piece of music have you heard recently that you would encourage others to hear?

Me personally, Dysnomia by Dawn of Midi.  I know it is a few years old already but I listen to it all the time.  Layer upon layer of mind-blowing polyrhythms, all played live, built up inexorably over time.  Check it out.