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Eighth Blackbird Opens the Season at Miller Theatre

by Nick StubblefieldEighth blackbird miller theatre
Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

I've attended many great presentations of new music in New York City over the past couple of years, so when I stepped into Miller Theatre last week to hear Chicago's eighth blackbird perform, I thought I knew what to expect. Instead, what followed was a one-of-a-kind concert experience that defied performance conventions and reinvigorated my interest in this music. 

eighth blackbird, who describe themselves as, “combining the finesse of a string-quartet, the energy of a rock band, and the audacity of a storefront theater company,” kicked off their program with Duo for Heart and Breath (2012) by Richard Reed Parry, one of the members of of Arcade Fire. Just beforehand, audience members were informed that the tempo of the piece would be based solely on pianist Lisa Kaplan’s pulse, who wore a stethoscope for the performance. The piece had a delicate heartbeat-like groove on the piano, with swelling, breath-like long tones from violist Yvonne Lam gently resting on top. It was meditative and entrancing, and it effectively captured the essence of slow and gentle human breathing. 

Following were arrangements of Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa (1638), Carlo Gesualdo’s Moro, lasso al mio duolo (1611), and Bon Iver’s Babys (2009). The works featured some beautiful arrangements and textures, with room for extensive, intricate solos. 

The second half of the concert was comprised solely of Amy Beth Kirsten’s Columbine’s Paradise Theatre (2010), a piece of musical theater inspired by Italian commedia dell’arte about a young woman who is caught in a repetitive loop lingering between worlds of death and life. Directed by Mark DeChiazza, with flowing robes and ornate face-masks designed by Sylvianne Shurman, all six members of eighth blackbird acted, danced, sang, spoke, grunted, and swapped instruments while performing the intricate music from memory. 

A large bass drum, lit by a spotlight, was used by percussionist Matthew Duvall to create a powerful groove that brought cohesion to the performance. Throughout the show, Duvall would occasionally reveal additional percussion instruments that produced an incredible array of unique timbres. Indeed, there was never a moment when there wasn’t something to marvel at on-stage. 

eighth blackbird’s performance was exceptional for both its superb musicianship and imaginative showmanship. They don't just play music: they entertain, with the end result being a memorable and powerful concert experience.