Saturday, February 04, 2006

Politics and art

Let's get political.

Tonight I went to a performance by eighth blackbird, a New Music group based in Chicago. They presented a very interesting program of all very new pieces, some composed for their 10th anniversary, celebrated this year. The most interesting piece was perhaps the oldest, Les Moutons de Panurge, by Frederic Rzewski (click to see the score). Without going into gory detail, I saw them perform this piece earlier in the week and, while they take some liberties with the score (for example augmenting the melody at will), the performance was excellent and true in spirit to the original. I can imagine that, with dozens of performances of this piece and countless hours of practice that the performers get good enough to perform the piece with few, if any, mistakes. The augmentation helps amplify any mistakes that occur.

But I'm not going to review the entire performance here. Instead, I'd like to focus on the ensemble itself. These musicians have been playing together since they were undergrads - in fact, some of them started as sophomores! After some initial academic support from the faculty at Oberlin, they decided to continue playing together. Cincinnati College has a program for existing chamber music groups to study at the graduate level. With full tuition and a very sympathetic faculty, the group immediately started performing across the country and participating in conferences and competitions. After a successful performance in one competition in NYC, they were signed to a management deal (more on that in a moment). The support of Cincinnati College allowed them to have their own private studio space as well as a generally free schedule to practice and perform - an important precedent for this group. This was followed by further studies at Northwestern for the entire group.

Yes - eighth blackbird has stayed together since undergrad! Through a bit of good luck, good timing, and a lot of hard work, these musicians have done what few chamber music groups can claim, let alone those that specialize in New Music! They have residencies in Chicago and Richmond, and they spend at least three hours a day in rehearsal - a key part of the philosophy of this group. (I don't know if I've ever heard a group play so well together, particularly intonation). The management contract allowed the group to have enough advance bookings in the beginning to make the venture viable.

Now they are non-profit, which allows them to pursue grant opportunities. This allows them to fund a rather extensive commissioning schedule. All in all, a great musical and business success.

But I wanted to stress for a moment the support angle of this story. They are most certainly gifted performers. However, they were able to take advantage of some of the very few opportunities for support out there. With a more extensive network of public support, a few more of these groups might exist. Granted, they get their start at a private conservatory (and were thus free of the requirements that public school must follow, such as 45 Gen Ed credits). These musicians clearly love the music and are excited to share it with the public (the performances are also used as teaching opportunities). I wish that more groups like this were around - for the musicians, the composers and the audiences!


Blogger Mike Boyd said...

Just a quick comment on something particuarly striking about the Rzewski score - "Suggested theme for nonmusicians: The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing." This brief, general suggestion opens up numerous possibilities for creative rethinking of how one might perform using an instrument!

2/05/2006 3:29 PM  

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