Fear not minimalism or new music—hear this with joy and gratitude.
“Filament” = BRYCE DESSNER: Murder Ballades; NICO MUHLY: Doublespeak; SON LUX: To Love; This is My Line; PHILIP GLASS: Two Pages – eighth blackbird – Cedille CDR60000 157, vinyl & CD, 49:10, (7/08/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Chicago based Eighth Blackbird is absolutely one of the finest new music ensembles in the country. They are all superb musicians and their choice in repertory is excellent; something that, fortunately, has given them a stellar reputation with contemporary composers and this amazing rep list becomes self-supporting. This new collection is a perfect example and was recorded live at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in May of 2013.
To me, the centerpiece of this set is the amazing Murder Ballades by the very talented guitarist (of the rock group “The National”) turned composer Bryce Dessner. This collection of seven captivating pieces is based on the very real and somewhat bizarre folk tradition of writing ballades and ditties that describe murders. The individual works are mostly based on actual folk melodies on this grisly topic; while “Dark Holler” is actually an original melody of Dessner’s in the same dark, folky but ominous style. This is an absolutely attention grabbing work and I think one of Dessner’s finest (whose work I am admiring more and more with every hearing.)
Nico Muhly’s Double Speak is pretty much straight up minimalism with references to and quotes from Reich, Riley and Philip Glass. I enjoyed this work as well but the overt reference to Glass (it was written in honor of his 75th birthday) is not as interesting as the original material; still, a very enjoyable work. We also have Philip Glass in the form of his Two Pages which is very early and very ‘hard core’ Glass. These early works which are ‘pattern music’ in the most original sense of the minimalist genre hold their own through the sheer energy and complexity of the playing. This particular performance is astounding and eighth blackbird is joined in the playing by Bryce Dessner, guitar and Nico Muhly, organ. I’ve heard many renditions of this classic work (including the original, of course) and this is, honestly, one of the best renditions I have encountered.
I am somewhat – but less – familiar with Son Lux. Son Lux (nee Ryan Lott) is a NYC based performer and composer who has worked with some cutting-edge names in the new music scene, including Sufjan Stevens and Caroline Shaw. The two short works offered here (To Love and This is My Line) use vocals by Shara Worden (aka My Brightest Diamond) and are “responses” to the other performances in this set but Phil Glass’s Two Pages in particular. I admired both the sound and the creativity but I also found myself thinking that Son Lux’s music works (for me) best in contexts like this; as part of a thematic program.
I own both the CD version of this album as well as this vinyl and listened to them back-to-back. While the present vinyl does have some added spaciousness (seems like a bit more realistic spread to the voices) than the CD and the presence is quite good without being forced, I cannot honestly that the vinyl is the definitive version to acquire. No matter, because the ‘8thB’ is an outstanding ensemble and this program is one of their finest. This unto itself is the reason to have this set in either species. I was especially taken with Bryce Dessner’s piece but love this whole album!