After School Specialists

Group Think

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eighth blackbird
Photo by Steve Leonard

Frank J. Oteri: Instead of beginning with a typical kind of how-did-this-all-begin question, I’d love to plunge right in and talk about your new CD because I’m so excited about it. You’re preparing a concert performance of this same music tonight live, which is super exciting. Part of why I’m so worked up about this has nothing to do with the music that’s on it or how you played it, but the way you’ve packaged the whole thing. Somebody randomly picking it up who’s never heard of eighth blackbird, who has never heard of “new music,” who might not know what any of this stuff is, could be fooled into thinking that this is something else, that this is some kind of alt-rock record perhaps. So was that the idea going into this? Whose idea was it and just how did this happen to do the record this way?

Matthew Duvall: We do everything by consensus in our meetings and brainstorming sessions. That’s how most stuff happens. But the actual concept for the album was Steve [Mackey]‘s piece. That gave us the title, strange imaginary animals.

Lisa Kaplan: Then I had the idea that they should do those exquisite corpse drawings among the composers: If their pieces were strange imaginary animals, how would they represent it? Then from there I also told them that they should feel free to draw their own strange imaginary animal aside from just their part of the exquisite corpse drawing that they did. And then I just sent everything to the designer and said, “OK, can you do anything with this?” And he said he could.

Matt Albert: I think we have a really good relationship with the designer at Cedille records. From the first record that we did with them, I’ve felt like we were speaking the same language when we’re talking to them, Pete and Melanie. Lisa’s been working with them on the last two discs. I think it’s important that our discs look visually appealing, and that can mean a lot of things. I think that a lot of pop discs are visually appealing. Does that mean that I want our disc to look like a pop disc? Not necessarily. I just want our disc to look good. And I think that’s kind of where we’re coming from. We want to look good.

FJO: That’s interesting, you don’t even have a photo of the group anywhere in the package.

LK: Yeah, instead I decided just for fun to draw little caricatures of each of us. We didn’t think our record label would go for it when I said, “Can we just use these instead of having a photo?” But he said great and I said OK, good.

MA: And Lisa is thrilled that we don’t have a photo of her!

[group laughter]

FJO: Not having a photo of the group sort of adds a layer of individual anonymity within group identity which is sometimes a very big deal in the alt-rock world and certainly in the re-mix world, and there’s even a re-mix on your CD.

LK: That’s true.

FJO: But the whole group identity thing makes me wonder how you think of yourselves. You’ve passed your tenth anniversary. At this point do you think in terms of individual careers as musicians or do you think really more in terms of the group?

MD: I think it’s primarily about the group. Long ago we abandoned individual bios in any of our programs or press materials. One of the things that has often differentiated our group from other classical—I should say new music—ensembles is that we almost never bring in an extra to play or hire a freelancer. We don’t usually perform any repertoire that doesn’t call for the instruments of these members. We really have tried to create a band and stick with these six people, and this CD represents that, too. It really didn’t bother any of us, and I was definitely a huge advocate for the idea that we don’t have a picture of us in the new CD. Not that it’s not nice to have that, but that content is on our prior CDs; it’s available on the web. You can see what we look like if you come to a concert. So instead of bringing that slice of reality back into the package, we had it stay fun and imaginary.

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eighth blackbird’s latest CD, strange imaginary animals

FJO: It’s interesting that you feature no individual bios. Until this past year, you’ve never even had a personnel change.

Group: That’s good.

FJO: Tim, you’re the new kid on the block here. What’s it like walking into this?

Timothy Munro: It’s kind of like walking into a huge dysfunctional family that has stayed together through thick and thin. And it just feels like home, almost. It was quite easy to slip in. But there was such a huge pile of stuff to learn because the group has developed such an enormous back catalogue of repertoire over the years. As far as actually feeling at home in the group, everyone made me feel at home; it feels like a hand in glove kind of thing. And they rag on me, I’m kind of like the little pre-pubescent teenager in the group.

[group laughter]

FJO: Now for the rest of you, particularly Lisa, is the balance skewed now? You’re the only girl in the group now.

LK: Yes, I’m the only girl, I know. Yeah, but Tim told me though that if I ever needed to talk about girl stuff that I could feel free at any time if I felt that I was missing out on that. But I don’t because I guess I’ve always been a little bit of one of the guys.

FJO: So then, what would you say is the identity of eighth blackbird, separate and beyond any of you individually? I’m reminded of Robert Fripp’s claim that King Crimson is not him or anyone else in the group, but is rather a state of being. What is eighth blackbird’s state of being?

TM: Well we have a very clear and direct mission statement that I think we’re all pretty happy with. Do you think that’s a good way of defining the group?

MA: If you can remember it.

TM: I can’t remember it.

Nicholas Photinos: Unpretentious excitement. [laughter] That’s all I have to say.

LK: Yeah. That’s good. That’s a good way to say it.

MA: Hopefully there’s virtuosity involved and hopefully there’s a connection. That’s something that we saw sometimes happening with other new music groups and sometimes not. That you connect. They’re almost always connecting to the music, but they’re not always connecting the music to the audience. It’s really hard to define what that means or how you do that. But, it’s been really important to us to not be playing into a vacuum.

LK: We’re very committed, and I think composers know that especially, and we’re committed to each other.

TM: I always feel like a lot of new music ensembles semi-prepare new music, but this group is almost like a string quartet preparing for a Haydn quartet performance. We really get inside the music, we play it a lot, and we give it a life of its own. We really give it a chance. I think that’s important.

FJO: I’m thinking about what Matthew Duvall said earlier about rarely bringing in anybody else. I’m thinking about your very first recording and the very first concerts where you did this the Allen Otte arrangement of Joan Tower’s Petroushskates. Here was a piece that had been written and all of you could play it except one. But that wasn’t acceptable to the group; what’s the percussionist going to do? So if you were going to do it, you had to make it work for all of you. So thanks to this new arrangement, you can play it, and I personally think it’s even more exciting this way.

LK: Even Joan thinks that.

FJO: But then on your next recording you did George Crumb’s Voice of the Whale, which only involves three of you but you didn’t feel the need to have that re-arranged for everybody. And then at your 10th anniversary concert at the 92nd Street Y, there was another piece that only three of you played on. So sometimes you do have subsets. Where do you draw the line?

NP: One of the lines is that we only commission for all six of us. We never commission for a subset.

LK: Or we haven’t yet.

NP: We haven’t yet and I would say that’s a pretty strong line. We try to keep it mostly the sextet. That being said, there are these other great pieces that just happen to be for two to five of us. So we also bring those in as well.

LK: It was more important I think at the very beginning of our time together that we wanted to really establish sextets in our repertoire and then, like Nick said, commissioning sextets, too, so that there would start to become this body of work, these sextets. Voice of the Whale was a piece we had heard performed at Oberlin when we were all students. We had fallen in love with it and we just always wanted to do it, so there didn’t seem to be any reason not to, basically, the same with Table Music, which we did at the 92nd Street Y last year.

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