Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Like many a collegiate chamber ensemble, eighth blackbird was once a bunch of precocious players who came together under adult supervision — in this particular case when the leader of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble chose six players to rehearse works by Charles Wuorinen and Donald Martino that term.

Then like a hand of poker, the group traded half the original sextet for three new musicians; soon even the conductor was dealt out. “Since then we’ve tried to touch on as many different styles as possible,” says violinist Matthew Albert.

Though still in its relative infancy, eighth blackbird is collectively pursuing an Artist Diploma in the chamber music program of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Winners of the 1998 Concert Artist Guild Competition, the group now benefits from two years worth of management as part of the deal.

By now, eighth blackbird has already made a name for itself on the chamber music festival circuit, with U.S performances at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Great Lakes Music Festival and others. The ensemble presents a three-concert series highlighting visiting composers in Cincinnati. Last season, the group made its New York City debut and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning.

At the heart of the group’s appeal is an intensity of performance and a visceral attention to theatricality. “None of us are trained actors,” says Albert, “but we all love movement. We try to be aware of what we look like on stage.” The ensemble collaborated in a Cincinnati production of Angels in America, he adds, and hopes to become involved in future multimedia productions.

Much of the group’s comfort zone with new repertoire emerged by working with the composers directly, says Albert, whose father Thomas Albert composed for the group “Thirteen Ways”, a setting of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“, from which the ensemble derives its name.

By now the group worked with composers Joan Tower, Fred Lerdahl, Donald Martino, Andrew Imbrie, Wendell Logan, and Michael Torke. Composers who have written works for the ensemble include Burton Hatheway, Pieter Snapper, Gordon Fitzell, Tamar Muskal and David Schober. Working with so many composers (and having a composer parent in Albert’s case) has made the members of eighth blackbird eager to begin composing and arranging works themselves in the near future which will transform them into a bona-fide composer-led new music ensemble.

“We were definitely most affected by Joan Tower, both professionally and musically,” Albert says. “Joan really talked to us about things she’d learned from playing in the Da Capo Chamber Players, not just about repertoire but about the kind of goals you need in terms of touring and pacing your career.”

On the musical level, he adds, “Her openness to our interpretations was really illuminating. Sometimes when you’re working with a piece, you can tell what the composer meant and it requires making small changes to get there. In those situations, working with Joan gave us the courage to ask.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox