By Dennis Polkow
It says something about the quirky nature of eighth blackbird, internationally known and now resident Chicago contemporary music ensemble, that when its newest member, 29-year-old Australian flute player Tim Munro, auditioned for the group two years ago, one of the requirements was slightly unusual.
“I was asked to tell a dirty joke,” recalls Munro. All six members—who in addition to Munro on flutes include Michael J. Maccaferri on clarinets, Matt Albert on violin and viola, Nicholas Photinos on cello, Matthew Duvall on percussion and Lisa Kaplan on piano—spend such an enormous amount of time together rehearsing, preparing, performing and traveling on the road, that group chemistry and compatibility are major ingredients in eighth blackbird’s unique success. “It sounds so corny,” admits Munro, “but it really is like a family, complete with all of the fights and make-up sessions.”
And what about that joke that Munro told that helped get him the job? “It’s far too obscene,” he admits, “and it takes fifteen minutes to tell. Things are really pretty juvenile at our rehearsals: so much so that we really have to tone it down when we have open rehearsals.” Munro also serves as the blogger for eighth blackbird’s Web site, where he shares group news, opinions, anecdotes from rehearsals and even a joke “now and then, but only the clean ones.”
The group received a big boost last month when the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announced that its 2006 album “strange imaginary animals,” released on the Chicago-based Cedille Records label, had garnered no less than three Grammy Award nominations for next month’s fiftieth annual Grammy Awards presentation on February 10, including “Best Chamber Music Performance,” “Best Contemporary Composition” (for Jennifer Higdon’s “Zaka”) and “Producer of the Year” (for album producer Judith Sherman). It was once routine for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to receive such nominations and awards as well, and in fact, late CSO music director Sir Georg Solti still holds the world record for most number of Grammy Awards (a whopping twenty-seven), but this year, eighth blackbird is the only Chicago-based classical-music ensemble that was even nominated.
It is that album that will form the basis of the repertoire performed as eighth blackbird returns to the Harris Theater on January 26, where it inaugurated its first series of downtown season concerts last fall. The group had been, and remains, “in residence” at the University of Chicago as one of four universities across the country where it maintains a presence, but since members actually live here and make Chicago its ensemble “base,” there was a deep desire to have a regular downtown concert series. “We want to reach out to audiences,” says Munro, “and take new music beyond the small niche that it usually exists in.”
Part of doing that is making sure that the quality of the performances themselves are of the highest possible level, which is virtually impossible for standard classical-music organizations to pull off because they are limited by rehearsal restrictions. “So much of our music involves extended techniques and we prepare every piece of music with an enormous amount of care and time,” says Munro, “which is the advantage of a small ensemble. We treat the newest and most difficult piece as if it were a standard piece of chamber music by Mozart or Brahms.”
But the group is not afraid to dump stale classical-music conventions that it considers alienating to new audiences, such as stiff formal dress and having members’ heads lost in reading music placed on music stands. Not only does eighth blackbird memorize the pieces that it plays, which allows greater group and audience interaction, but attention is always paid to the visual space and lighting that surrounds the ensemble, and next May, the group has even commissioned a piece where member movements will be choreographed. “We have a get-together with the audience before the concert to get acquainted, and after as well,” says Munro, “so they can tell us what they liked, what they hated. It is all very interactive.”
Among the pieces that will be performed on the January 26 concert are David M. Gordon’s industrial-influenced “Friction Systems” alongside Gordon Fitzell’s atmospheric aesthetic take on “violence” and his evocative “evanescence,” along with Steve Mackey’s “Indigenous Instruments” for a fictional culture. An arrangement of Radiohead’s “Dollars and Cents” that was approved by Radiohead itself will also be performed, but most unique about this concert is the participation of composer, percussionist and DJ Dennis DeSantis, who wrote a piece for eighth blackbird in 2000 (that will be performed) as well as provided a whimsical and transformed group sound collage called “strange imaginary remix” for the “strange imaginary animals” album finale that the group really liked, and so DeSantis has been invited to transform the ensemble sound live in real time for the concert where he will, according to Munro, “sometimes reinforce the pulse of the of the music and sometimes fight against it, sometimes distorting and changing the colors of our sound.”
eighth blackbird performs January 26 at the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)334-7777, at 7:30pm. $30.