“Will you walk a little faster?”, said a whiting to a snail. “There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.”
Fall down a rabbit hole with us, and enter a parallel world. Billed as ‘the closest thing classical music has to a rock band’, Eighth Blackbird have been touring Australia for Musica Viva with Holly Harrison’s ‘Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup’ as the centrepiece to a programme of contemporary classical music.
In their penultimate Australian performance, Eighth Blackbird played at the Queensland Conservatorium on Tuesday 7 March, and there was a palpable sense of excitement in the packed conservatorium theatre for this much-anticipated concert. Premiered on this tour, ‘Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup’ is the latest in a series of works by young Australian composer Holly Harrison, based on Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.Image © Karen Hutt
In this upbeat and playful piece of music, Harrison mischievously references the chimeric qualities of Carroll’s characters by incorporating a melange of musical styles and devices to effectively recreate a chaotic, madcap world. Breathlessly energetic, with instruments crashing, whistling and squealing, and erratically punctuated by the musicians voicing the whiting and snail couplet, this was a riveting piece that commanded our rapt attention.
A sense of surrealism was compounded by the appearance of the astonishingly Alice-like Harrison who was present to introduce her composition. Her background as a drummer was evident in the emphasis on percussion, with Matthew Duvall literally taking centre stage. ‘Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup’ was commissioned for Musica Viva with support from Geoff Stearn and The Hildegard Project.Click here for more photos.
Either side of this light-hearted escapade, the programme demonstrated a far more sombre mood, with Bryce Dessner’s ‘Murder Ballades’, and Ted Hearne’s ‘By-By Huey’. Dessner, who produced Eighth Blackbird’s Grammy award-winning album ‘Filament’, on which ‘Murder Ballades’ features, plays guitar for well-known Indie-rock band, The National. He also produces their albums, most recently ‘A Lot of Sorrow’ (itself a collaboration with Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, consisting of 105 renditions of ‘Sorrow’, a track from their fifth album), and ‘Trouble Will Find Me’.Image © Karen Hutt
It is therefore perhaps not surprising to find Dessner delving into the dark underbelly of American folk music. The murder ballad, although originating in the old world (where supernatural revenge was often interwoven into the lyrics) evolved in the American west into a much more prosaic sub-genre, often combining these grisly tales of murder and execution with unexpectedly upbeat melodies.
These gossipy and dark, sensationalist pieces were a part of the oral tradition of the American ‘old west’, and were sometimes accompanied by jolly accompaniment on banjo and fiddle, belying the nature of their subject matter. Dessner is not the first rocker to probe this material, with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds using these grim performance pieces for their 1996 album ‘Murder Ballads’ (note, without an ‘e’). Dessner’s 'ballades' alternate between a folksy see-sawing bluegrass feel, interrupted by shocks, rattles and demonic laughter-like outbursts as the instruments are forced beyond their normal range of sounds.
The overall effect is surprisingly enjoyable albeit with sinister overtones, and an occasional rash of goosebumps, which underlines Dessner’s successful transposition of these pieces into the contemporary classical oeuvre.Image © Karen Hutt
Ted Hearne’s ‘By-By Huey’, played after the Harrison composition, is a much more confronting piece, not least because the subject matter is more recent, and thus more immediate in impact. ‘Hand Eye’, Eighth Blackbird’s most recent album, sees them join forces with ‘Sleeping Giant’, a collection of six young American composers, each of whom composed a piece inspired by works of art in the private collection of Maxine and Stuart Frankel.
Robert Arneson’s painting ‘By-By Huey P.’, on which Hearne’s piece is based, depicts a drawing of a praying mantis, superimposed on a portrait of Tyrone Robinson, who was convicted of the murder of Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton. Hearne’s assertion that the piece, like the painting, memorialises the self-destructive is unsettling, and appears morally confused.
The music mirrors these emotions, with instruments taken to the extremes of their range and beyond, and being ‘tortured’ by unconventional means; the piano strings were directly plucked or impeded using metal rods and a bead-filled sock (!), the violin was played behind the bridge to produce a chilling scream, and the xylophone was intentionally distorted or muffled.
The overall effect is uncomfortable and disconcerting, but never dull, which is surely the composer’s intent!Image © Karen Hutt
The concert opened with Nico Muhly’s ‘Doublespeak’, also featured on ‘Filament’. Composed in honour of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, it uses obsessive repetition reminiscent of Glass, and indeed an excerpt from ‘Music in Twelve Parts’ as its thematic underpinning. The final piece, completing the cycle of light and dark in the programme, and returning us into the light, was Timo Andres’ ‘Checkered Shade’.
Another piece from ‘Hand Eye’ and self-referencing the pattern within the programme itself, this piece is based on a pen and ink drawing featuring a vortex of spirals by Astrid Bowlby. This hypnotic piece appears to celebrate life itself with a background pulsing heartbeat echoing the blood singing in our veins – its exhilarating rhythmic quality energised and invigorated as we floated back down to earth at the conclusion of this diverting programme.
Throughout the concert all six musicians delivered technical mastery both within and beyond the usual demands of their respective instruments; the off-piste sounds were challenging but rarely sounded merely experimental, and for this they must be commended.Image © Karen Hutt
Their co-ordination of the unexpected was masterful, and their descent into the carefully controlled chaos of the Harrison’s final moments provided great comedy within 'serious' music. In between, their laid-back introductions to each piece gave an insight into their expectations from the performance and helped the audience to 'get inside' the music from the outset.
Musica Viva moves to the other end of the musical time scale in May when pianist Angela Hewitt performs a programme including works by J. S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.
Click here for more photos.
Eighth Blackbird are:Flutes: Nathalie JoachimClarinets: Michael J MaccaferriViolin and viola: Yvonne LamPercussion: Matthew DuvallPiano: Lisa Kaplan (substituted for this tour by regular guest Adam Marks)Cello: Nicholas Photinos
ProgrammeNico MUHLY (b1981) Doublespeak (2012)Bryce DESSNER (b1976) Murder Ballades (2013)1. 'Omie Wise' – Young Emily2. 'Hocket'3. 'Dark Holler'4. 'Lewisburg'5. 'Wave the Sea – Brushy Fork'6. 'Underneath the Floorboards'7. 'Pretty Polly – Tears for Sister Polly'
Holly HARRISON (b1988)'Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup' (2016)
Ted HEARNE (b1982)'By-By Huey' (2014)
Timo ANDRES (b1985)'Checkered Shade' (2014)