Ian Goes to a Concert

I am a fundamentally lazy person. I quite enjoy being busy, but getting started, the effort involved in actually putting myself into gear, is something I go to monumental efforts to avoid. I once saw a fleeting exchange with Cher on TV and she described herself as a ‘lazy person who works very hard’ and I’ve always thought of myself in much the same way. My composition spirit animal is Rossini Of The Anecdotes; such as when he was composing in bed and would rewrite pages rather than get out of bed to pick up the pages that fell on the floor. So when I drag myself out to a concert at 2pm on a rainy Saturday afternoon- the peak of weekend nap time- it had better be good.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts on last Saturday’s concert by Eighth Blackbird, as presented in Sydney by Musica Viva.

For anyone who has spent any time anywhere near the classical music press, Eighth Blackbird are probably the closest thing we have to legit rock stars. The classical press have run out of synonyms for cool and hip. They are the saviours of classical music, nay, Art, as we know it. They have Grammys! Just like Beyonce! (except the frankly criminal loss this year, but that’s another subject). Admittedly their press in Australia died down a bit when Brisbane born flautist Timothy Munro left the group, but it’s hard for a cynic like me to not feel slightly less than whelmed at the publicity juggernaut that precedes them.

Ha ha ha I am an idiot!

Like, I should know better and to ignore the content-creators and the publicity machine.

Apart from superb musicality- which let’s face it is usually a given in Musica Viva- what really struck me was the overall presence of the ensemble. With their focus on new music- the oldest composer in this program was born in 1976- it can be easy to forget that as far as chamber music goes, this is an established ensemble (founded in 1996) and has only had three changes of personnel since (their usual pianist is on maternity leave, so Adam Marks performed on this tour). But by listening and watching, you wouldn’t know who were the lifers and who were the newbies.

There is seemingly endless discussion in classical music about presentation and wearing jeans on stage, or video projections or talking from the stage or performing in a pub is going to be THE THING that saves the form. Eighth Blackbird did the jeans and the stage-talking, with a genuine ease. This gave them a commanding presence on stage, and in an authentic way, not the toe-curling ‘hey if we don’t wear tuxedos the kids will come!’ way. I got the sense that, as an audience member, I could- relax is not the right word- but be comfortable and confident in what I was about to see and hear. The ensemble were in charge and I was okay with that!

The first half of the concert included Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak and Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades. I’m a bit of a sucker for Americana folk so a piece which manipulates the piano to sound like a banjo is right up my alley, and it also played to my very recent and very intense love affair with the Berio Folk Songs. Many of the Ballades can be heard on Youtube.

While the first half of the concert was good, the second was fantastic.

I confess that I loathe spoken word. And spoken word by musicians- blech. Spoken word, like brain surgery or pornography, should not be performed by amateurs in my books. However, I loved Holly Harrison’s Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup. And despite every fibre of my being in resistance, the spoken word components where the performers recite the Lewis Carroll reference were irrepressibly charming (here, the commitment and innate theatricality by Eighth Blackbird were invaluable). In fact, if I had to pick a single adjective for Harrison’s piece it would be just that- irrepressible. This was a piece- of contemporary art music for god’s sake- that had a concert hall smiling throughout. Go and listen to Holly’s music! Better yet, commission her! She’s a great composer and can do public speaking well! She is a programmer’s dream! Do it, do it now!

Ted Hearne was a revelation to me. His piece, By-By Huey, was extraordinary (as an aside, I love how Youtube places a chirpy cruise ad before a piece about the murder of a co-founder of the Black Panthers). All I can really say about it is that it’s the sort of piece where my immediate reaction is ‘why do bother at all?’. How do you have a jazzy piano coda that both simultaneously seems to come from nowhere but is also so utterly perfect? How do you assemble such a gorgeous collection of disparate sounds that tie together so beautifully? How do I bring some of that devastating unison work into my own? How? Is it magic? Because I will find newt and pluck their eyes if needs be.

This led me down an interesting rabbit hole (Lewis Carroll returns!) to some of his other work, which I urge you to check out. I first landed on Brownie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job from Katrina Ballads. This is a piece, performed in the clip by Hearne himself, that is nothing short of eviscerating. It moves beyond verbatim music into a space that is powerful and urgent- and remains so despite the obvious dating that can occur with a piece based on a current affair. It’s searingly angry and brilliant music. I already have a partner, but Hearne is my new composition boyfriend. I even considered doing a ‘If Ted Hearne Was Your Boyfriend’ in the style of the much missed ‘If X were your Y‘ from The Toast, but not today. I might save that for the book deal.

After that concert equivalent of a punch to the solar plexus, finishing with Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade was a sensible programming choice, with an undulating luminosity. This is music I enjoy very much and consider ‘post-minimalist, with meat’. I got the sense this must be a tricky piece for an ensemble to pull together accurately, but it floated out with a relaxed groove.

It was the sort of concert that when I came out on to Pitt Street at 4pm on a miserable Saturday afternoon, the mere act of having to catch a bus felt impossibly mundane.

As a second aside, the Friday prior I attended a masterclass with two blackbirds, Nicholas Photinos and Nathalie Joachim, critiquing and advising the exciting new music ensemble The Music Box Project. It was a fascinating insight into how two of the group’s members approach contemporary chamber music. I love a masterclass, they’re such a strong tool for taking the mystique of music-making out of the world of mystery and into something that is tangible and recognisable. The ability to hear- almost instantly!- the result of feedback is so powerful. Even more incredible though was that the program was all female composers (Jasmin Leung, Elena Kats Chernin and Kezia Yap). There was no fuss about this, it just was and it was wonderful.