eighth blackbird display sonic range with eye-opening performance

I did not know what to do after eighth blackbird’s performance, part of the Artist Series and New Music Series, in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel on Friday, Oct. 2. I mean, I had plans and everything, but I just did not know what to do with myself after two moving hours of new “classical” music.

I have the composer Jacob Cooper to blame and thank. His “Cast,” inspired by the sculptures of Leonardo Drew, concluded the concert by creating a sense of absolute stillness and detail that stretched on and on. Iterations of a single major chord throughout Lisa Kaplan’s piano loosely punctuated the constant oscillating figure in Matthew Duvall’s vibraphone. Over this placid blanket, descriptive snippets from each of the four other instrumentalists appeared occasionally.

Upon closing my eyes, the piano and vibes became a warm cat, purring on my right shoulder as I drifted through fractured memories. Cooper’s program notes explain the “sense of absence and nostalgia” evoked by Drew’s “paper casts of everyday objects like dolls, trinkets and kitchenware.” Whether as memories or common objects, the gestures became an ever-growing catalogue of both sentiment and detachment.

Cooper’s work was a final movement of sorts in a large-scale, multi-composer collection titled “Hand Eye.” Completed this year, the six works, commissioned by eighth blackbird, correspond to the visual artwork of six different contemporary artists.

Robert Honstein’s “Conduit,” another standout work, closed the concert’s first half with its evocation of “man/machine synthesis.” Bright winds—including Nathalie Joachim’s flute, and Michael J. Maccaferri’s clarinet—in the piece’s opening bore an uncanny resemblance to ringtones. Meanwhile, vivid bursts inspired, in my mind, the image of Lisa Frank slurping from a boba straw. Perhaps all this vibrancy could suggest the rich, sensual and emotional experience of digital interaction.

“Bye Bye Huey,” on the other hand, was a brash, rhythmic mosaic. Ted Hearne composed the work in order to confront the racist assumptions about black-on-black crime surrounding his visual subject, a painting of the young man who killed Black Panther Party’s co-founder Huey P. Newton.

In “Mine, Mime, Meme,” Andrew Norman chose as his subject interactive machine sculptures that mirror its viewers. A disjointed, choppy theme cropped up here and there, shared and imitated by all of the instruments. This ensemble mirroring explored interaction and sensation; its seeming lack of affect suggested a certain element of intentional inconsequentiality.

Timo Andres built his “Checkered Shade” around the affect and timbral variety that Norman eschewed. His use of prepared piano—putting odds and ends into the strings to alter the piano’s sound—opened up his depiction of Astrid Bowlby’s abstract, patterned pen-and-ink drawings to new sonic possibilities. In addition to this and other experimental inflections, more traditional approaches—such as the hymn-like middle section instigated by Yvonne Lam’s violin and Nicholas Photinos—conveyed bittersweet affect with the immediacy of a Miyazaki film’s score.

The subtly dissonant introduction to Christopher Cerrone’s “South Catalina,” which initiated the program, alerted the audience to the new sounds they would confront over the course of the evening. In his program notes, Cerrone mentioned the “unfailingly bright” sunlight to which he had to adjust upon recently moving to Los Angeles.

Although the entire concert’s sonic range included the darkest mess and the most Technicolor splendor, I couldn’t think of a more apt description for eighth blackbird’s impact. In the Chapel, a performance space that increasingly features the works of living composers, “Hand Eye” was a welcome revelation of just how relevant, sensual and moving “classical” music can be. With a standing ovation, the audience heartily seconded the notion.