Think the expansive vision of Kronos, the freshness of youth, and an unusual complement of instruments. Note that their name derives from Wallace Stevens' enigmatic poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Add the specifics—Molly Alicia Barth, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Matt Albert, violin & viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano—and you have Eighth Blackbird, one of the most exciting contemporary music ensembles on today's scene.
The disc begins with an arrangement of Joan Tower's Petroushskates. Tower, explains that her homage to Stravinsky's Petroushka invokes an imaginary company of skaters, "thereby creating a sort of musical carnival on ice." It's the most carefree work on the disc, quite delightful and upbeat, with sharp rhythmic bursts and bubbling melodies that are quite endearing.
Eighth Blackbird's 2000 Naumburg Chamber Music Award included a commission by now 88-year old composer George Perle: the 11-plus minute Critical Moments 2, consisting of nine variations, some under a minute in duration. Perle, known for his radical "12-tone tonality" reinterpretation of the music of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, imitates the instrumentation in Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, with percussion substituted for quasi-spoken Sprechstimme. Lest this sound like the nostalgic reminiscences of an over-the-hill octogenarian, there's a huge variety of fascinating musical and emotional expression in Perle's short variations.
The same can be said for David Schober's Variations, based on harmonic modes developed by the late Olivier Messiaen. It's great stuff, and bodes well for the concerto Schober is writing for Eighth Blackbird.
As for Thomas Albert's Thirteen Ways, Albert knows the sextet's members well; string player Matt Albert is his son. Honoring Matt's love for soaring melody, Thomas has composed a series of musical comments on visual images that sprang to his mind while reading Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." With the poem's stanzas recited by ensemble members, imagine musical inspiration springing from such poetic excursions.