Review: Ensemble's sum greater than its parts

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

When eighth blackbird, the current ensemble-in-residence at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, performed Sunday at the Lied Center, each member had a chance to shine individually -- and did. But it was as a group that eighth blackbird really dazzled.

Having performed together since undergraduate school (1996), this ensemble was immaculately tight. In the first piece, "Variations" by David Schober, musical lines passed seamlessly between instruments while the group communicated entrances and cutoffs with eye contact and synchronized breathing.

In similar smooth style, a sustained vibraphone note provided a bridge between "Variations" and the second work: Gordon Fitzell's "Violence." The group varied this technique throughout the performance to allow the audience's experience to blend.

Before the concert, eighth blackbird announced its goal to present a collage in three sections, rather than nine separate pieces. The group employed light changes and simple choreography -- bowed heads or performers facing the backdrop -- to help the audience differentiate between pieces.

In Dennis DeSantis' "Own," the performers moved stands, crotales and sheet music purposefully about the stage, reorganizing the setup while playing their instruments. This unique and effective combination allowed the whole concert to become greater than the sum of its parts.

"Violence," however, surprised the audience, employing friction more than dynamics. It juxtaposed contrasting sounds to great effect: exaggerated expulsions of breath, sustained high pulses interspersed with low drumbeats, frantic hand movements that resulted in frenzied silence and quarter-tone tensions.

In contrast, David M. Gordon's energetic "Dramamine" explored the nature of the very symptoms the popular over-the-counter medication is designed to alleviate: "disorientation, imbalance and disaccord."

During an impromptu talk at the preconcert lecture, the composer joked that perhaps his piece should be called "Violence." Gordon combined prepared piano with a tuned clay flowerpot, toy piano and bowl gongs. These instruments' ingeniously mingled overtones produced a sound reminiscent of a Javanese gamelan.

"Crystalline," the first movement of "Reflections on the Nature of Water" by Jacob Druckman, was an impressive marimba solo. Chen Yi's "Qi" contained an elegant exposed cello part, which was exquisitely rendered. But later in the piece, the piano and percussion overwhelmed the flute and cello.

In "Mei," a beautifully performed composition for solo flute, written by Kazuo Fukusima, breathing became an effective part of the performance: short intakes and long, ragged inhalations foreshadowed the type and tone of the lines to follow.

While the music eighth blackbird plays may not be the average cup of Joe, the group's combined abilities do much to sweeten the pot.

-- Emily Criqui lives in Lawrence and is the poetry fellow at Wichita State University. She can be reached at