(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
Eighth Blackbird concluded their stint at Texas Performing Arts this past Thursday, with “Hand-Eye” their second show in Austin of the 2015-16 season, a performance of a new work by a collective of composers, Sleeping Giant.
Fresh off their latest Grammy award, the Chicago-based Blackbirds continued to wear well here in Austin. Their musicianship is one obvious reason, but so is their versatility; if the music of one concert doesn’t please you, they’ll return next time with something entirely different.
Such was the case, in miniature, with the evening-length “Hand-Eye.”
These young men (and yes, the collective of composers, Sleeping Giant, are all men), have drafted a clever process for collaborations, using their combined skills to craft a single, long work. Spreading the wealth and the workload.
The result for “Hand-Eye” (a commission which included a visual arts production funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Texas Performing Arts) is a surprising, energetic and engaging work.
Christopher Cerrone’s “South Catalina” was the stunning opener. It began with clarinetist Michael Maccaferri spotlit in center stage. As he played, the rest of Eighth Blackbird walked on stage, the first hint of the artists as semi-mobile performers who wander about in a predetermined set of movements.
Behind the ensemble was a jagged screen, which projected geometric shapes and colors designed by Deborah Johnson. For Cerrone’s work, Johnson’s art was perfect — it began with a tiny, playful dot, which rippled out bigger and bigger, as the sound of the music growed.
Cerrone’s lush work was instantly engaging — its tones rang out in a rainstorm of bells.
Perhaps it’s a confirmation bias that once you know that each movement of “Hand-Eye” has a unique composer, you start asking how one style contrasts with the others. Each shift to the next composer is a shift in approach — some rest together subtly, others draw out raucous new rhythms or themes, pulling out of the ether. You wonder if they would sound quite so different if a single composer’s name was on the bill.
In any case, a few of the sections overstayed their welcome, taking us on tangential paths away from a sense of a throughline in the work.
At least, that’s at first listen. “Hand-Eye” will certainly reward repeat listens, and perhaps after time those longer bits will feel well-worn and eagerly anticipated.
But the joy of Hand-Eye is a kind of Whitman’s Sampler effect. Each of the six movements (some have subsections) has something different to offer. It’s not unlike the experience of an art gallery, which makes sense, considering the pieces here were inspired by artworks the Sleeping Giant composers saw at the Frankel Foundation at the University of Michigan. And there’s a quirk here. It’s understandable that composers want to avoid playing second fiddle to visual art (and will never utter the dreaded words “program music”). And Sleeping Giant rightly insists the music stands on its own. Still, isn’t there something stubborn in saying, as they do in the program, “This piece was inspired by this sculpture,” and then not showing the sculpture? Not that the image of a sculpture would fill the gap, but, something to mull over.
Instead we have new visuals, by Deborah Johnson, which are often worth watching, though occasionally recall the screensavers from old computers. As was the case in the opening movement, they’re best when they do less.
But most importantly here is the vibrant new music by six outstanding composers. The shimmering soundscape of Andrew Norman and notably for Austin audiences, the work of Robert Honstein — a graduate of UT’s Butler School of Music, and a co-founder of Fast Forward Austin music festival — who has three miniature movements in “Hand-Eye.” They began dramatically with flautist Nathalie Joachim sauntering to the center stage, turning to the ensemble and, with a wink to the audience, conducting. Those three movements have handsome, lyrical lines, but also a rhythmic punch.
And of course, there’s Eighth Blackbird itself, who played the entire work with precision and finesse, and continue to impress.
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