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Wild wad of input

Energized Eighth Blackbird ensemble blows in from Chicago


WEDNESDAY, April 3 — A first-time visit to MSU by the vibrant, world-spanning, Chicago-based new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird is a big event by any standards.

But Wednesday’s concert at MSU promises an experience like no other.

The concert’s transcendent closer is “Stay On It,” by Julius Eastman, a gay African-American composer and singer with a tragic and complicated life story, who died in near total neglect at 49 in 1991.

Eastman was an outspoken, innovative and utterly original voice (minimalism, meet disco). His life and work is being pieced back together and appreciated anew.

The aptly named “Stay On It” sticks like cotton candy to a sweet pop lick — until it doesn’t. It’s a smooth-seeming but deeply raw study in obsession and transcendence.

“It’s a groove that rebels against itself and finds a beautiful reconciliation at the end,” Eighth Blackbird percussionist and founding member Michael Duvall said.

The score is lost, like much of Eastman’s music, but it has been reconstructed by devotees, scholars and living contemporaries. To get ready to play it, Duvall consulted with avant-garde percussionist Jan Williams, who performed the piece with Eastman back in the day.

Julius Eastman.

“Eastman was extraordinarily talented, but too charged for the classical music climate in the 1970s,” Duvall said. “He’s being embraced by our changing culture and it’s wonderful.”

No other ensemble pushes fun and complexity into such a wild wad of input. Eighth Blackbird goes back to the spring of 1996, when six students started playing together as undergraduates at the Oberlin Conservatory. They slowly slid further and further off the traditional grid, doing concerts off campus and stretching into non-traditional music.

“Two or three years in, we finally looked at each other and said, ‘Is this is a real thing?’ ‘I guess it is,’” Duvall said.

All they wanted to do was tackle fresh work by living composers — like the Kronos Quartet, only with a pianist, flutist and clarinetist.

“Taking over the world is something we definitely joked about,” he said.

They’ve pretty much done that by now, with four Grammy Awards and collaborations with artists like minimalist icon Philip Glass, soprano Dawn Upshaw, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, My Brightest Diamond frontwoman Shara Nova and on and on.

Anyone who heard the group’s recent performance on Chris Thile’s “Live From Here” NPR radio show can attest to their passion.

Another thing that sets Eighth Blackbird apart from string quartets like Kronos is Duvall’s ever-evolving percussion battery.

One piece on Wednesday’s slate, “Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup” by Australian composer Holly Harrison, might even tax MSU’s stockpile of percussion gadgets. Harrison is a drummer in several indie rock bands. The music is based on frenetic, surreal bits from “Alice in Wonderland,” including the “Lobster’s Quadrille.”

“It’s hilarious and funky,” Duvall said.

Along with blues piano, slap cello, sliding strings and a hint of disco (again?), Duvall’s score calls for snare drum, bongos, “dark crash stack, bright splash stack, small, bright metal, low-pitched wood and vibra-slap or miscellaneous sustained sound.” What, no dragging muffler?

At the invitation of MSU percussion professor Gwen Dease, Duvall will also take part in the MSU Percussion Ensemble concert April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Fairchild Theatre. All the members of Eighth Blackbird will lead classes and informal discussions with students during their three-day residency.

You’ve probably never heard of any of the composers on Wednesday’s program, and that’s the point. A few months ago, the group ditched its entire repertoire for fresh music, a thing it does now and then just to clear out the cobwebs. Women, composers of color and young voices are all prominent in the mix.

Consequently, nobody is likely to be bored Wednesday. “Eroding” by Fjola Evans is a partly improvised piece that pulls the members of the group apart to evoke the forces of water carving out rocks over millennia.

“It’s amazing, it’s a poem, really evocative,” Duvall said.

A piece full of crazy contrasts, “Ice ‘n’ SPICE” by Nina Shekhar evokes a time in the composer’s childhood when she and her brother ate spicy food prepared by their father and ran to the freezer to suck ice.

“Rot Blou” by Jessie Marino is performed mimetically, by manipulating objects on a table. Contrast all that busy-ness with “The Clarity of Cold Air” by Jonathan Bailey Holland, an austere tone poem.

“It doesn’t have a million notes, but it’s incredibly beautiful and requires an incredible amount of restraint and discipline,” Duvall said.

The group memorizes most of this complicated music, or at least reduces it to shorthand on their iPads.

“That lets us get out of the notated scores and up in each other’s faces, communicating directly in our performances,” Duvall said. “We can interact and feed off the energy of the audience that way.”

Eighth Blackbird

7:30 p.m. Wed., April 10

MSU Fairchild Theatre


(517) 353-5340


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