The sextet Eighth Blackbird consists of six people. It has that much in common with other ensembles that call themselves sextets. But, on the whole, Eighth Blackbird goes its own way. For one thing, its official name, all lower-case letters, comes from stanza eight of poet Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Stevens’ blackbird is a supernatural presence:
I know noble accents
And inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know
With members playing a patchwork of instruments, Eighth Blackbird diverges from the conventional chamber ensemble. The blackbirds are Yvonne Lam, violin/viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Tim Munro, flutes; Michael Maccaferri, clarinets; Lisa Kaplan, piano; and Matthew Duvall, percussion.
In concert, the ensemble tends to perform by memory and include choreography as an integral part of their music. They have won two Grammy awards. The ensemble performs in the Institute for Advanced Study’s Wolfensohn Hall at 8 p.m. Friday, November 30, and at 8 p.m. Saturday December 1.
The event is the second in a series of 2012-’13 programs organized by institute artist in residence Derek Bermel and includes three works by him. One is “Tied Shifts,” a piece commissioned by Eighth Blackbird in 2003.
“It was a dream working with them,” Bermel remembers in a telephone interview from his office at the institute. “They gave me no guidelines and just said, ‘Please write a piece and make it remotely playable on our instruments.’ When I was writing for Eighth Blackbird, I thought of them as a tiny orchestra — two winds, two strings, piano and percussion. The piano is probably the binding force in a mixed ensemble.”
“A mixed ensemble rarely stays together,” Bermel observes. “But Eighth Blackbird works like a string quartet or rock band. They really know each other. They know one another’s individual quirks and know how to blend. They have the kind of radar that fixed ensembles have. Eighth Blackbird puts ridiculous amounts of time into rehearsing and perfecting new music on various levels, musically, theatrically, and conceptually. They are pioneers, breaking new ground in repertoire.”
“It was astounding to see them play my commission. With the memorization and the choreography, their shows are something more than just hearing music. They give the audience many different ways to think about a piece. I had a sense that they were raising the bar,” says Bermel.
In a telephone interview from Chicago, Lisa Kaplan explains that Eighth Blackbird memorization and choreographic habits developed when the group started in 1996. “Eighth Blackbird formed when we were at Oberlin together. We were preparing a piece for a chamber music competition. We felt we had plateaued, and didn’t know how to take the piece to the next level. An Oberlin professor proposed memorizing. It may have been a joke.”
At any rate, the ensemble tried playing by memory, and, as Kaplan says, “It was so freeing that we started doing it more and more, as we saw fit. It became an organic process.”
Choreography was an outgrowth of memorization. “Because we were on stage with no music stands, the flutist, violinist, and clarinetist could move around. By moving, they could choreographically show what we were doing. It happened very naturally. Now, it’s hard to imagine playing the piece without moving. The movement has become part of the piece,” she says.
Pianist Kaplan met Bermel in Rome roughly a decade ago, when he earned a year’s residency as winner of the Rome Prize. “It was my first introduction to his music,” she says. “I thought it was unique and creative. It really spoke to me. Eighth Blackbird had an opportunity from the Greenwall Foundation in New York to apply for a grant to commission a piece from a New York-based emerging composer. I brought samples of Derek’s work to the rest of the group. We all liked it, and applied with him.”
A composer, clarinetist, conductor, jazz and rock musician, Bermel began his term at the institute on July 1, 2009. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1998 as a soloist performing his own critically acclaimed clarinet concerto, “Voices,” which received the 2001 Rome Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome. Prior to coming to Princeton, he was a composer-in-residence for the American Composers Orchestra.
Bermel, who soaks up vernacular ethnic musicalities on location, based the portion of “Tied Shifts” on Thracian idioms. He delved into Thracian music during studies in Bulgaria with Nikola Iliev in 2001.
“Bulgarian music often has unusual meters — five or seven,” Bermel says, “and there’s a lot of embellishing. As I played more and more Bulgarian tunes, I noticed the prevalence of tied notes at the bar line.”
Bermel originally wrote the music in a standard meter and the blackbirds bounced it back to him. “They said that it was written in a cumbersome way,” Bermel reports, “and difficult to memorize. It was hard for them to groove on that.”
Kaplan explains, “Originally, the bar lines did not match what you heard in the music. It might have been okay if there was a conductor and you played off the beats of the conductor. But we’re a chamber ensemble. That made total sense to Derek.” He re-notated the music.
Converting folk music to concert music is problematical, Bermel says. “Transforming folk music to concert music requires translation. I wanted to keep the energy, feel, and sound of the Bulgarian music, but be able to add my harmonies. I wanted to keep the Bulgarian rhythmic drive.”
“I had to pull myself out of the context of the Bulgarian folk tradition and hear in a different way,” Bermel says. “I had to experience the vernacular music in the way that classical musicians hear music. Notating folk music is touchy. If you over-notate, you give up some of the effect and the music loses steam.”
In addition to the three Bermel pieces, the upcoming institute concert includes works by other Princetonians. “Erase,” a 2011 work by Andy Akiho, a Princeton graduate student in music, is on the program, as is a recent reworking of Steve Mackey’s 2008 Grammy-winning Eighth Blackbird commission, “Lonely Motel.”
Akiho finishes his course work for a doctorate in spring 2013. He is the final winner of a competition for a commission sponsored by Eighth Blackbird and the makers of the music-writing program Finale. Interested in extended techniques for conventional instruments, Akiho says in a telephone conversation, “I tried to create a machine-like sound in my winning composition. I wanted piano and percussion to sound like one instrument. The piano part uses credit cards and chopsticks inside the piano. The vibraphone never uses mallets. I sent Lisa [Kaplan] about 10 kinds of chopsticks so she could try them out herself.”
Eighth Blackbird’s upcoming concert is its second at the institute. The ensemble’s last performed during the residency of Paul Moravec, Bermel’s predecessor, and played a selection from a piece commissioned by Moravec, “The Time Gallery.”
Bermel, nearing the end of his residency at the institute, calls it “a wild ride.” “This is a very unusual place, especially for an artist,” he says. “It gives me the vantage point of being an observer, and a bit of an outsider. But there are so many points of entry.”
“I had a great experience getting to know the historians, social scientists, philosophers, and art historians as well as the scientists and mathematicians. I found it humbling, and also empowering as an artist. That I can make a contribution makes me feel valued. I am heartened by how seriously everybody takes having an artist in residence here.”
Non-artistic activities at the institute have seeped into Bermel’s composing. “I’m working on a piece for the Jack String Quartet,” he says. The ensemble plays at the institute in February. “I’m writing something based on a physics lecture at the institute, which lays down a way of looking at the components of the universe. I loved the energy and passion the lecturer brought to his subject. I loved the way his delivery got faster and faster. It was a different kind of vernacular.”
“Derek has been an incredibly dynamic presence at the institute,” says an institute spokesperson. During his tenure, the artist in residence has created an ongoing series of writers’ conversations, organized a concert by members of the institute community, and has composed prolifically. One new piece — a work in memory of American composer John Cage — was created in collaboration with Helmut Hofer, a professor in the institute’s School of Mathematics, and performed in New York City.
Bermel also frequently performed in institute concerts, blowing a supple clarinet and often playing by memory. Elsewhere, he serves as creative advisor to the American Composers Orchestra and was a soloist in the orchestra’s New York City presentation of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto.
“When my appointment at the institute ends I go back to being a freelance composer and performer,” he says. “I’ll be returning to the world from which I came, enriched.”
Eighth Blackbird, Wolfensohn Hall, Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein Drive, Princeton. Friday, November 30, and Saturday, December 1, 8 p.m. Free (pre-registration required). To register or for more information, go to www.ias.edu/special/air/music#Concert2.