A serving of SPAM, courtesy of eighth blackbird

“Always entertaining, sometimes shocking, often just plain weird,” the Grammy Award winning ensemble eighth blackbird is examining the relationship between rock and new classical this week at the Modlin Center. Tim Munro explains why their performance of SPAM, by Mark Mellits, contains moments of musical genius (and no moments of processed meat).

Equally at home performing Pulitzer Prize winning compositions by household-name composers or creating soundscapes from amplified tables covered in sand, eighth blackbird continues to solidify its reputation is one of the most accomplished and innovative ensembles in the world. On Wednesday, September 16th, this Grammy Award winning ensemble returns to its residence at the University of Richmond to perform SPAM, a concert that explores the relationship between rock music and twenty-first century composition. In anticipation of the event, I spoke with the ensemble’s flutist, Timothy Munro, about music, processed meats, and video games.

How would you describe eighth blackbird to someone who has never heard the group before?

eighth blackbird aims to bring the always entertaining, sometimes shocking, often just plain weird diversity of new classical music to a broad audience. We play from memory, incorporate theatrical elements into our shows, and work with artists as diverse as drummer Glenn Kotche and choreographer Susan Marshall.

What, in your opinion, are some of those ways that rock music has influenced classical composition in the twenty-first century, and what can listeners expect on September 16th?

The grey area between rock music and classical composition has never been larger or…well…more grey. America’s young classical composers, for example Missy Mazzoli or Nico Muhly, grew up listening to indie rock and heavy metal, and these influences can’t help but appear in their music.

The “downtown” NYC music scene, of which the Bang on a Can composer collective is the most prominent example, has helped drive this revolution in Manhattan. One natural outgrowth of that is a New York-based label like New Amsterdam Records (brain-child of talented New York institution Judd Greenstein) consciously seeks out classical performers who straddle both worlds. But, in fact, the fruits can be heard across the country. In fact, just the other day our very first intern began working for us, a rock guitarist who caught the classical bug and whose music no doubt will show the stamp of both.

What should listeners expect for our September 16 show? They’ll hear composers influenced by the hugely diverse world of popular music, but I hope that audiences won’t expect to hear a rock show. Instead, eighth blackbird concerts are a bit of a wild musical roller coaster ride: from the quirky fun of Twelve Hands and SPAM to the mysterious, elusive, other-worldly sounds of Deserted Churchyards and Derive.

Would you say that classical composition has influenced rock music and, if so, how?

A whole generation of indie-rock musicians is either classically trained or have a strong interest in composers as different as Steve Reich and Kaija Saariaho. Personally, when I listen to Andrew Bird I hear the influence of Maurice Ravel, and when I listen to Sufjan Stevens I hear Philip Glass.

What kinds of new instrumental techniques have the members of eighth blackbird explored in order to play this music?

On September 16 we will be playing a piece that throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Twelve Hands is a quotation-free homage to the Beatles by hot young Dutch composer Mayke Nas. The six of us play entirely on the strings and frame of the piano using regular household items: toothpicks, credit cards, dish brushes and hammers.

Playing in eighth blackbird can be a pretty interesting “job.” Apart from destroying pianos, we’ve had to saw wood onstage, play goose and duck calls, scream and shout and play with children’s toys.

Have you performed, or do you wish you could perform in a rock or jazz club-like environment?

I wish that this could happen more often. We’re a little restricted by economic issues – eighth blackbird is essentially a band for hire, and we rely on the larger fees that big, classical venues and presenters can pay, in order to make a living by playing crazy music. Also, we play music that has a huge dynamic range – it gets very loud but also very soft – and the very soft, subtle sounds do get lost among the clinking of beers and dull roar in a club setting. We’re big fans of venues like New York’s The Kitchen, which gives the feel of a rock venue but with a more conventional classical audience setup, and Le Poisson Rouge, which in two years has built a hip, young, excited audience for a huge variety of new music.

A significant portion of music seems to focus on England’s contribution to the rock and roll canon (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Mark-Anthony Turnage). Coincidence?

Good point! This is coincidence, but I guess you could say that England has been the driving force behind many of rock music’s revolutions, and most of the composers I know are as influenced by the Beatles as by Beethoven. There’s another Englishman represented on our program as well, Thomas Ades, whose Catch is a hilarious playground game, full of taunts and teasing, enacted on- and off-stage.

How does the consistency, flavor and pop-culture relevance of SPAM the meat product inform the work, SPAM, by Marc Mellits?

Marc tends to come up with very quirky titles. I think the biggest point of confluence is that SPAM (the meat product and the piece) doesn’t take itself too seriously. We think of SPAM (the meat product) as cheap, disposable and bland. SPAM (the piece) is fast, virtuosic, direct, fun, and very funky.

Can you talk a little about Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, the Pulitzer Prize it won and eighth blackbird’s world premiere of that work at the University of Richmond?

Double Sextet was written for eighth blackbird in 2007, and we’ve been playing it all over the world since then. Steve doesn’t write for single instruments, so he decided to double each of our instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano) for the piece. We first recorded one sextet part, and played the other sextet part with this pre-recorded mirror-image of ourselves. The piece is fast and driving in the outer movements, and atypically lyrical in the middle section. We were very excited that the piece won a Pulitzer, and feel that Steve was very much overdue! Where was the Pulitzer for Music for 18 Musicians? And for Tehillim? About bloody time!!

From the recording session for the Reich:

Considering the impending release of The Beatles’ Rock Band game, what would Rock Band: eighth blackbird be like?

This is a deeply important question! Our second home, University of Richmond, offered Rock Band as a class one semester, and we definitely spent some seriously crazy time in that little, airless room channeling Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. We’ve been thinking about ways to include Rock Band into our live act, and admittedly it would be pretty bloody difficult, but that doesn’t mean we’ll give up hope!!

Visit eighth blackbird on the web at http://www.eighthblackbird.com
More info on the Modlin Center for the Arts here

eighth blackbird: SPAM
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
 at 7:30 pm

Modlin Center for the Arts
Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music
28 Westhampton Way
Richmond VA 23173

(804) 289-8980

Ticket Prices
: Adult: $20
, Senior (65+): $18, 
UR Employee: $16
, Child (0-12): $10, 
UR Student: Free

Tickets are still available and college students can get their hands on one for only $10.

Tim Munro: Born in Brisbane, Australia, Tim studied flute at Oberlin College, Queensland Conservatorium (Australia) and Australian National Academy of Music. His teachers included Michel Debost, Margaret Crawford and Patrick Nolan.

Tim has played with professional orchestras, chamber groups and new music ensembles around Australia. Highlights include concerto performances with the Queensland Orchestra, solo performances at the Melbourne Arts Festival and Bangalow Festival, and recordings for Australian radio and commercial CD release. He also participated in the Carnegie Hall Training Workshops and the Pacific Music Festival.

Composers he has worked with include Elliott Carter, Oliver Knussen, Aaron Jay Kernis, Joseph Schwantner, Tania Leon, Peter Sculthorpe and Brett Dean.

A classical music tragic, Tim likes to write and speak about music, and in an earlier life was Publications Coordinator of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

Bryan Hooten is a trombonist, composer and educator living in Richmond, VA. He plays with Ombak, Fight the Big Bull, No BS Brass, Verbatim, and various other groups. He teaches Music Theory and Small Jazz Ensembles at VCU and directs the Jazz Band at James River High School. He also serves on the faculty of the Virginia Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. http://www.ombakmusic.com

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Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

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