University of Richmond’s artists-in-residence eighth blackbird step out of their chamber music setting for a bit to take part in a fascinating multimedia exploration of the seduction and manipulation of the American psyche. (Ticket giveaway inside!)
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eighth blackbird, artists-in-residence at the University of Richmond and the University of Chicago, return to the Modlin Center on Wednesday after a week-and-a-half of frenzied travel. Their recent journeys have put them in front of 300 six-year-olds in Erie, Pennsylvania, a concert audience in Winchester, Virginia, and conservatory students at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Check out their twitter feed at @eighthblackbird for a masterful and often hilarious use of technology to document their adventures. Even in this era of widespread multi-media, genre-splicing, mash-up style experimentation, Wednesday night’s performance offers a unique and mind-bending experience. Slide is a new musical-theater work composed by a rock-influenced electric guitarist, based on a vocalist’s written reflection on a psychological experiment, and performed, both musically and theatrically, by of one of the world’s elite ensembles plus said composer/guitarist and vocalist. You can see/hear for yourself how all this works on eighth blackbird’s website. In anticipation of the Virginia premier of Slide, I spoke with eighth blackbird’s flutist, Tim Munro about memory, movement and, of course, music.
For our readers who may be unfamiliar with Slide’s subject matter, can you briefly describe the psychological experiment that serves as the foundation of this piece?
Slide was inspired by a psychology experiment that co-creator Rinde Eckert read about years ago. Subjects were shown out-of-focus slides, which were then snapped into focus; the time it took them to recognize what was pictured was measured. The experiment showed that subjects took much longer to correctly identify what was pictured when they were first asked to guess the answer. Apparently we are in general more likely to defend our original thoughts about something, despite the evidence to the contrary. The experiment is a good illustration of our all-too-human nature. As the character Renard says, talking about the broader implications of the experiment: “So a lifelong conservative will tend to see only the evidence that confirms his or her beliefs; a lifelong liberal will tend to see only the evidence that confirms his or her beliefs.”
The word Slide seems to have multiple meanings in this context. Care to elaborate on a few of those?
The character Renard sings at once point that things “slide into focus,” and the work as a whole is broadly about Renard’s life gradually “sliding into focus” for him. Much like the subjects in his experiment, he calls into question elements of his life about which he had been completely certain. Unpleasant moments in his personal life, which are blurred at the beginning of the work, gradually reveal themselves to Renard and to the audience during the course of the work.
How are the above elements reflected in Steven Mackey’s music?
The piece is part song cycle, part rock opera. Steve has thought a lot about the long-term trajectory of the work, pacing it so that the big moments, like the rock song “Stare” and the final, quiet, beautiful art song “Lonely Motel,” really tell in a meaningful way. Musically, the piece is draws on a huge range of styles, which is typical for Steve: from complex sections of intimate chamber music to powerful rock ballads, but always with the most finely honed compositional craft.
This piece is also very influenced by the unique voice and performance style of singer/actor Rinde Eckert, who wrote the text for this work. Rinde is a powerhouse of a performer, the sort of uncategorizable stage animal whose very presence on stage is totally transfixing.
What is eighth blackbird’s history with musical-theater performance?
As a chamber music group we are quite unique in our commitment to memorization. Performing without music gives us the freedom to move around the stage, opening us up to the possibility of meaningful collaboration with artists from the world of theater and dance. We’ve staged productions of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire with a life-size, Bunraku puppet; worked with a dance choreographer on creating a theatrical expression of an hour of new music by the Bang on a Can composers; worked with an interactive digital artist to give visual expression to a work by his composer wife.
Our work with other artistic mediums allows us to better engage with an audience that is increasingly comfortable in a visual world, an audience that will go to see a new movie or piece of theater but won’t go to hear a new work of classical chamber music.
Could you elaborate on the musician/actor dual role that each performer will be playing, will there be dialogue spoken by the musicians, etc?
In Slide the musicians of eighth blackbird play a chamber group that Renard looks forward to rehearsing with every Thursday evening. We also serve variously as Renard’s imagined subjects or other phantoms within the protagonist’s curious world and psyche. So we do speak and sing at various points, as well as moving around the stage to better highlight relationships in the music. For example, our cellist, Nick, sits next to Rinde Eckert to play a moving, intimate duet with him.
Who is the best actor in eighth blackbird?
Um, wow. I think it is fair to say that we are all comfortable moving around the stage with our instruments, but once you take them away and we have no “security blanket” we all struggle with a certain stiffness on stage. What we’ve found is that if we move in a natural, everyday way on stage it doesn’t necessarily read as “natural,” and there is a certain type of “actorly” movement that is required to read to an audience as “normal.” This is hard for non-actors to capture.
How did the musicians work on their acting chops in preparation for the performance?
Early in the process we worked with Rinde on a number of acting exercises, much of them to do with operating parts of the body independent from other parts, or with creating super-organized stage movement that the audience only gradually reads as such. Later, working with director Mark deChiazza, our movement became much more focused, as he concentrated us on finding ways to move in a very purposeful, efficient way. He calls this sort of work “chore-eography,” as it gives us tasks/chores to do, and we find the most effective means of doing them.
How does the fact that Steven Mackey is an active performer on electric guitar influence his compositional style?
Aside from the influence of a wide variety of rock music genres on Steve’s music, there is a certain “guitar-ness” that can be detected in some of the “figuration” in the ensemble writing. Steve actually plays in the ensemble with us in Slide, and the addition of electric guitar to the normally acoustic eighth blackbird ensemble adds a totally new and radically different color to the palette.
What kinds of similarities/differences do you find in composers that also perform versus those that do not?
Composer/performers are much more aware the practical aspects of performing their music, and Steve is a great example of a multifaceted artist who is totally open and flexible in his working methods, and will ask us for advice and take constructive criticism.
Slide will be performed on Wednesday, March 3 at 7:30pm in the Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music at the University of Richmond. Tickets are $20 (with discounts available for seniors, children, and UR employees and students) and can purchased online or by calling the Modlin Center box office at 804-289-8980.