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25.1.07

Strange Imaginary Animals

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Strange Imaginary Animals (new music by Higdon, Fitzell, Mackey, Gordon, DeSantis), eighth blackbird (released on November 28, 2006)
A post on Monotonous Forest first got me interested in the latest release from new music ensemble eighth blackbird. Strange Imaginary Animals brings together five world premiere recordings of pieces from the last half-decade, plus one golden oldie, Steven Mackey's Indigenous Instruments, which is so 1989. The ensemble's new flutist, Tim Munro, has been writing a fascinating blog, thirteen ways, about the experience of being eighth blackbird. He is the group's first new member in some 10 years. This recording features the work of his predecessor, flutist Molly Alicia Barth.

The playing here is vivid and exciting, and most of the repertoire is worth the energy expended by eighth blackbird (see the group at work in these videos). Jennifer Higdon's Zaka is an edgy, rhythmic 12:50, with raw, percussive flute aspirations and prepared piano sounds. In several sections of differing styles, the piece held my attention over extended listening. My favorite piece here is Steven Mackey's Indigenous Instruments, the older piece re-examined. The composer's program notes describe the work as "vernacular music from a culture that doesn’t actually exist." Mackey's method was a sort of Dada collage of found sounds reimagined, leading him toward microtonal dissonance (the instruments are all mistuned or otherwise prepared) with Stravinsky-esque rhythmic shifts. The bends, whistling sounds, and Doppler effects (like sirens bleating) can make you a little seasick, the disorientation of a foreign land.

Other Reviews:

Steve Hicken (Sequenza 21)
Another excellent discovery was Friction Systems by David M. Gordon, composed in 2002 and revised in 2005. Dissonant, rhythmically free solos grind against a sort of rhythmic ostinato, on the high keys of the piano and in the percussion. Least immediately appealing were the two pieces by Gordon Fitzell. The opening of violence (2001) is dominated by non-pitch sounds (blowing through instruments, keypad clicking, scratching on strings), meant to evoke the title concept. The more recent evanescence (2006) -- Fitzell has a thing for no capital letters -- refers often, it seems to me, to the synthesized and musique concrète sounds of Edgard Varèse's Poème électronique, especially the fascination with gongs. Some sounds may be outright quotations, but it's hard to tell.

For the final track, strange imaginary remix, Dennis DeSantis put together a house music sort of remix of the preceding five pieces, over a dance beat. Now that I am done reviewing this CD, I will probably delete this track from my MP3 player for good. Still, this CD has been rewarding listening many times. However, I do not recommend it for late at night. When I fell asleep with it on my MP3 player one night, I had very disturbing dreams. It could very easily be the soundtrack of one's nightmares.

Cedille CDR 90000 094

To catch eighth blackbird live in concert, Washingtonians will have to try to attend the concert scheduled for February 21, as part of the group's residency at the University of Richmond.

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