The Fresh Blood in Eighth Blackbird

Nico Muhly and Lisa Kaplan discuss the group and its guest collaborators for a concert tomorrow and Wednesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Photograph: Courtesy Eighth Blackbird

Lisa Kaplan (second from right) plays with Eighth Blackbird, alongside collaborators Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, at the Museum of Contemporary Art April 30 and May 1.

This week, three-time Grammy Award-winning groups—and local favorite—Eighth Blackbird takes the Museum of Contemporary Art stage with prodigious Brooklyn-based composer Nico Muhly and indie rockstar Bryce Dressner (of The National fame) in a contemporary/classical mash-up for the ages.

The program includes classic pieces by composers who’ve inspired them (David Lang, Philip Glass) as well as premieres, like Dressner’s “Murder Ballades” and Eighth Blackbird pianist Lisa Kaplan’s “whirligig." 

In anticipation of the concert, Chicago sat down the Kaplan and Muhly as they discussed the up-coming show.

photo: Matthew Murphy

Nico Muhly

Lisa Kaplan: Nico, you think this concert [at the Museum of Contemporary Art] is too long.

Nico Muhly: The concert is way too long. An ideal concert should be 68 minutes and then everyone goes home.

Lisa: Ooh, yeah! No intermission at all. What do you think about when you’re trying to construct a full concert program?

Nico: Length is the first thing I worry about. Then there are always two pieces that are like the spine of the thing. It’s like how you plan a dinner. Once you know the main dish you can build the sides around it— everything else is pretty obvious.

Lisa: Sunchokes and carrots to go with the ribs. [Laughs] Well, one of the main pieces on this program is one you wrote for us, “Doublespeak.”

Nico: Yeah. You guys have commissioned like nine billion pieces and I’ve heard a lot of them. And one of the things I get nervous about with an ensemble with a lot pieces written for them is: What can I do that hasn’t already been done? So for this piece, I didn’t write a contrasting middle section. I just wanted the piece to stay sparkly. I also love having moments that rely on slight chance, where there’s this feeling that things could change.

Lisa: That’s really cool. I think describing it as sparkly is very apropos. What’s very cool about the piece is that you have an amazing way of layering. There’s actually a lot of fast music in “Doublespeak,” but the motion of the piece is really slow.

Nico: I like that because you get a more biological rhythm of having things moving really quickly and slowly. I also buried little pieces of Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts within this piece. It’s one of my favorites by him and it’s rarely played. I like to think of it as found objects of Philip’s music. You’re also writing a piece, “whirligig,” for four-hand piano that we’re playing together for this concert. It’s really kind of hard.

Lisa: [Laughs] I like when you have to work at something because it feels really good when you master it.

Nico: Yeah, I’ve had to practice this piece a lot. And I only have a keyboard at my house so I’ve been trekking over to Philip Glass’s house where I use his piano to practice. In the piece, you can really hear that you’re drawing from many different composers, which makes it really interesting. You have access to so many different composer’s voices in such an intimate way—in a way that composers would never have. Basically it feels like it’s written by someone who’s lived a life of music.

Lisa: Oh yeah, that’s really interesting. And that makes sense. It really does draw on a lot of different composers. I also just wanted it to be fun to play.

Nico: It’s designed to be a little bit of mess. There’s a sort of ragtime, slap at the bottom of the accordion feel to it. When was the last time you played something by someone dead?

Lisa: A while ago.

Nico: And it was Elliot Carter, who’s been dead for like an hour.

Lisa: I have to say it’s been really invigorating working you. When you’ve been together for 17 years [like Eighth Blackbird has], it’s so great to play with other people.

Nico: You guys seem really excited to have fresh blood.

Lisa: Everyone in the group gets along better when there’s a new person around. It’s like when an outsider comes to a family dinner…I also have clearly a very type-a personality within in the context of our group. But when Nico comes I just submit. I submit to Nico. Even when we’re going out to dinner, I can just let Nico take care of that I can lay back and relax.

Nico: [Laughs] I pretty much just take over.

Eighth Blackbird plays the Museum of Contemporary Art with Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner on April 30 and May 1. Tickets start at $22. 220 E Chicago Ave. 312.280.2660

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