Eighth Blackbird Presents Genre-Defying Head Scratcher at Harris

I’m a big fan of classical music’s great and powerful dead guys (e.g., Mozart, Beethoven); but that’s just it: they’re dead. Giving feedback is kind of a challenge. So when eighth blackbird, the decorated contemporary-classical sextet, brings a freshly composed piece to Chicago…

Photo of Eight Blackbird, performing at the Harris Theater
Rinde Eckert (center) holds down the whirlwind of ambiguous multimedia action in eighth blackbird’s latest.

 

Even they have called it “weird.”

NEW CLASSICAL I’m a big fan of classical music’s great and powerful dead guys (e.g., Mozart, Beethoven), but that’s just it: they’re dead. Giving feedback is kind of a challenge. So when eighth blackbird, the decorated contemporary-classical sextet, brings a freshly composed piece to Chicago—performed last night at the Harris Theater—you’d think people would be there to see history in the making, either to scream accolades or throw some cabbages. Not so much. Perhaps the poor attendance had to do with marketing—as in, no one knew how the heck to describe and promote Slide, an ambiguous multimedia piece commissioned for the group by the composer Steven Mackey and the actor-singer Rinde Eckert.

“Song cycle? Play? Opera?” the program notes ask. Beats me. Eckert plays Renard, a psychologist describing a past experiment in which his subjects played “name that object” with out-of-focus slides. Somewhere in between Eckert’s falsetto singing and his arms flailing a la Michael Stipe in the “Losing My Religion” video, the audience can devise that Renard is lonely after some dame jilted him at the altar. The rest I had trouble figuring out, which I attribute to the bountiful poetic license taken and a lack of subtitles. If pressed, I’d say it was a mixture of performance art and a Talking Heads video—with some crunchy electric guitar and gong thrown in. The ‘birds premiered this piece at the Ojai Music Festival last June to mixed reviews, and at the time, it was (and still is) a work in progress.

But malleability is a beautiful thing. Although there are no more scheduled performances here, perhaps ten years from now Chicagoans will see Slide again, and the direction will be completely different. Maybe it’ll even make sense—not because the piece has changed, but because we’ve changed as musical consumers.


WHAT CRITICS THOUGHT OF SLIDE, LAST YEAR AND NOW
  • The Los Angeles Times review by Mark Swed, 6/15/09:
    “[Mackey] doesn’t completely manage the merger of raw rock and cooked classicism in Slide, but the stylistic sliding is nonetheless powerful and impressive. Unfortunately, he saddled himself with a sophomoric theatrical concept—a lonely psychologist who studies how people interpret images seen in and out of focus. This mirrors his own soft-focus life.”
  • The Santa Barbara Independent review by Charles Donelan, 6/17/09:
    “Eckert, who was also the librettist for Slide, has to be one of the most exciting figures in music today. His acting is great, his singing is extraordinary, and he commands the stage, expressing an encyclopedic range of feelings and ideas.”
  • The Wall Street Journal review by David Mermelstein, 6/24/09:
    “Though not advertised as such, Slide is clearly still a work-in-progress, with a surfeit of loosely assembled dramatic gestures and a patchwork score that often sounds recycled.”
  • The review by Evan Kuchar at the Beyond Words blog, 3/24/10:
    “Ultimately, Slide works because these various forces come together in a cohesive mix of styles to tell a moving story that is equal parts narrative and non-linear. It is one of the few pieces I’ve seen recently that I would not only see again but bring friends.”

 

Photograph: Robert Millard

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