Several months ago, a pianist named Lisa Kaplan invited me to a house party at a gorgeous mini manse in Gold Coast. Lisa was going to be performing with a few members of her classical sextet, Eighth Blackbird; they were touring a lot at the time, and this was one of the few opportunities I had to check them out.
I dragged my friend Maria with the promise of wine and pretty music, but I really didn’t know what we were getting into. A contemporary classical sextet from Chicago? Rocking a house party on the Gold Coast? It was, admittedly, a little awkward: most of the 50 or so people there were doctors or their spouses (the house was owned by a physician), and everyone knew each other. I only knew Lisa from a few e-mails; we’d never met in person. Maria and I hit the wine and cheese, then spent a while admiring the perfectly sculpted garden on the back patio.
After an hour or so, the host summoned everyone into the foyer for the performance. As it progressed, I thought about how wrong I had been to label classical music, particularly contemporary classical music, as “pretty.” The stuff that Eighth Blackbird plays isn’t “pretty” at all; it is raw and interesting and dramatic and occasionally uncomfortably atonal. Not “pretty.” Way more interesting than “pretty.” For one piece, Thierry De Mey’s Musique de Tables, they scrapped their instruments all together and sat down at three tables. The entire composition consisted of their fingers and knuckles knocking against wood. Simply brilliant. And cool as hell.
This week, Eighth Blackbird was nominated for three—count ’em, three—Grammys. I was thrilled to hear that they are finally getting some popular recognition (they’ve been critically lauded for years). Fortunately for Chicagoans, this group (which lives here but spends a lot of time touring) is in the middle of a three-part series at the Harris, which started in October and resumes in January. Pick up tickets for the January show at the Harris here. In early 2008, they’ll also be down at the University of Chicago playing the Contempo series.
At the house party, I asked the host why he had gone to all the trouble to have a party for Eighth Blackbird. As he explained it to me, he felt some frustration that such an interesting group, which is in demand in cities like New York, had been largely ignored in its own hometown. That thought became the basis of this story by Nora O’Donnell. My favorite part of the piece is Lisa Kaplan saying how people think contemporary music is all “squeak fart” music. Yep. I had thought it was squeak fart music, I had thought it was old fart music, I had thought it was “pretty” music. I was happily wrong on all counts.
* Take a tour of Eighth Blackbird’s Ravenswood studio on YouTube.
Photograph: Luke Ratray/Courtesy of 21C Media