Eighth Blackbird Brings Adès, Hartke and Etezady to Life

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Hardly any chamber group's recordings could adequately substitute for a live performance, but when that group is the prominent new music sextet called eighth blackbird, the live performance is that much more irreplaceable. After having seen them in concert once, it would be impossible to listen to their recordings without being aware how much one is missing by flattening out one of their lively recitals into an entirely aural experience.

For instance, one might hardly notice on CD the extensive instrumental doubling required from the performers of Stephen Hartke's title track, which demands — just to name one example — that flutist Tim Munro switch between a conventional flute, alto flute, piccolo and flexatone(!), but the sight of it onstage is a hoot. And to listeners unfamiliar with the piece's stage presentation, Missy Mazzoli's Still Life with Avalanche tantalizes the audio-only audience with the kinetic energy of Matthew Duvall's breakbeat-esque drumming, as well as with the prospect of half a classical chamber music ensemble whipping out harmonicas to lay down a pad of drones while their colleagues solo.

But these are pieces that hold their own without the visual component — Hartke's mock-Orientalisms are especially rich — and eighth blackbird's best "gimmick" is not their try-anything-once ethos or their eagerness to put on a show; it is their dazzling perfection of ensemble. Thomas Adès's cartoonishly mercurial Catch and Music in Similar Motion by Philip Glass are both high-wire acts of intonation, timbral blend and rhythmic unison, each for very different reasons.

Gratifying as it is, however, to hear eighth blackbird take on the music of stars like Adès and Glass, one of the greatest thrills offered by this album is the sense of discovery that accompanies pieces by under-recorded composers, such as the quasi-symphonic grandeur of Damaged Goods by Roshanne Etezady — represented here by two movements — and most of all, Philippe Hurel's dazzling …a mesure. Hurel's combination of virtuosity with an uncompromising, yet undogmatic sense of focus are a one-to-one match for eighth blackbird's own strengths as a band.

When are they putting out a live DVD?

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