The Flight of the Blackbirds

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

From: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,"
by Wallace Stevens

They're young, they're energetic, and they're enchanting audiences and music critics throughout the country.

Publicly recognized for their precision, intensity, and imagination are six Oberlin graduates collectively known as eighth blackbird, a student-turned-alumni chamber sextet specializing in the performance of 20th-century, or "new" music.

Violinist Matthew Albert '96, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri '96, cellist Nicholas Photinos '96, flutist Molly Barth '96, pianist Lisa Kaplan '97, and percussionist Matthew Duvall '95, have gained national attention from their appearances at festivals and chamber music series across the United States, which early-on earned them first prizes at the Fischoff and Coleman Chamber Music Competitions.

This spring, eighth blackbird was the sole first prize winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition, distinguishing them as among the most oustanding young performers in the classical music field today.

The 1994 brainchild of Oberlin's Contemporary Music Ensemble conductor Timothy Weiss, eighth blackbird performed for a year when they discovered the fulfillment of working without a conductor. The ensemble soon flew from its Oberlin nest, and as a group are completing the Artist Diploma program in chamber music at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

Working with composers such as Joan Tower, Fred Lerdahl, Donald Martino, Andrew Imbrie, Wendell Logan, and Michael Torke, the ensemble has also commissioned pieces from Burton Hatheway, Pieter Snapper, Thomas Albert, and Alan Tormay.

In addition to performances at the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, the Hot Springs Music Festival, and many others, including a month with the Opera Theatre of Lucca in Italy, an Oberlin audience remains among eighth blackbird's favorites. Following a guest recital in April, the group returned in May to record their first marketable CD--part of an AT&T sponsored project that will feature eighth blackbird's music on the company's website.

For more information, including performance dates and CD release details, visit eighth blackbird on the web at

OAM: eighth blackbird is referred to as a "new music" ensemble. Does anyone want to put a definition to that phrase?

eighth blackbird (in unison): No.

Duvall: Well, to generalize, ìnew music" is Western art music written by composers trained in the Western tradition in the late 20th century.

OAM: Okay, so where would we find your CD in a music store?

Duvall: In the new music section.

Albert: I think we would identify new music by origin and time period. But I would have to point out that there are both exceptions and expansions to that. We would like to explore as many different origins--cultural and geographical--as we possibly can in our careers. Much of what we've started with comes from the Western canon, but we would like to expand beyond that. Also, when you look at new music today, you find many different time periods when composers and other artists were experimenting and trying to change the art and the culture that had influenced them.

Look at Beethoven. He very much followed the traditions, but his later works, such as the late string quartet from Cannon Sonatas, were not followed up by him for many years. Charles Ives, in the early part of this century, was an iconoclastic figure who didn't develop himself until much later. Four-hundred years ago, at the turn of the 17th century, there were composers who were just beginning to explore tonality and different kinds of writing. So in all these periods, you have people who are writing the music that somehow could belong with what we're finding from today's composers.

OAM: Why should people listen to eighth blackbird?

Albert: I think what we're trying to do musically is almost unique nowadays. There are other groups playing new music, and there are other groups that are unconducted, but there are few we know of with our basic instrumentation that try to play with all six people together nearly full time. Because of that, the kind of music we play is new to listeners; it's a new kind of sound. We do everything in our power to make the music interesting to our listeners. And it's exciting both to perform and to hear.

Photinos: One of our goals is to interpret the works of new music composers, to bring them to people in an accessible fashion. We hope that by exemplary performances of these works, they will have a wider audience. We feel they are deserving of that.

Kaplan: So often, a new music piece is commissioned by an ensemble or an orchestra, but it doesn't receive the amount of intense rehearsal required. So once the pieces are presented, they don't receive the same amount of attention as, say, Beethoven Nine. I think a lot of times new music gets a bad reputation because. We think this music deserves a quality performance just like anything else, and we're trying to present that to audiences.

Photinos: It just so happens the music composed for our ensemble is written in the 20th century. We've come across so many amazing pieces that have just been buried or put by the wayside or not as frequently performed as they should have been because they haven't had as much time and energy devoted to them.

OAM: Does your music convey a message to listeners?

Albert: Music is a field we've been trained in and chosen to explore. What we're trying to do with our music is to educate, in a sense, and let people know what the slice of our culture today is like. I wouldn't go so far as to say we are always comparing our music to bigger political or social issues. But I think in playing music that's written now, near the turn of the century, and making that an emphasis, we're trying to get a bigger audience, we're trying to make some kind of statement of what we think is important, not just significant.

Barth: Working with composers of this new music is very, very exciting to us. You couldn't work on a Beethoven piece and then go talk to Beethoven about how he wanted it played. We rehearse pieces for a while, get a good understanding of them, and for just about every piece we've worked on, we collaborate with the composer. By meeting the composers, we get a much better idea of what they want of the music, and we can put much of that character into the music. That makes it very, very fun and rewarding for us.

OAM: What are the reactions of the composers upon hearing you play their works?

Barth: They're usually thrilled. It's very exciting for both of the parties.

We play with such conviction that even if we do something with the music that's different from what the composers have written, they're convinced by the fact that we put a lot of thought and effort into the idea. That makes it just as solid as anything they would have written.

OAM: Isn't there a certain level of conviction necessary, particularly with new music.

Barth: Yeah. It's what differentiates the good and bad performances.

OAM: Do you find composers and others you work with to be intimidated by or attracted to your age and newness to this field?

Photinos: I would say generally attracted to. I mean, obviously the composers wouldn't work with us if they thought we were too young to be approachable.

Maccaferri: I think it's easier for us to communicate with composers of our generation--they are kind of a target group for commission right now. In that sense, dealing with us is a lot easier for a composer our age than dealing with a performing group that's been playing for years.

OAM: Can you characterize a typical eighth blackbird listener?

Photinos: I think we've had success performing for a wide variety of different groups. At a festival last summer, we performed for audiences who had never heard any sort of contemporary music at all, and we were successful. We do not want to exclude anyone, certainly, but we're tying to get audiences of our own age and younger interested and involved with new music and music in general.

Albert: We would love to get more people of our generation to concert halls. We would also love it if people who go to concert halls enjoy our music as something they haven't heard before.

OAM: Tell me about Oberlin and your transition to the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.

Albert: I remember in the fall of 1990 being in a hallway of the Oberlin Conservatory when Nick stopped me. We were talking and he said he had a question: How would I like to play in a sextet? The violinist had graduated, and they needed a new person. I said, "yep" before he was finished asking the question.

Kaplan: I know there are a lot of Oberlin graduates who go through this weird withdrawal when they go to graduate school. Oberlin spoils you. It really does. But Cincinnati has wonderful aspects about it also--things that have made it possible for us to really grow there.

OAM: How did all of you come to decide upon the University of Cincinnati?

Photinos: It's actually a very interesting part of what we're accomplishing. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said to us, "What do you do on the side," or "What's your real job," or "So what are you gonna be when you're done with this--when you're out of school?"

It's still hard for people to conceptualize that it's our intention to make this a professional, full time endeavor. Self-evaluation told us that we needed to continue our education. We needed to be in an environment where we could work together. Being at the University of Cincinnati has been a remarkable opportunity.

Maccaferri: The University of Cincinnati is quite unique in that it offers this degree program for ensembles. We only came across maybe a handful in the country. We're the third group to go through this program.

OAM: What have you learned in the year that you've been away from Oberlin. Any big surprises along the way?

Matthew: The first thing that we have learned is the amazing amount of support that there is out there. Many of the people at the festivals we attended last summer had not programmed new music before, yet they were supportive of us and what we wanted to do. Audiences in Virginia and Arkansas had never heard music written after Brahms. We played, and most of them loved it.

We have committed a large amount of our time outside of rehearsals to being together and in regular business meetings. Individually, a lot of us have dedicated time and class work to learning more about the kinds of skills we will need to be effective, say at, arranging music or learning how to design lighting or sound. Huge individual efforts have gone into learning how to manage a professional career.

OAM: What are you most proud of thus far...either personally or professionally?

Kaplan: I'm just proud of the fact that we've done what we set out to do so far--that we've been able to stay together and make it through good and bad things, and that we've been successful and we keep climbing the ladder. I'm just happy that we all have this same goal, because that's so rare.

Photinos: I'm proud of our determination and our efforts. So even though we're still students in a degree-granting program, I don't think that we really consider ourselves a student ensemble, by any means. We don't conduct ourselves that way, and we don't act as students when we address problems that come up within our group. Whether the problems are personal or performance-based, I feel we handle them very professionally and very compassionately. We all feel very strongly about what we're doing, and we're determined to make this happen.

Barth: A lady came up to me at the Chamber Festival in Detroit last summer and said "I was determined to hate you guys, but I loved it." That was, I think, the best comment that I'd ever gotten.

Heard in the background: And it wasn't your mom, huh?

Barth, laughing: No. It wasn't my mom.