Eighth Blackbird CD ‘Dead Of Night’ Finally Sees Light

Eighth Blackbird performs music by Bang on a Can composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe on their new Cedille CD.

David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe: Singing In The Dead Of Night Eighth Blackbird
Cedille CDR 90000 195. Total Time: 46:04

DIGITAL REVIEW – The composers and good friends who make up Bang on a CanDavid Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe – are ubiquitously present on the new music scene. Their styles are different, but they all come out of the same baby boomer milieu that accepts rock ‘n’ roll as a birthright and an attitude to be used freely within what the Establishment likes to call “serious music.” Ironic that they are the Establishment now, showered with awards, commissions, performances, and prestigious recordings.

Amid the mountain of material that they pour out separately and occasionally together, one joint project that nearly got buried was a suite, Singing In The Dead Of Night, that all three wrote for the ever-fearless Chicago new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird. The premiere occurred in 2008, and they recorded it the following year, but it has taken 11 years for the recording to be issued. Beatles fans will immediately be sucked in by the title, which consists of a phrase from Paul McCartney’s lyrics to his song “Blackbird” (get it?) from the Beatles’ 1968 White Album. “singing in the dead of night” doubles as the name of Julia Wolfe’s contribution, and the titles of the other parts of the suite – Lang’s “these broken wings” and Gordon’s “the light of the dark” – are also drawn from “Blackbird” lyrics.

None of this info is mentioned in the CD booklet notes (although it is in Cedille’s press materials), which is just as well since the music has absolutely nothing to do with the song, nor much of anything the Beatles recorded. So if you are expecting any gentle acoustic guitar-driven permutations on a famous song, don’t. As per the live performances, the CD organizes the suite in the form of a palindrome. Lang’s piece was split into three parts and placed first, third, and fifth in the sequence, with Gordon’s piece going second and Wolfe’s going fourth. At the performances, a choreographer (Susan Marshall) reportedly had the members of the sextet execute various physical motions while playing, but you, the sheltered-at-home listener, will just have to use your imagination.

That shouldn’t be too difficult in the second part of Lang’s piece, where sustained and slowly descending passages are punctuated by what sounds like glass objects, industrial garbage, and other refuse (broken wings?) crashing and clattering onto the stage floor. It seemed kinda funny to me after a while – and hopefully, to Lang, too. Part One consists of sparkling sounds for piano and ensemble lurching along in an aimless, rhythmically fragmented flow, while Part Three strikes me as a minimalist trance dance punctuated by whacks of a bass drum, closing the suite on a cheery note.

In between the double-decker Lang sandwich, Gordon fields an abrasive sliding cello sounding like a bass mosquito threading its way through comic accordion playing, rapid violin licks, a clarinet tootling away, a single note on the piano, and a piccolo joining in on the fun. Eventually everyone is invited to have at it in independent lines all at once – apparently all written out, and thus difficult to play.

David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe

Wolfe’s piece uses sandpaper as wielded by four of the Blackbird members, but not before some violent, jumbled dissonant passages separated by silences coalesce into freakouts that may be written out yet sound like they’re improvised on the spot, with the piano pounding all over the place.

Different styles, all right, yet the concept of making Lang’s three-part piece the bookends and cement that hold the structure together does provide some unity for these boomers on a rampage. I don’t know if it will stand the test of time as long as McCartney’s “Blackbird” has, but it does have a 12-year head start.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide, the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.