Eighth Blackbird's 'Only Moving Thing': Gaining Altitude

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008

It can take a few months to tell what a new baby is actually going to look like. New pieces of music have a similar biology. When they are first performed they have a quality of startling rawness, no matter how often they have been rehearsed; but on a second or third hearing their character becomes more clearly defined, with certain traits coming to the fore and others receding that initially seemed prominent.

So when the program "The Only Moving Thing," two pieces commissioned by the new-music ensemble eighth blackbird, came to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night after a number of performances around the country, it was a great chance to see how the baby is shaping up. The world premiere, which I reviewed, took place in March in Richmond.

To recapitulate what one might call the birth announcement: The evening's pieces were by Steve Reich (whom I count among our greatest living composers) and the three-member composers' collective Bang on a Can, which created a diptych of distinct but interwoven parts: two long works by Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe separated by three shorter ones by David Lang. One obvious change that has taken place since March is that Lang has won a Pulitzer Prize, so the program, which was originally an evening of leading American mavericks, has been touched, by association, by a whiff of unexpected acclaim from the establishment.

There were no faults in the March performance, but the players' increased familiarity with the works made a notable difference on Tuesday. At the premiere, Reich's "Double Sextet," one of a number of pieces in which the composer has the musicians play together with a recording of themselves, seemed to me the standout: not a large-scale new work but a happy one in the composer's late style, juxtaposing his signature driving rhythms with a new richness of chord and melody.

On Tuesday, the starch of newness was replaced by rumpled comfort, which did not serve this piece as well. It seemed less clear in its lines. The romantic center section was less lush; the piano-percussion rhythms that powered the sustained chords of the first and last section, less kinetic. Also, the tape seemed to dominate, making the whole thing very loud. (I wonder if this is an actual change or just an acoustical trick of the Terrace Theater; a reviewer of a performance in another city complained that the tape was not loud enough.)

However, loosening up suited the Bang on a Can piece, "singing in the dead of night," very well. The work felt more cohesive, and the understated choreography by Susan Marshall, which basically involves the musicians moving about the stage as part of their musicmaking, seemed more natural. If the music was less crisp, the underlying narratives showed all the more clearly.

The work is a collection of impressions of night. Gordon creates a musicians' jam session that ends with everyone standing around the piano, making wheezy noises on open strings and accordion; Wolfe seeks to evoke the sense of waking alone at night, punctuating her piece with segments in which the musicians sprawl sleepily across a table full of sand, creating a grainy dragging rasp with every movement. The whole thing is still a little too long, but eighth blackbird's musicians, who are generally low-key, brought it across with more elan. Where the Richmond audience was mostly silent, Tuesday's audience often responded audibly, with pleased laughter.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company