June 18, 2020


David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe: Singing in the Dead of Night. Eighth Blackbird (Lisa Kaplan, piano; Yvonne Lam, violin; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Nathalie Joachim, flute; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinet; Matthew Duvall, percussion). Cedille. $16.

     There is an abyssal divide between contemporary music that is totally integrated into a stage performance and the same music when heard without visuals. Certainly stage works of earlier times can be listened to without staging and still be effective: concert performances of operas are a longstanding tradition, as is the singing of excerpts from them. But opera is a merger of multiple effects: Franco Zeffirelli once memorably called it “a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts.” Contemporary musical stagings, especially those that are avant-garde by design, are a different matter: music often seems not to be their main point, which means that absent the visual material, the sounds come across as a somewhat pale and diminished part of a larger whole rather than as effective elements in themselves.

     The new Cedille release of Singing in the Dead of Night is thus more of a take-home piece of memorabilia for listeners who have seen the production as a totality than it is a satisfying experience on a purely musical basis. It is important to have the right mindset for the whole thing – to know, for example, that Eighth Blackbird is a six-person ensemble, not an eight-person one, because its name was taken from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Such esoterica may not be absolutely integral to audience enjoyment of what Eighth Blackbird does, but the extra-musical matters do help clarify the ensemble’s thinking and intent – the Stevens stanza refers to “noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms.”

     Some such accents, some such rhythms, may be found in Singing in the Dead of Night, which is framed by a three-movement piece by David Lang that is not performed as three sequential movements – instead, the first movement is followed by a work by Michael Gordon, then the second Lang movement, then a piece by Julia Wolfe, then Lang’s conclusion. The reasoning behind this is a bit obscure, but remember that this is avowedly avant-garde material, and the entirety of the piece, or pieces, was created for this ensemble (in 2008). Oh – it also helps a good deal to know that each of the three works is named from the lyrics from Paul McCartney’s Beatles song, Blackbird. The three Lang movements are these broken wings, the Gordon work is the light of the dark, and the Wolfe piece is singing in the dead of night, the title for the overall assemblage.

     If you do not know McCartney’s lyrics, if you do not know the relationship between his Blackbird song and the Eighth Blackbird ensemble and the Wallace Stevens connection and all the other elements that are foundational to this material, you will miss out on a great deal of the resonance (not musical but, if you will, editorial) of this world première recording. And that is not unusual in avant-garde productions, which so often speak to an “in” crowd that “gets” all the references and comments and connections and has little interest in “outsiders” who are insufficiently knowledgeable to make sense of everything.

     In this particular case, “everything” would also include the elaborate staging elements that are de rigueur when it comes to Singing in the Dead of Night. This is a choreographed work using sound, lighting, costuming, and various vague but very with-it instructions, such as one from Lang telling the performers to “drop things.” Movement is supposed to be integral to the music, not an addition to it – which means that in the absence of visuals, listeners are exposed to a pale shadow of what this performance is supposed to be. The performers’ motions and actions are intended to be expressive but certainly not balletic – although it may be worth pointing out that many ballets are less than enthralling as pure listening experiences without their visuals: Tchaikovsky’s are the exception, not the rule.

     There is nothing particularly “wrong” with hearing this music on its own, and the music itself has some interesting elements. Lang’s second movement, designated a passacaille, has a sense of drooping, of falling, of ongoing descent, that contrasts well with the much brighter near-ostinato rhythmic approach of his finale. Gordon’s piece is full of effects that are dear to contemporary composers, such as pushing the cello far past its usual tonal warmth into stridency and producing percussive bangs and crashes at unpredictable intervals. Wolf’s work, which runs an overextended 19 minutes and is by far the longest element of this offering, has its share of eeriness and oddity, all in the service of often-nightmarish electronic as well as acoustic effects, but seems to make its “dead of night” point far too many times. All the music is composed with skill, and all of it is played with enthusiasm that flows from a belief system in which this type of material is what contemporary music-making is all about, or should be. It is all very earnest despite having some lighter moments that presumably would correlate with visuals if any were present. Fans of everything avant-garde will welcome this CD, and audience members who already know the music in its visual context will enjoy using the disc as a recollection. But Lang, Gordon, Wolfe and Eighth Blackbird do not reach out with this disc in any sort of audience-building way – appearing to prefer the musical equivalent of “preaching to the choir,” just as so many other 21st-century musicians do.

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