On February 12, 2016, preeminent contemporary music pioneers eighth blackbird donned their evening wear and trotted off to the 58th Annual Grammy Awards. Before the evening was over, the group had scored their fourth Grammy Award, and within the week, announced their receipt of the 2016 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions which comes (aside from near-immeasurable prestige) with a $400,000 grant for capacity building and sustainability. Unlike the Grammys, the MacArthur Foundation does not seek or accept nominations for this prestigious award, and uniquely in 2016, chose to present all fourteen awards to Chicago-based institutions, paying homage to the Foundation’s hometown and its early history of making local awards.
Filament, which was released September 11, 2015, is the ensemble’s tenth record and seventh collaboration with fellow Chicagoans Cedille Records, a relationship that has borne all of the ensemble’s impressive Grammy wins for Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance. Joining the ranks of eighth blackbird’s past wins– including strange imaginary animals (2008), Lonely Motel: Music from Slide (2011) and Meanwhile (2013)– Filament showcases the group’s establishment as the mainstay of American contemporary music champions while illuminating their kinetic and colorful individuality and relevant connection with indie music in this developing age of post-genre ideals.
Filament opens with Bryce Dessner‘s seven movement cycle Murder Ballades, which is a shimmering kaleidoscope of overlapping, glass-like tones and folky, almost Appalachian turns and melodies. Shades of Copland are pervasive, accompanied by broader notions of Americana and primitivism that circulate through space with nebulous fluidity — suggesting but never clearly maintaining the structure of song. Murder Ballades is drawn along a very literal thread, inspired by a European tradition of memorializing grizzly murders in song, a tradition that traveled to America and subsequently laid the ground for a colloquial form of its own.
Nico Muhly‘s Doublespeak continues along this path, emerging out of the naïve purity of Dessner’s ballads on an equally as American thread (indeed, “filament”), more apparently rooted in the strain of minimalism that continues to permeate the American concert music tradition. Another work of relative transparency, Muhly’s piece draws its material in part from a well-known canon of works written in the 1970s when, in Muhly’s words, “classical music perfected obsessive repetition.” Thoughtfully crafted, Muhly’s work moves quickly and with precision, occasionally glistening with a cinematic character and modality reminiscent of Bernard Hermann or Jerry Goldsmith. There are bits of Reich, bits of Riley, and an excerpt from Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, which gradually emerges and takes over. Curated in succession, Muhly and Dressner seem to represent shades of a distinctly-American aesthetic and can almost be ingested as a progressive unit, like two sides of a polished coin.
Filament reaches its apex with Philip Glass‘s early work Two Pages (1968), which not only contextualizes the compositional languages employed by the present generation, represented here by Dessner and Muhly– clearly emanations (at least in part) of Glass’s iconic influence– but infuses their energies into this piece by including them as performers in this special arrangement featuring Muhly on organ and Dessner on guitar. The rambling syncopation of Glass’s famous piece is bewildering but executed with astonishing precision and persistent energy by this supergroup. Flanking Two Pages in the track order of the record are two short remixes by eminent crossover artist Son Lux, entitled To Love and This is My Line. Each remix utilizes snippets of the other recorded works on the album creating elegant tapestries clearly woven of the eponymous filament.
Such thoughtful curation and unparalleled musicianship make it easy to accept and applaud eighth blackbird’s incredible and ongoing accolades. With the illumination of both a fourth Grammy Award and the stabilizing force of a MacArthur Award, it is hard to imagine a more profound way to celebrate and memorialize the ensemble’s 20th anniversary year.