Great Britain

Eighth Blackbird: Singing in the Dead of Night review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

It’s more than 30 years now since composers, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang founded the new-music collective Bang on a Can, which through its commissions and performances has become one of the most vital forces in American contemporary music. The three have subsequently gone in quite different directions, but they have remained the artistic directors of the group, and continue to collaborate regularly on projects that, as Lang writes, “have a broad scope, broad enough to include the musical opinions of three related but very independent composers”.

Their latest joint venture is the result of a commission from the Chicago-based Eighth Blackbird, six musicians who all play a variety of instruments and memorise everything so that they can move around freely during performances. The three composers made movement an integral part of these pieces, inviting the choreographer Susan Marshall to work with the players, and in deference to the group’s name, took the titles of their individual contributions from lines in one of the most beautiful of all Beatles songs, Blackbird. The visual aspects are of course lost on disc, but played with such fabulous precision and exuberance by the Blackbirds, the three works still stand up very well indeed, both individually and in sequence.

The three movements of Lang’s These Broken Wings – the first and last bright, sparky and irresistibly propulsive, the second a dark, slowly shifting passacaglia overlaid with the crashes and rustles of objects dropping to floor - are separated by the other pieces. Gordon’s The Light of the Dark exploits Eighth Blackbird’s multi-instrumental talents to create what he describes as an “out-of-control late-night jam session” weaving in repeated references to the Dies Irae plainchant, while Wolfe’s Singing in the Dead of Night starts off with Steve Reich-like pulsings, but develops into a spectral nocturne, broken by irregular silences and unpredictable moments of fierceness. It’s a fabulous disc.

This week’s other pick

The four works on Lines and Spaces (Wergo), the first disc devoted to the music of Naomi Pinnock, provide a timely portrait of one of the most distinctive younger voices in British music today. That voice may be strident – as in the jagged dislocations that open Pinnock’s String Quartet No 2 (played here by Quatuor Bozzini) – or poised on the edge of silence, as in a number of the piano miniatures written for Richard Uttley that give the disc its title, and the breathy sustained pitches of the quintet Music for Europe (Ensemble Adapter), while in the earliest piece here, Words, for baritone and ensemble from 2011, Pinnock’s own texts are declaimed with almost revivalist fervour by Omar Ebrahim, with the London Sinfonietta conducted by Beat Furrer.

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