The contemporary music group eighth blackbird (lowercase spelling deliberate) has been active for nearly 20 years, performing and commissioning work by composers including Steve Reich, Frederic Rzewski, and Nico Muhly, among many others. They’ve made over a dozen albums, and won three Grammy awards. Their 13th and latest release, Filament, combines four world premiere recordings with a live performance of Philip Glass‘s composition Two Pages. (Get it from Amazon.)

The album opens with Bryce Dessner‘s Murder Ballades, a seven-part, nearly 19-minute suite of adaptations of traditional folk tunes. The instrumentation includes flute, strings, and piano, plus the occasional thump of a rock drum kit. Omitting the lyrics makes the short pieces more like a series of highly melodic, occasionally almost danceable interludes, sometimes recalling a chamber-jazz version of Emerson, Lake & Palmer‘s “Hoedown” and other times sounding like the score to a stark, downbeat movie about hill-country criminals. One flute solo is performed with such speed and intensity it’s likely to leave the listener as breathless as the player.

Starting Filament with Murder Ballades was a wise decision, as the album’s other two big pieces are much less listener-friendly; indeed, they’re almost forbidding in their intensity. Nico Muhly‘s Doublespeak is firmly in the tradition of classic minimalist music—it initially comes at the listener with relentless focus, tight melodic figures looping over and over again. It’s not just repetition, though; instruments drop out and are replaced by others, the cell-like figures shift and overtake each other, and slow, almost dreamlike passages break up the more staccato parts.

The live performance of Glass’s Two Pages, originally written for solo keyboard and dedicated to Steve Reich (a dedication that was later removed once the two composers started feuding), is more monomaniacal and less expansive than Doublespeak. Dessner and Muhly join the group, on guitar and organ respectively, and their contributions add some harmonics that give the piece extra shimmer. Over the course of 16 minutes, it gradually transitions from obsessive repetition to a slow blossoming that’s not as transcendent as some of Glass’s later works, but nevertheless possesses a great, snowballing power.

Filament is a classical album that sounds like an art-pop album; the naggingly familiar-ish melodies of Murder Ballades lead the listener into the somewhat more challenging middle stretch of Doublespeak, and the densely orchestrated, precisely played, yet still organic and vital Two Pages brings the whole thing to a cathartic climax. (There are two short pieces tucked in before and after Two Pages, that serve as rest breaks for the ear.) Consequently, it’s best experienced as a single hour-long journey.

Phil Freeman

Stream Filament on Spotify:

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