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Free Bird

music_eighthblackbirdSeighth blackbird’s rock ’n’ roll business plan
For audiophiles, it’s an immutable truth that there’s no experience quite like listening to music in a car, which is why driving I-5 between Los Angeles and the Bay is a favorite experience of mine: the 300-or-so Midwest-flat miles make the perfect environment for cochlea-rupturing audio levels. And indeed, I recently found myself on this (relatively) desolate stretch of road, when my copilot decided to co-opt my car stereo for his own purposes: experimental composer Steve Reich.

“Working with Steve Reich was a dream that took seven or eight years to really put together, and it was amazing what he did,” eighth blackbird violinist and violist Matt Albert had told me only days earlier—this was fortuitous. “He’s somebody who has written some of the most important pieces of the last 40 years.”

eighth blackbird, the intentionally lowercase classical sextet—coming to the Santa Cruz Civic’s “In the Blue Room” concert as part of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music Festival on Sunday, Aug. 8—indeed ranks among the most important names in classical music today, though a far cry from the minimalist drone of Reich. In fact, the group was even recognized by its peers in claiming the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance.

“Winning the Grammy was a huge surprise more than anything … so when we got that we felt really happy and excited and vindicated,” says Albert of his group’s big win. “Even if you don’t know what eighth blackbird is, if you’re able to say ‘Grammy-winning ensemble,’ that definitely adds a sheen or credibility that you can build on, which you then have to back up playing live.”

Accordingly, Albert admits to being somewhat conscious of the business side of music, explaining that even the sextet’s name—taken from a Wallace Stevens poem—came out of a concerted effort in branding.

“I guess it sounds more like the way that a pop group or rock band would name itself,” Albert explains, “and our thinking was that we wanted to learn from what we thought pop and rock groups did better in marketing themselves.”

In an age where it’s increasingly difficult to make a living as a professional musician, the capitalist and artistic dichotomy is clearly apparent within eighth blackbird. However, there is yet another factor at work in the band’s mission statement: academia. Albert grew up thinking he would be an engineer or mathematician before fully realizing that his stringed hobby more resembled a passion, and eighth blackbird itself came together at the Oberlin Conservatory. It also holds residency at the University of Chicago and the University of Richmond.

“Something we’ve done recently that’s worked well is to perform with students,” says Albert. “So three of us will step out of the sextet, and three students will step in and learn their parts by working with us. We’ve found this is a really great way to teach that we enjoy doing very much.”

Now active for 15 years, the band feels a challenge to push boundaries in a genre which so heavily relies on heredity. But the group—which will be performing pieces by Mazzoli, Adés, and Hartke—does find ways to keep things interesting for the ADD Generation. A couple of the evening’s pieces incorporate theatrically staged aspects one could consider more akin to a rock show.

“People are basically going to see Michael [Maccaferri], our clarinetist, running all over the stage, pausing, and then running back,” reveals Albert. “And it’s really crazy, but it depicts the music really well. … It’s a way of bringing staged pictures and an interpretive element to what people get out of a concert experience.”


eighth blackbird performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8, at the Santa Cruz Civic, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $27.50 to $42.50 in advance. For more information, call 420-5240.
Photo Credit: Luke Ratray

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