Eighth Blackbird: “Filament” (CD Review)


Eighth Blackbird

Cedille Records CD 90000 157

The “M” word: minimalism: oft-quoted, sometimes maligned, often misunderstood, and seldom accepted as a self-descriptor by composers. We get into ever more thorny ground as we begin to contemplate “post-minimalism:” does it describe chronology, influence, or some kind of murky musical terrain? If we are to use the descriptor for chronology, even Philip Glass suggests that his pieces departed very early from minimalism. So what are listeners to do with a release such as Filament, on which there is a 17-minute long piece of process music (Two Pages by Glass) that clearly makes much out of comparatively little? Further, what do we call pieces by the younger generation of indie classical composers (another loaded term), clearly enamored with repetition, who make up the bulk of this disc? Perhaps it is better to avoid the style tags altogether and instead say that each of the pieces on Filament is composed by a creator fascinated with repetition, but each one in a different way.

Bryce Dessner channels the instrumentation and affect of murder ballads of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries to create the rustic ostinatos of Murder Ballades. Written for a celebration of Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, Nico Muhly’s Doublespeak is designed to hearken back to the “obsessive repetition” of the 1970s, but it does so in a powerfully articulated fashion. Son Lux’s contributions, abetted by the vocals of Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), are brief remixes of material from the album. Filament’s high point is a high octane and highly coordinated performance of Glass’s Two Pages. A single, propulsive line that can be played by any combination of instruments: the elements couldn’t be more minimalist in conception, but the execution is anything but.

NPR Shares Dessner/Kronos Collaboration

This week, NPR’s First Listen program is sharing a streaming preview of Ayhem, a collaboration between Kronos Quartet and Bryce Dessner of the National. Out via Anti Records on November 5th, the recording is Dessner’s first full length album of concert works. That said, Dessner is no newbie to writing for classical instruments; he has composed for various contemporary ensembles. In 2011, I interviewed him about his part in American Composers Orchestra’s SONiC Festival.  A recording of the resulting piece, St. Carolyn by the Sea, is slated for release soon on DG.