Program Notes
eighth blackbird
Saturday, January 29, 2005

eighth blackbird

            Molly Alicia Barth, flutes
            Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets
            Matt Albert, violin
            Nicholas Photinos, cello
            Matthew L. Duvall, percussion
            Lisa Kaplan, piano

Hailed as ambassadors of new music, eighth blackbird has a growing reputation for its astounding musical versatility as well as for its dedication to the works of today’s composers.  Formed in 1996 at the Oberlin Conservatory, the sextet (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, and piano) has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 2000 and the CMA/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming in 1998, 2000, and 2002.  In 1998, eighth blackbird was the first contemporary ensemble to win first prize at the Concert Artists Guild International Competition.  The sextet is currently ensemble-in-residence at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago.  The name eighth blackbird refers to the poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, the eighth stanza of which reads:

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know

More information may be found on the eighth blackbird Web site at

Molly Alicia Barth plays on a Lillian Burkart flute and piccolo.

eighth blackbird is presented through arrangement with ICM Artists, Ltd., 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019; David V. Foster, President and CEO

Jennifer Higdon (born 1962)

Zaka (composed 2003)

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 31, 1962, Jennifer Higdon grew up in Atlanta and in Seymour, Tennessee.  A flutist and conductor as well as a composer, she now lives in Philadelphia, where she serves on the composition faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music, from which she also has an Artist Diploma.  Higdon has earned a B.M. in flute performance from Bowling Green State University, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was formerly the conductor of the university’s orchestra and wind ensemble.

Among Higdon’s many recognitions are:  the Lee Ettelson Prize from the International League of Women Composers, Best Contemporary Piece of 1996 from USA Today for her orchestral work Shine, Ithaca College’s 2003 Heckscher Prize for her Piano Trio, and two awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  She has been a composer-in-residence with the Music From Angel Fire Festival, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Walden School, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center, the Prism Saxophone Quartet, and the Philadelphia Singers.

Higdon’s Zaka, for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, was completed in 2003 and makes widely creative use of extended instrumental techniques.  It was commissioned by eighth blackbird through the Meet the Composer Commissioning Music USA Fund.  The Fund was made possible by generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, the Target Foundation, and through the fiscal sponsorship of Concert Artists Guild.  About Zaka, the composer has written:  “As the dictionary might say:  Zaka, pronounced ‘za’ - ka’ ... verb:  To do the following almost simultaneously and with great speed:  zap, sock, race, turn, drop, sprint.  See also eighth blackbird.”  Zaka was premiered at the Caramoor Music Festival in Katonah, New York, by eighth blackbird on July 2, 2004.

Gordon Fitzell (born 1968)

violence (composed 2001)

Composer and guitarist Gordon Fitzell was born in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada in 1968 and now lives in Vancouver, where he is working on a doctorate in music theory and composition from the University of British Columbia.  He holds a Bachelor of Music from Brandon University and a Master of Music from the University of Alberta. 

His compositions have been honored several times, including the 1997 Vancouver International New Music Festival Emerging Composers' Competition, the SOCAN Awards for Young Composers in 1996 and 1998, and first prize in the electroacoustic music category at the 1999 CBC Radio National Competition for Young Composers.

Fitzell’s 2001 work violence, for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, opens in clam but grows increasingly agitated.  Among other effects, it presents labored breathing, the contrast of high sustained notes with rumbling percussion, and frenzied hand motions.  Concerning this work, the composer has written:  “In writing violence I was interested in exploring the concept of aesthetic violence.  My concern was not with artistic representations of violence, but with violence inherent to the very structure of the art object.  What elements conspire to wage aesthetic war in a work of art?  How do issues of syntax, perspective, temporality, ideology, morality, politics, and technology foster such a conflict?  Is aesthetic violence chaotic or organised?  Is it destructive or constructive?  Is it repulsive or alluring?  How is conflict sublimated?”

Gordon Fitzell and eighth blackbird acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts which last year invested $26.6 million in music throughout Canada.

Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada, qui a investi 26,6 millions de dollars l'an dernier dans la musique à travers le Canada.

Frederic Rzewski (born 1938)

Les Moutons des Panurge (composed 1969)

Frederic Rzewski, pianist and composer, was born on April 13, 1938, in Westfield, Massachusetts.  He studied orchestration with Walter Piston and counterpoint with Randall Thompson at Harvard, and was a student of both Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions at Princeton, where he earned his MFA in 1960.  During 1960 and 1961 as a recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, he studied in Florence with Luigi Dallapiccola.  Active as a teacher and pianist in Europe during the 1960s, Rzewski was one of the co-founders of the live electronic group Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) in Rome in 1966.  Later in the 1970s, Rzewski revived his interest in unusual forms of musical notation.  In the 1980s, he found his own methods of applying twelve-tone techniques.  In the 1990s, his style loosened up as he wrote several gigantic works, including his five-hour “novel” for solo piano, The Road (1995-1998).

In his work with MEV, Rzewski emphasized the concept of collective improvisation, leading both to a penchant for socialist political compositions and a style that often combined notated and improvised passages.  One such work from this era is Rzewski’s 1969 piece Les Moutons des Panurge (“The Sheep of Panurge”).  It takes both its title and its political subtext from the story in the fourth book of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais.  Nicholas Photinos, cellist and program annotator of eighth blackbird, summarizes the story as follows:  “Pantagruel is traveling by ship with his rascally companion, Panurge, when their boat meets with a merchant ship carrying sheep.  The merchants make fun of Panurge, though Panurge manages to buy one sheep from them after much haggling.  Panurge then chucks the sheep into the sea, whereby all of the other sheep follow the first sheep overboard, one after another.  To this day, the phrase ‘sheep of Panurge’ implies a person who blindly follows the lead of another.”

In his composition, Rzewski creates a figurative, musical analogue to the Rabelais story.  Written “for any number of musicians playing melody instruments + any number of nonmusicians playing anything,” the work contains 65 notes, played in a cumulative sequence: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, and so on.  When all 65 notes have been played, the complete melody is repeated.  Then the players continue, dropping one note from the beginning with each repetition, until only one note remains.  That final note is held until all the players have reached it, at which point all begin improvising.  Rzewski’s instructions continue:  “Always play loud, never stop or falter, stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost.  Do not try to find you way back into the fold.  Continue to follow the rules strictly.”  As for the nonmusicians, Rzewski encourages them to make any loud sounds, following the dictum, “The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.”  Moutons is dedicated to the Dutch recorder player and conductor Frans Brüggen.

George Perle (born 1915)

Critical Moments 2 (composed 2001)

Widely honored as both a composer and a theorist, George Perle was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, May 6, 1915.  He earned his B.A. at DePaul University in 1938 and his Ph.D. at New York University in 1956.  Over the decades, he has taught throughout the United States, from the University of Louisville (1949-1957) to UC Davis (1957-1961), from Yale (1965-1966) to UC Berkeley (1989).  In 1986, he won both the Pulitzer Prize in music for his Wind Quintet no 4 and a MacArthur Fellowship.  His two-volume book The Operas of Alban Berg won the American Musicological Society’s Otto Kinkeldey Award and the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.

Although Perle was among the earliest of American composers to find inspiration in the twelve-tone music of the Second Vienna School, his works reflect what he has called “twelve-note tonality.”  From 1939 onward, Perle refined his system to create what amounts to a hierarchical structure based on symmetrically related pairs among the twelve notes.  As Perle has conceived his system in a manner analogous to the concepts of “key” or “mode” in tonal systems, the result is a sound that avoids most of the overt difficulties many contemporary listeners associate with Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

Composed in 2001, Perle’s Critical Moments 2 is a set of nine brief pieces commissioned by the Naumburg Foundation for eighth blackbird, who premiered the work on March 5, 2002 in New York’s Alice Tully Hall.  His first Critical Moments was composed in 1996.  About Critical Moments 2, Perle writes:  “The instrumentation of these nine short, self-contained, and strikingly individual movements for six players corresponds to that of Pierrot Lunaire, except for the substitution of a percussion part for the quasi-spoken (Sprechstimme) vocal part of Schoenberg’s work.”

Derek Bermel (born 1967)

Tied Shifts (composed 2004)

Clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel is as comfortable with jazz and rock and he is with classical music.  Composing since the tender age of ten, Bermel later studied at Yale and the University of Michigan, and with such composers as Louis Andriessen, William Bolcom, and William Albright.  Intensely interested in ethnomusicology, he has also traveled to, and studied the musics of, such places as Dublin, Ghana, Bulgaria, South Africa, and Jerusalem.

Among Bermel’s many honors have been a 1999 Ford Foundation Conducting Award, a 2001 Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, and a Millennium Prize by Faber Music.  He is co-founder and music director of TONK, a Dutch-American multimedia ensemble that blends words, music, movement, and visuals.  In another reflection of his cross-cultural pursuits, he composes and sings for the Afro-pop trio Strange Fire.  Bermel is also the founding clarinetist of Music From Copland House, which is the ensemble-in-residence of the center for American music established in Aaron Copland’s New York home.  As an educator, Bermel has conducted and served as arranger for several jazz choirs, including Michigan’s Parallel Motion, Yale’s Baker’s Dozen, New York’s Toast of Hell’s Kitchen, and Jerusalem’s Mash’hu K’mo ha’Blues. 

As a classical composer, Bermel has received commissions from such entities as the Gilmore Festival, the Fromm Foundation, the American Composers Orchestra, Britain’s Birmingham Royal Ballet, the New York International Fringe Festival, the Tanglewood Institute, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  Bermel’s newly-composed Tied Shifts was commissioned by the Greenwall Foundation for eighth blackbird.

About Tied Shifts, Bermel has written:

In August of 2001 I traveled to Plovdiv, Bulgaria to spend a month working with the great Bulgarian folk clarinetist Nikola Iliev.  Fascinated by the melodies in odd meters executed at lightning speeds, I desired to gain firsthand knowledge of the Thracian folk style by learning to play the songs from a master musician.  In transcribing melodies with compound meters --5/8, 7/8, 9/8 (sometimes), 11/8, 13/8, 15/8, and combinations thereof – I was particularly struck by the practice of tying melodic notes over a barline, resulting in an obscuring of the meter.  This process made it virtually impossible to guess the meter of a song simply by listening, as downbeats could conceivably be inaudible.  Thus, though implied and felt, the odd metrics of a song could remain unstressed; the knowledge of the ‘base’ meter would be for players and familiar listeners alone.  To make matters even more confusing to an uninitiated ear, tied notes were often decorated with mordents – I use the term generally designated for inflection similar to the baroque ornamentation -- leaving the impression that the meter was in a state of constant flux, shifting with each passing measure.  These impressions are those of a Western musician, and they became the points of departure for this piece.  I attempted to fashion philosophical and physiological implications of the tied shifts into a work that structurally owes more to Western than to Thracian music.

Mordents occupy a central place in this piece, on both local and larger formal levels.  The inflections generate their own material, and melodies are spawned from the contour of the rising mordent itself.  The shape of all the melodic material stems from an obsessively repetitive cell that rises to a mordent-inflected appoggiatura, then inches up farther, always clinging to its origin.  I imagined this tension -- manifest throughout the work --as a physical being determined to stretch itself, to explore the outer edges of its horizon, but continually finding itself snapped back, as if tethered by an invisible rubber band its place of origin.

Within the octatonic harmonic language of the first movement, I emphasize certain chords, notably a particular inversion of the ‘sharp 9th’ chord that forms the harmonic underpinning for several of my earlier pieces and that – though also derived from the same scale – would not be found in Bulgarian music.  The second movement opens in a different harmonic world -- a diatonic hymn, derived from the opening melodic material.  As the hymn is overlaid with a variation of the original octatonic melody, the two harmonic fields collide and the mordents and inflections often assume the quality of ‘blue’ notes.  A second, mostly octatonic, hymn appears, this time in tight harmonic clusters typical of folksong settings rendered by Bulgarian womens’ choirs.

During the writing process of Tied Shifts, I had considerable trouble deciding how to notate the agogic accents so that Western players would be able to negotiate the difficult rhythmic displacements most effectively.  For their patience in considering several versions of the notation, I acknowledge the wonderfully competent and thorough musicians in eighth blackbird, for whom this piece was commissioned.  Special thanks to Lisa Kaplan who initiated the collaboration, to the Oscar M Ruebhausen Commission from the Greenwall Foundation, Yaddo, and to Barbara Eliason, Daniel Nass, and Maggie Heskin, who provided invaluable assistance along the way.

Program notes by Jay Weitz, Consulting Database Specialist for music, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Dublin, Ohio.  He is a contributing performing arts critic for the weekly alternative newspaper Alive:  Music, Art, and Culture in Columbus (

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