Artist Interview: Flutist Tim Munro, eighth blackbird
Eighth blackbird. Photo By Luke Ratray.
The Chicago-based ensemble eighth blackbird combines the finesse of a string quartet, the energy of a rock band, and the audacity of a storefront theater company in a dazzling performance coming to Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium Saturday, January 17, 2015.
Composer and UMS Lobby contributor Garrett Schumann chatted with eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro about the group’s unique instrumentation, theatrical flair, and magical moments onstage.
Garrett Schumann: What is eighth blackbird?
Tim Munro: Well, eighth blackbird is a chamber music ensemble specializing in music by living composers. One week we might play music that’s influenced by indie rock, the next music influenced by Balinese Gamelan, the next by an abstract piece of modern visual art.
We often memorize the music that we play, which allows us to take away stands and to have a greater intensity of communication on stage and with the audience. Sometimes that means we actually move around the stage to make manifest some of the relationships that are already inherent in the music. So a lot of the time we are trying to make this new composed music more immediately vibrant and engaging for audiences.
GS: Terrific. When you created the group in 1996 there had been ensembles with the same instrumentation as eighth blackbird for a few decades. How consciously did you guys see yourselves as emerging from that kind of ensemble tradition?
TM: To speak about the instrumentation first, eighth blackbird was sort of a put-together group. At the Oberlin conservatory, this conductor, Jim Weiss, put the group together to play more challenging repertoire, stuff that isn’t normally covered in the run of conservatory conductor. And this instrumentation seemed like the perfect kaleidoscope in everything. You have strings, you have winds, you have piano, you have percussion. You’re able to sound like you’re a string quartet, you’re able to sound like you’re a piano trio, you’re able to sound like a percussion ensemble, you’re able to sound like a full orchestra and there is just every combination possible in this instrumentation. This, I think, is why in the 20th century, it really exploded.
I think the biggest influence on eighth blackbird is an ensemble with a different instrumentation, which is the Kronos Quartet. It plays a hugely diverse range of material. Everything from the wildest, most experimental modernism to the kind of obvious, fun-loving minimalist to collaborations with popular artists and world music– and doing it in a way that made it visually engaging to audiences, but was casual enough that people could feel relaxed. So I think that was the biggest influence on eighth blackbird in its earliest stages.
GS: How do you come with this diversity of programming? What do you think it is about eighth blackbird that does that diversity so well?
TM: I think that’s something that we try very hard to represent in our programs not just because we want to check all the boxes, but because we want people to never feel bored, but to always have people engaged in a concert. The diversity of the programming just reflects the diversity of different proclivities within the ensemble. Each performer in eighth blackbird is part of the artistic direction of the collective. We are all music directors of eighth blackbird and we are all coming from very different places. We all have different music that we love and I think our programs are reflective of the enthusiasm of the group all together.
What unites all of the music that we play is something in it that is unique: a color that we haven’t heard, a particular approach to constructing a piece that we haven’t done before, a spark that inspires the piece that we haven’t encountered before… something that we can then play with theatrically. So each piece on the program in some way captures something that is unique even if they are in totally different worlds. Everything on the program gives us a little something atypical or strange.
GS: Composer and Northwestern professor Lee Hyla passed away suddenly in June 2014. What was your group’s relationship with Lee Hyla and his piece “Wave”?
TM: Well, it was such a shock for everyone in the ensemble and for the whole music community in Chicago because he was such a huge presence. He’s an original. His music has a rawness and an unvarnished-ness that feels so appropriate and typical of someone of that sort of American maverick tradition. Every member of the group has a particular fondness for one of Lee’s pieces and we all loved his music. We don’t know him well personally, I don’t think anyone in the group knew him terribly well, but we are all such huge fans and were all so excited to be able to commission the piece.
I can tell you that already in rehearsing this we’ve discussed how the piece is put together. It’s a lot of fragments, it’s a piece that’s shards of things. Beautiful, pummeling, fractal, little elements that are all in shards, sort of constructed. And when we come to the moment of rehearsal where we don’t quite know our way forward, that’s often when we will talk directly with the composer. And so whenever that happens, we have that voice in the room, but we won’t be able to do that. So I’m not sure how it will affect our performance. It’s too soon for us to say.
Maybe because this is the only piece of his that we’ll ever be performing posthumously, there may be something different about the way that we and future groups approach it. It’s a piece that’s actually in its kaleidoscopic-ness begins with this vast, incredibly slow, incredibly astute music, and the last voice is the cello who has this upward gesture that almost feels like a question mark. I don’t know if one should put any emphasis on that, but for us, this performance asks us to think about those things.
Interested in learning more? Check out other interviews by Garrett Schumann.