MCA’s new living art installation

“…one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensembles on the planet.” — Chicago Tribune

I think the impulse is right — I just need to do it better,” composer David T. Little admits to one of the ensemble members, cellist Nicholas Photinos. “You’re playing it as I wrote it,” the bearded, shaggy-haired composer tells clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri. “But what I wrote may not be the best option. I’ll do some more things to tighten it up.”

Little is leading the musicians of eighth blackbird, the Chicago-based new-music sextet, through an open rehearsal at the Museum of Contemporary Art of his work in progress, “Ghostlight.”

Visitors to the museum drift in to listen outside the small third-floor gallery that the ensemble has commandeered as its studio-rehearsal room for the season. Several onlookers take pictures with cellphone cameras. Others plop themselves on chairs within touching distance of the players. They listen intently as the irregular pulsations of marimba, flute and piano fill the space.

Meanwhile, sounds drift in from the adjacent gallery the MCA has dubbed a “visitor engagement space.” Museumgoers are playing instruments made of plant materials, as part of an interactive installation of avant-garde avatar John Cage’s seminal “Child of Tree.”

Since 2011, the MCA has hosted visual artists to develop unusual projects through the museum’s artist-in-residence program. But this season marks a departure for the museum: Beginning this fall and ending in June, eighth blackbird will serve as a living art installation at the MCA, interacting aurally with museum patrons whose aesthetic orientation is mainly visual.

While formal concerts in the Edlis Neeson Theater, in January and March, will be a central part of eighth blackbird’s residency, group members are devoting the bulk of their time to rehearsals, talks, workshops and educational activities, all of which the public is encouraged to take an active part in. When the ensemble isn’t on the premises, visitors can watch a six-channel video of eighth blackbird playing one of its signature pieces, David Lang’s “these broken wings,” as projected onto the walls of the ensemble’s rehearsal alcove.

Watch eighth blackbird perform a song from its album “Meanwhile.”

Over lunch in the museum cafe, I sounded out blackbird founder-members Matthew Duvall, percussion, and Lisa Kaplan, piano, about the residency and how it feeds into the group’s larger artistic objectives as it approaches its 20th anniversary next year as one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensembles on the planet.

Although eighth blackbird has performed at the MCA numerous times over the years, “we have really tried to make this residency be about the process of learning, rehearsing and performing new music in particular — and the artistic process for a performing arts ensemble in general,” Kaplan said. “That involves a lot of interaction with the public.”

Indeed, in their 10-month residency, Duvall and his colleagues are doing their level best to demolish the standard performer-listener relationship, the percussionist explained.

“At one of our first open rehearsals, people walked into the gallery and thought it was a special event to which they were not invited,” he said, with a smile. “They began to realize the whole point is for them to come in and be able to understand how we put these pieces together. We ask them what they think of the music. We can just tell they feel involved — that doesn’t usually happen when they are sitting in a concert hall.”

Taking its lowercase title from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ imagist poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” eighth blackbird began in 1996 as a group of entrepreneurial music students from Ohio’s Oberlin College, who set about marketing themselves as a sextet specializing in the modern chamber repertory.

Setting down roots in Chicago (where it also maintains a residency at the University of Chicago), the ensemble gradually became a brand name through touring and recording and winning multiple Grammy awards. And it became a magnet for appreciative composers, commissioning and premiering hundreds of works by dozens of composers.

The members of eighth blackbird are unique in that they memorize everything they play and perform even the most complex new music without a conductor. The fact that they move about the stage as they perform — sometimes singing, speaking, even dancing — casts them in the role of theater artists as much as musicians.

It wasn’t always thus. “Early on we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we sitting here on stage in this rigid configuration?’ After that we tried different configurations on stage so that we could play together better,” before settling on their present concert format, Duvall said.

As for committing all their music to memory, “it was there from the beginning,” Kaplan said. “When you memorize chamber music, you have to memorize other people’s parts, not just your own. It’s a very slow process, but once you’ve done that, the piece lives in your body and really becomes a part of you. When you need to bust it out, you can.”

Performing without a conductor forces each ensemble member (other players are Yvonne Lam, violin and viola, and Nathalie Joachim, flute, who recently replaced Tim Munro) to walk a musical tightrope, heightening each musician’s ability to instantly respond to each other, Duvall said. “I can tell when Michael is about to make an entrance (in a piece of music) by watching the muscles at the back of his neck.”

Where do the players hope to take eighth blackbird in the decades ahead? They said the ensemble will continue to tour, record, commission new works and engage in residencies and educational projects around the world. They appear to be especially excited about setting up a training program for young composers and musicians at Southern California’s new-music-minded Ojai Festival in June 2017, later bringing it to Chicago.

“It feels really good to pass along to the next generation of musicians what we have learned and figured out over these two decades,” Duvall said.

Album of the week

“Filament,” eighth blackbird’s new album, on the Cedille label, is a pungent and enjoyable collection of works by composers and performers linked by aesthetic and personal association with Philip Glass, the album’s spiritual godfather. Glass’ early minimalist classic, “Two Pages,” in fact anchors the album, its lockstep iterations heard here in a live version for organ and guitar as performed by Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, of the rock band the National.

Muhly’s “Doublespeak,” a 75th birthday tribute to Glass, conjures a busy, dreamy soundscape from Glass-style repetitive patterns. Dessner’s suite “Murder Ballades,” at 19 minutes the longest of the album’s five pieces, puts a flavorsome postmodernist spin on a particularly creepy genre of American vernacular music. Like everything else on the album (most of it was recorded at the MCA), the piece gets a terrific performance from the intrepid blackbirds.