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BYU Arts Bravo

From BRAVO! to the Blackboard: Eighth Blackbird Visits BYU School of Music

The Grammy Award-Winning Ensemble Visits Campus Stage and Classroom for Barlow Anniversary

As part of the 2023-24 season and the 40th anniversary celebrations for BYU’s Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, the BRAVO! Professional Performing Arts series brought Eighth Blackbird, a four-time Grammy Award-winning group, to the BYU stage. The group presented an Encore Music Lecture, taught several master classes and performed at the week’s culminating concert.

Known as “one of the smartest, most dynamic ensembles on the planet,” Eighth Blackbird specializes in modern classical music, also known as new music. The group was organized about 27 years ago by six students, the name of the group being inspired by the eighth stanza of a poem by Wallace Stevens titled “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duval, two of the original founders, continue to lead the sextet consisting of a clarinetist, cellist, flutist, pianist, percussionist and violinist.

Eighth Blackbird Performing at 40th Anniversary Barlow Concert
Photo by Robyn Christensen

At the opening of their Encore Lecture, the group performed “metamold,” a combination of three different ensembles embedded into one work by Bekah Simms. Simms, who participated in the lecture along with the sextet, discussed how she arranged the unique piece. She said, “I was interested in writing for the individuals in the ensemble rather than the instruments.”

To do so, Simms had each individual member of Eighth Blackbird record themselves playing their favorite pieces for their instruments, then pieced them together to create the three commissioned works.

The sextet discussed how they are able to stay unified on stage throughout such a fragmented piece, even without a conductor. From a leapfrog approach to mirror queues, the ensemble relies on nonverbal communication throughout the performance.

“One thing to consider is if we are all breathing together in the same way,” said Kaplan, Eighth Blackbird co-founder and pianist. “Even instruments that don’t need to breathe to produce music need to consider that.”

Flautist Lina Andonovska added her thoughts on the process of maintaining unity when playing with electronics within the ensemble. “It's important not to think of it as an afterthought, but instead as a very populated part of the piece,” she said. “We listen to the electronic parts together in rehearsal and we notice the parts where things purposefully don’t line up. From that we find ways to intentionally play off of it. It's about action and time; the longer notes and sustained passages are the residuals of the thing that happens at one moment.”

Eighth Blackbird members shared their insights and expertise with individual BYU music students through six masterclasses—one with each instrumentalist in the group. In the last day of classes, Matthew Duvall observed and gave feedback to student percussionists, Anna Judd and Michael Memmott.

Matt Coleman, the hosting percussion professor, said, “Matthew’s masterclass was a deep dive into the overarching artistic aspects of percussion.”

Matthew Duvall at 40th Anniversary Barlow Concert
Photo by Robyn Christensen

After asking the students’ names, Duvall asked about intended audiences for their performances. In response to Judd’s performance, Duvall complimented her taste in repertoire, talked a bit about her instrument arrangement and asked her to draw the narrative of the piece on a nearby chalkboard.

“Cool,” Duvall said. “This is what I heard.” He drew and then commented his picture was “flatter,” recommending a more “apparent descent” to communicate her intent in the piece. He said after mastering the technical aspects of the piece, “inhabiting the characters” of the sections would mean a strong emotional presence during the concert.

With Memmott, Duvall discussed how the piece was a “sound conversation” and was played in a way that was “spacious,” which created a sense of exchanging ideas. He talked about taking risks during practice to discover the difference between “loud” and “bombastic.” He then demonstrated his shimmering interpretation of “Reflections on the Nature of Water.” In his instruction, Duvall continued to challenge performance conventions with a reverence for the composition. He created the expression “phrasing the resonance” while instructing Memmott and talked about being interpretive with tempo blocks.

Through his master class, Duvall taught the students these and other techniques that Eighth Blackbird utilizes in creating and performing music. Overall, Coleman said, “Students came away with a new understanding of their responsibilities as performers.”