For Intro to Music Criticism:
Trembling Air; Changing Light; like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment: these are the enigmatic titles of pieces on eighth blackbird’s recording for Bridge Records of works by Benjamin Broening. Strange as they may be, these titles are apt descriptions of Broening’s mystical, nebulous music.
Broening is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Richmond, where eighth blackbird has been Ensemble in Residence since 2003. Broening is the founder and artistic director of Third Practice, an annual festival celebrating electroacoustic music, and often utilizes that in his own compositions. This is the strand of his oeuvre that eighth blackbird focus on in this recording.
Every piece features electronic processing that refracts the natural sounds of an instrument, creating an accompaniment for the acoustic parts. Notes and timbres are warped, telescoped, and polished so that they crackle and shimmer.
This distortion is especially important in the four solo pieces on the recording. Trembling Air, written for eighth blackbird’s flautist Tim Munro, and Dark Wood, written for the ensemble’s cellist Nicholas Photinos, are the more extensive of the solos. In both, the performer casts violent lines and melodies through a vat of strange effects, all derived from their instrument. In Trembling Air, Munro issues tribal calls, while geysers erupt, trains blow steam, and balloons pop around him. It is fascinating to follow the live flute part through this strange territory as it triggers more alien sounds, though the piece is a bit long at nearly thirteen minutes.
Dark Wood is more successful, conjuring images of its title. Photinos wanders through a haunting forest, while claw-like branches scratch at him and shadows ominously shift in the corners of his vision. The line between electronic and acoustic begins to blur, as the live part dissolves into organ-like resonances and imitates recorded, raspy tremolos. The piece leaves the listener with an eerie foreboding.
The other two solo pieces use less processing and were not written specifically for eighth blackbird. In spite of its name, the piano solo Nocturne/Doubles, performed here by Lisa Kaplan, is the lightest work on the record, with triumphant chords saturated in resonance. By the time the penultimate track Arioso/Doubles, performed by clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, comes on, arcane solo lines surrounded by processing become a bit wearing and less interesting.
The remaining four pieces utilize the full ensemble. Traces (i & ii) are brief interludes in which instruments float in and out of an electronic fog. Changing Light feels like a tired rehashing of the solo pieces, being the last track and using many of the same compositional techniques.
The best track is the first, like dreams etc., written for eighth blackbird. It opens with a wild, magical cry that sets off sparkling electronic overtones. Pastoral lines alternate with soothing piano chords, but electroacoustic processing gradually muddies the simplicity with dissonances and clusters. Darkness bulges beneath the serenity, and lingers as the piece disappears in echoing rattles. This recording certainly is like dreams, and maybe nightmares too.