Hand Eye Wigs Out

When do 12 hands + 12 eyes = boundless creativity? When you start by gathering up the six New York-based composers of the highly heralded Sleeping Giant collective, and letting them loose in the contemporary art collection of the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art in the Detroit suburbs. Next, you invite each collective member to find inspiration in one of the collection's artworks, and transform wherever they're led into compositions for the four-time Grammy-winning Chicago new-music sextet, Eighth Blackbird. Then you put it all together, and end up with Hand Eye, a recording of six works so of the moment, so vital, and so provocative that it could very well turn the way you listen to music on your ear.

Like the best of contemporary music, be it pop or classical, Hand Eye reflects the culture, issues, and obsessions of our day. Sometimes it does so literally, as when Ted Hearne focuses on Robert Arneson's By- By Huey, a portrait of the 24-year old murder of Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton. Pondering Arneson's response to the assassination of one revolutionary black man by another, Hearne hones in on the self-destructive aspects of humanity, and creates 10-minute work whose sometimes sinister tone derives from a muzzled piano that forces the other instruments of the ensemble to either follow or be left behind.

Curiously, Andrew Norman's three-part Mine, Mime, Meme uses very different musical means to explore other aspects of the same top dog/bottom dog phenomenon. Norman's starting point is rAndom International's kinetic installation, Audience, in which a field of small, mirrored machines rotates to follow the movements of a viewer who steps into their little arena. Thus is Eighth Blackbird cellist Nicholas Photinos' every musical move followed and mimicked by the ensemble's five other instrumentalists. Soon the game evolves/devolves into a fight for supremacy. What we hear starts out very slowly and mysteriously, and grows positively stealth-like before dying out.

The music that stunned me the most, perhaps because fabled sound engineer Michael Bishop (working with producer Elaine Martone, another member of the former Grammy-winning Telarc team) captures the contrasting instrumental timbres and wide-ranging dynamics of Eighth Blackbird so well, is Jacob Cooper's Cast. Cooper evokes "the sense of absence" evoked by Leonardo Drew's paper casts of everyday objects such as dolls, trinkets, and kitchenware by building a "cast" of various instrumental gestures around a central "object"—a gentle vibraphone line—and then gradually removing the vibraphone until only the sonic encasement remains.

If that concept sounds pretty heady, Cooper's music is anything but. From its first phrases, Cast seems to revolve around some great, all-immersive mystery. Into this unnamable universe instruments make some rather humorous entrances into a gorgeous score that sounds like nothing else. Eventually, the music seems intent on fading out until it throws you for a loop as it plays with you. The sounds are extraordinary, the visceral impact immense.

"Wow" was my immediate response as Robert Hornstein's Conduit, inspired by an interactive sculpture, began with the interplay of chimes and percussion. In this distinctly computer age take of the centuries old struggle of man vs machine, Hornstein explores how we relate to our devices. The music starts out fast, with mysterious and mystical overtones reminiscent of the sad music of Philip Glass. As the textures grow increasingly energized, the presentation becomes virtually three-dimensional. Imagine the members of a '60s era garage band growing increasingly primitive and unhinged as they take the lid off their sound and throw all caution to the winds.

Hand Eye, which appears today on iTunes, and on CD and as a 24/96 hi-res download from cedillerecords.org on April 8, opens the ear, eye, and mind simultaneously. Its music transports you to landscapes all their own, but with resonances that speak directly to our time. If you crave music that stimulates and provokes, you have to hear it.

Photo: SaverioTruglia

Anon2's picture

Intrigued by this article, I found this video. This is a very innovative musical ensemble. It kind of reminds one of a new incarnation of the once formidable, cutting age Chicago ensembles of the, then, "new music" of the 1980s.

Check out this video. This is an interesting group and they are definitely blazing some trails musically.


Thanks for the unconventional and welcome posting on a very unique musical ensemble.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture


Simon Moond's picture

I try not to get a bit frustrated when a mainstream source reviews an ensemble like Eighth Blackbird, while other similar bands remain in relative obscurity.

There have been a steady supply of great bands in this vein since the mid 70's that have been largely ignored by pretty much the entire music press. I believe it because they are considered an offshoot of prog rock, so they get no "cred".

Sometimes called Avant-prog, chamber-prog, or RIO (Rock in Opposition), many of them are not too different than Eighth Blackbird.

Current and defunct bands like: Aranis from Belgium, Thinking Plague from the US, Motor Totemist Guild from the US, Art Zoyd from France, Univers Zero from Belgium, Yugen from Italy, and so many more.

So, yes, I will be buying "Hand Eye" by Eight Blackbird. It will fit nicely in with the many other similar bands in my collection. Too bad some of them never get any press, other than from prog rock sources.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Eighth Blackbird, of course, has the advantage of an independent non-profit music label and PR resources that these other ensembles may not have. They are also allied with a host of trendy composers, many of whom have made their mark in traditional concert venues as well as the alternative scene.

Having said that, I very much appreciate your references. I'll bet Stephen Mejias can tell me more than a thing or two about these bands and their music. Lots to check out, thanks to you.