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Committed to Memory

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The music normally known as classical is rapidly evolving into something else -- a sound, or maybe a sonic stance, "seeking the middle ground between the life of the mind and the noise of the street," Alex Ross writes in "The Rest Is Noise," his recent book on the past century of music.

Performers who once sat to play in front of sheet music now interact with electronics and other objects not previously considered instruments. They don costumes, practice "creative movement" and absorb styles from pop, jazz and world music that they never encountered in highbrow conservatory curricula.

"It takes an open mind to deal with all that's out there today," eighth blackbird cellist Nicholas Photinos says — "musicians with open minds, listeners with open minds."

Eighth blackbird may be the most open-minded group of classical musicians at work today. The sextet, which recently won a Grammy Award for its album "Strange Imaginary Animals," next week wraps up its fourth year in residence at the University of Richmond with a program that — as usual for this ensemble — rewrites the old definition of chamber music.

The 'birds will introduce the Double Sextet of New York new-music icon Steve Reich, doubling themselves as they play along with tracks they recorded in January. They'll also premiere "singing in the dead of night," a collaborative piece by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe (leaders of Bang on a Can, the New York-based contemporary music troupe) and choreographer Susan Marshall.

The composers will be on hand for the premieres and will join the performers and audience in a post-concert Q&A, an essential component of an eighth blackbird show. ("We need feedback on new pieces," pianist Lisa Kaplan says, "because we get so immersed in them that it's impossible for us to form objective opinions.")

After the Richmond premieres, the show — titled "The Only Moving Thing" — hits the road through May, with six performances, including dates in San Francisco, New York and Chicago.

Under the rubric of "new," eighth blackbird covers a lot of ground. Reich's percussive, "phase-shifting," gradually enveloping style sounds worlds away from that of Gordon, whose music often has the brute force of heavy machinery with grinding gears. While playing these pieces, the sextet also is polishing Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile: Incidental Music From Imaginary Puppet Plays," an evocation of gamelan and other Asian theater music that was premiered at UR in November and reprised here last month. This season the sextet also is introducing "Mirrors," a collaboration of composer Tamar Muskal and digital artist Danny Rozin.

"We maybe have a certain aesthetic," Kaplan says. But when pressed to describe their artistic preferences, the six musicians tend to go in six or more directions. "We're a democratic ensemble," flutist Tim Munro says. "We argue a lot in choosing repertoire, and we usually wind up with a balance of elements."

"Look at anyone's iPod and you'll see quite a wide range of music," Photinos says. "The bottom line, I guess, is that we don't like playing anything but great pieces. We know them when we hear them."

"And if we don't know immediately, we learn as we memorize them," violinist Matt Albert says. The 'birds are known for playing most of their music from memory — another departure from chamber-music norms — "and if it's not worth memorizing," Albert says, "it's probably not worth playing repeatedly."

If eighth blackbird's music defies categorization, so does its audience. Connoisseurs of contemporary classical music "are a small fraction of our crowd," Munro says. "I don't think we play to that many people who're into alternative pop music, either," Albert says. "With most kinds of pop, the audience has some idea beforehand of what's going to happen. We're more unpredictable."

Photinos suggests the core of an eighth blackbird crowd is "people willing to take chances" — willing to hear music not just as tunes or grooves but as sound environments, multimedia experiences, conversations in unfamiliar but expressive languages.

"We're offering a different experience," Albert says, "sometimes a set of different experiences in one evening." S



"The Only Moving Thing," eighth blackbird's premiere of works by Steve Reich and composers from New York's Bang on a Can collective, will be staged Wednesday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center. Tickets are $20. Call 289-8980 or visit modlin.richmond.edu.



Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.




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