They should put a warning label on this: Listen to the end!
I almost made a tremendous mistake after hearing the first track to this disc; I almost decided not to review it, for the cut, titled “Pillow Talk” seemed pseudo folksy, banal, and just not very interesting. A whole two discs of this did not entice me. What a terrible blunder that would have been! For the entire work, with its mélange of varied and skillful compositional techniques and styles (though that word must not be taken in too fundamentalist a manner) proves a riveting and thoroughly engaging experience
Cantata? Maybe. But not the way you are used to hearing. Instead the term refers more to a strictly organizational form than anything of a consistent “sameness”. There are instrumental interludes, as we might hope for considering Eighth Blackbird is involved, and the “style” (see above) for each separate piece is dictated solely by the inspiration of the moment as found in the particularities of the text. The music in its successive contrasted episodes, is riveting.
And what about the text? Táin Bó Cúailnge, known as The Cattle Raid of Cooley is a pre-Christian first century set prose epic in three versions that dates from the twelfth century, though it may actually be as old as the eighth. Poet Paul Muldoon offers a modern retelling of the tale in English and Irish, sometimes even within the same sentence. I must confess that for many, perhaps most people, this arcane methodology will prove difficult and elusive without a greater familiarity with the original. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—often art, especially great art, requires knowledge and study. This is one of the ways human beings elevate themselves. But one of the powers of music is the ability to fill that which is lacking in a text, and the music certainly does that. As things progressed I became far less interested in the dramatic exegesis and much more enthralled with the music itself and how it supports the text. At that point music becomes the domicile of meaning instead of drama and textual integrity. This is hardly different from the opera experience.
Eighth Blackbird is superb ensemble that always offers thoughtful productions even if I don’t always subscribe to their ultimate value. Well, no one bats a thousand all the time! But they are provocative, and often what they do come up with is well worth the time taken to explore. Sound is bright and clear, performances exemplary, and the piece itself is one of the year’s most rewarding issues of new music.