Music

A mind-messing stay at the Lonely Motel

The Globe and Mail

eighth blackbird lives dangerously. The Chicago-based, Grammy Award-winning sextet combines the finesse of a string quartet with the energy of a rock band and the riskiness of a storefront theater company.

Slide was a semi-staged multimedia piece about a psychologist involved with studies in deception, who is also being consumed by the aftermath of a failed relationship. The piece, written by Steve Mackey (music) and Rinde Eckert (text), was premiered by the American chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird at California’s Ojai Music Festival in 2009, and toured the U.S. in 2010. This remarkable album, which was nominated earlier this month for three Grammy Awards, is a condensed version of the piece, with Eckert joining the ensemble as tenor and speaker and Mackey playing electric guitar.

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“Ignore the context,” Eckert sings in the opening section, “picture only what is in focus.” He’s portraying the psychologist instructing subjects who are peering at slides, in the belief that he wants them to recognize images correctly. In fact (and this unfortunately is not mentioned in the CD notes), he wants to subtly challenge their conclusions to see how susceptible they are to changing their minds under pressure. As they waver, the energetic pace of the interlocked instrumental riffs slackens, a high meditative string line emerges, and Eckert, as study participant, muses: “I was fooled at first” – an ironic aside, since the fooling may have happened later.

The clinical situation becomes a metaphor for the misperceptions and inchoate needs of the psychologist’s relationship with a woman who appears mostly like a dream, and becomes even more dreamlike when she’s close enough to touch. Mackey’s default idiom has a sturdy, patterned physicality, suggestive of systems and routines that work reliably. But Eckert’s narrative is mostly smoke and supposition, the opposite of assured routine. This breaks into the music in the form of expressive solos, sideways piano chords, off-hand jazz beats and outright time travelling: a couple of episodes (including Addiction, about patterns that bind us) sound a bit like music from the Renaissance, deliberately mistranscribed.

Processional opens with chiming bells and piano, till the voice enters and resets the rhythm to something other than we expected, just as the psychologist messes with his subjects’ perceptions. The lilting gait feels both solemn and childlike. By this time, our man is coming apart: In Running Dog 2, a restless number about another slide in his test, he sings: “Don’t ask me what the dog is running from,” but the music goes on pawing and gnawing at him, till he finally admits that these are “slides of ruins, slides of my life.”

Mackey and Eckert play together in a band called Big Farm, whose proggish orientation bursts forth in Ghosts, which could be covered by King Crimson with little strain. For the following and final section, the title track, Mackey dials back to a very denuded style, and Eckert rises to his clearest and palest countertenor range for a description of a motel room with obvious signs of use but no recordable history: “a thousand strangers have slept together in this bed.” The music slowly unwinds as he settles into a new realm where the visible scene offers no personal significance or assurance. As he sings earlier on the disc, “If we could see clearly what the picture is, we might be happy or maybe not.”

Eighth Blackbird is an exceptional sextet, that often plays new works from memory – a trick they probably repeated for these extremely fluid performances of a demanding score. The sound of Mackey’s guitar is usually tamped down tight in this acoustic setting, blaring out very occasionally. He gives voice to one spoken-word section: a summary of a Twilight Zone episode whose story may be more chilling here than on TV.

Lonely Motel: Music from Slide

  • Eighth Blackbird
  • Cedille Records

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