In 2009, music director eighth blackbird brought to the Libbey Bowl stage the world premiere of Slide by Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert. This past Sunday, “Lonely Motel: Music from Slide” walked away with a Grammy for Best Small Ensemble Performance. Congrats to our Festival friends and Cedille Records!
And special thanks to the Constance Eaton Fund for supporting the Ojai Music Festival’s co-commission of Slide.
FROM OUR FESTIVAL VAULT:
For our 2009 Festival, Frank Oteri wrote a piece on Mackey and Eckert’s partnership. Read the article below:
A Multi-Media Multi-Art Form Is-It-Music-Is-It-Theater Extravaganza
By Frank J. Oteri
It’s fitting that Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert’s Slide—which is about the manipulation of perception—is difficult to categorize. Tim Munro—the flutist for eighth blackbird (the contemporary music ensemble who will premiere the work alongside its creators at Ojai on June 12, 2009)—calls it “a multi-media, multi-art form, is-it-music-is-it-theater extravaganza.” Rinde Eckert, Slide’s librettist and principal singer/actor elaborates, describing it as “concert theater, distinct from an oratorio for its involvement of the instrumentalists as theatrical role players.”
The music of composer/guitarist Steven Mackey and the texts of writer/director Rinde Eckert have always been difficult to pigeonhole. Mackey’s music has often been characterized as having one foot in rock and the other in contemporary classical music, but it is ultimately not easily reduced to binaries. Though he made his mark on the musical landscape with compositions like Physical Property (1992), which combines the aggressive sound-world of the electric guitar with the more rarified timbres of a classical string quartet, much of his music is also equally informed by his years of immersion into early music as an aspiring lutenist as well as a deep affection for the standard orchestral and chamber music repertoire. And, of course, in the early 21st century both rock and so-called contemporary classical music each contain a universe of sub-genres which mix and match along with Mackey’s other influences into a highly personal stylistic mélange. Mackey has cheekily described himself as a mutt. In reality, as composers of subsequent generations are now creating music which unselfconsciously references all kinds of genres without hierarchy, Mackey, still somewhat boyish both in attitude and appearance at age 53, is actually the harbinger of a new breed.
Rinde Eckert’s work might be even more challenging to explain. A writer, actor, singer, musician, director, and even sometime composer, Eckert—though principally known for his one-man theatre pieces which involve a broad range of performance techniques—has also collaborated on a wide range of projects with other artists including operas, musical theater and dance pieces. (See sidebar.) His partnership with Mackey, however, has proven to be among his most fruitful and wide-ranging. “Steve and I are always on the look out for projects we can work on together,” Rinde says. “I keep a number of ideas or concepts on the back burner.” Their first co-creation, the one-man opera Ravenshead, which was hailed in USA Today as the “best new opera of 1998,” re-tells the surreal but true story of a man (performed by Eckert) driven mad in his failed attempt to sail by himself around the world. Mackey’s 45-minute cantata Dreamhouse (2003), casts Eckert (with whom Mackey co-wrote the text) in the singing and speaking role of a secular evangelist who explodes the notion of the American dream amidst a backdrop of a chamber choir of four voices, four electric guitars, and symphony orchestra. The following year, Eckert approached Mackey about forming a progressive rock band in which he could explore musical and lyrical ideas that didn’t exactly fit theatrical settings. The resulting group, Big Farm, debuted at New York City’s Joe Pub last May and a CD is scheduled for release later this year.
Slide returns Mackey and Eckert to the realm of Ravenshead to some degree. Once again, it tells the true story of an individual relentlessly committed to a mad pursuit. In this case, a psychologist named Renard conducts a deceptive experiment, asking subjects to view and identify a series of out-of-focus slides as a shill disagrees with what they say, making the subjects defensive and uncertain of their awareness. But this time around, the musicians who accompany Eckert’s monologue—the six members of eighth blackbird joined by Mackey on electric guitar—additionally take on supporting acting roles as characters in the story and things are not quite so straight forward.
“As opposed to Ravenshead which was a linear narrative, Slide will be more of a poetic gestalt,” says Eckert. “The slide experiment serves as a governing metaphor for an inquiry into how we make sense of what we can’t fully comprehend.” Mackey further elucidates, “All the performers are characters, led by Renard (played by Rinde), a psychologist, but rather than propel a story the whole thing behaves like music—opening windows, delineating places, suggesting states of consciousness without nailing them down to a linear series of events. In that sense I would say Slide sits between Ravenshead, Dreamhouse, and Big Farm. There is a clearer sense of character and context than Dreamhouse, but less of a linear story than Ravenshead. Slide is more of a static image—a slide, not a movie—viewed from different angles. It has somewhat of a band vibe like Big Farm where the music is intended to be our story, our personae, our attitudes rather than mediated through chamber music performance ritual.”
The project began to evolve shortly after Steven Mackey heard eighth blackbird perform his composition Indigenous Instruments at the University of California at Davis in the summer of 2003. According to him, “They played the snot out of my piece. They did things that I had not heard before, and if they had asked me if it was okay I would have tried to talk them out of it. But when they just did them I was totally convinced. They are never satisfied just getting from the beginning to the end. All their performances are somewhat theatrical in the sense that they try to contextualize the music with their movement. I had the idea to write a big piece of music where their performance sensibilities would be explicitly utilized, where memorization, movement, language, and lighting would blur the lines between musician and character, music and persona. I asked Rinde if he was into such a thing and he was, so we started brainstorming ideas.”
Slide is an ideal project for eighth blackbird, which over the past 13 years has won audiences over not only through their virtuosity, but by bringing out the inner drama in every piece of music they play, enhanced by memorization, on-stage poise, and sheer conviction. More than just the pre-eminent “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble—contemporary music’s signature combo of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, the group has always championed works that blur the lines between music, theater, and performance art, ranging from Paul Moravec’s The Time Gallery to singing in the dead of night (2007), co-composed by Bang On A Can’s three founders Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang. But Slide takes this blurring of lines further than anything they have done thus far.