ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s “Filament”

by Jill Kimball

Forget J. S. Bach: Philip Glass is the new granddaddy of music…or so sayeth eighth blackbird in its latest album, Filament.

This new release from the Chicago-based contemporary music supergroup cleverly connects the groundbreaking repetitive structures in Glass’s music with American folk tunes, contemporary compositions, and poppy vocals. The album’s name is meant to conjure a mental image of musical threads linking all its performances, new and old.

In this case, “old” is a relative term. The nexus of Filament is “Two Pages,” written by Philip Glass in 1968. It’s a classic illustration of Glass’s signature repetition, a mind-bending 16 minutes of subtly changing patterns. The piece famously sounds meditative and nightmarish at the same time. It’s notoriously difficult for performers–the liner notes compare it to walking a tightrope “with no net below”–but the expert musicians here meet the challenge admirably, almost making it sound easy. Performing this piece alongside the sextet are organist Nico Muhly and guitarist Bryce Dessner (of The National), and it’s no coincidence that both of them are also featured composers on Filament.

In fact, the album opens with Dessner’s multi-movement piece Murder Ballades, inspired by folk songs about real and imagined killings that were passed down through many generations. The murder ballad tradition began in Europe, but Dessner’s piece focuses on the maudlin stories that originally come from early settlers in New England and Appalachia. Dessner chose to arrange three real ballads, “Omie Wise,” “Young Emily,” and “Pretty Polly,” all of which tell stories of love affairs turned violent. Imagine if someone took the music from a Ken Burns documentary and gave it a little edge, and you’ll have an idea of what these movements sound like. The other four ballads in the piece are Dessner’s original compositions, still clearly inspired by early Americana but more deconstructed and intense. In these four movements, Philip Glass’s repetitive, meditative influence is clearly felt.


Composers featured on Filament. Clockwise from top left: Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, Bryce Dessner, and Son Lux.

Nico Muhly’s piece, Doublespeak, is so closely linked with Two Pages that it’s as if Muhly managed to burrow directly into Philip Glass’s midcentury brain. Muhly wrote this piece for the composer’s 75th birthday celebration, so it’s fitting that he chose to salute a decade when “classical music perfected obsessive repetition,” as he puts it. You’ll hear snippets of 1970s staples like In C and Violin Phase flit in and out as the piece alternates between a fast-tempo frenzy and a slow, dreamy state.

As if there weren’t already enough threads connecting these three pieces, eighth blackbird rounds out Filament with a pair of works by Son Lux. The legendary pop-classical electronic composer took sound bites from the album and mixed in Glass-inspired vocals by Shara Worden, aka My Brightest Diamond. The result is a half-ambient, half-catchy five minutes that nicely break up the album’s studied repetition, which can be a little mentally taxing.

It goes without saying that the performance quality on this disc is top-notch, no less fine than any of eighth blackbird’s past albums. You’re luxuriously free to focus solely on the compositions themselves, all of which are worth contemplating at length. In an age when most albums’ connecting filaments are somewhere between ultrathin and nonexistent, it’s a pleasure to listen to a set of pieces with such close ties.

ALBUM REVIEW: “Music for Wood and Strings” by Bryce Dessner + So Percussion

by Maggie Molloy

So Percussion 0125So Percussion 0131 copy

To say that guitarist and composer Bryce Dessner thinks outside the box would be a bit of an understatement. After all, why limit yourself to the dimensions of a typical hollow-bodied acoustic string instrument when you can create your very own amplified hammered dulcimer?


Though perhaps best known as the guitarist for the indie rock band the National, Dessner is also a distinguished composer and innovator in his own right. He recently released “Music for Wood and Strings,” a 36-minute piece scored for amplified, dulcimer-like “Chordsticks” and performed by the experimental percussion quartet Sō Percussion. Dessner designed the instruments with the help of instrument builder Aron Sanchez of Buke and Gase, a Brooklyn-based musical duo.

Each Chordstick resembles two electric guitar necks laid out next to each other in opposite directions, though the instrument is played more like a hammered dulcimer. Each instrument has eight double-course strings and is tuned to a pair of chords. Using sticks or violin bows, the percussionists can sound either of the two harmonies, play individual strings, melodies, drones, and tremolos, or create a wide range of percussive sounds. The Chordsticks vary in pitch range, and the group is anchored by a bass instrument that can play fretted chromatic lines, as well as by occasional, muted interjections from a bass drum and woodblocks.

Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, “Music for Wood and Strings” seamlessly combines elements of post-minimalism, avant-garde, and folk musical influences. The effect is mesmerizing. Dessner creates a remarkably rich range of musical timbres within a circling, post-minimalist framework, crafting a beautiful and kaleidoscopic sound world through his dense contrapuntal rhythms and constantly shifting musical textures.

“I thought the instruments are so beautiful, I’m going to make [the piece] a really rich sound world—very consonant, also inspired by American folk songs, which are based on these open chords and open tunings,” Dessner said. “So the piece itself has that sound about it, where it’s played by these percussionists and the rhythm is incredibly difficult and layered and precise, but then it’s done with harmonies that are really sweet, actually.”

The work is charming and sincere, employing the perfect balance of silence and sound to create a fully captivating sonic meditation. Dessner’s colorful musical palette features hocketed rhythms, mirrored inversions, drones, tremolos, rhythmic repetition, contrapuntal textures, and a primarily tonal musical language, creating a vivid and distinctive sound that pulls the listener in from start to finish.

Writing the piece for four of the most renowned percussionists in contemporary classical music also doesn’t hurt. Sō Percussion’s perfect blend of rhythmic precision and organic expressivity brings the score to life, immersing the listener in an unforgettable soundscape filled with sweet strings and shimmering rhythms.

Who knew you could craft such an entrancing and intricate sound world from just a few pieces of wood and some strings?