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Fresh off the announcement of their $400,000 McArthur Award and celebrating their 20th year together, Chicago chamber music ensemble Eighth Blackbird took the stage confidently Friday evening at the Big Ears music festival's premier venue, the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville. They might be “8th what?” at another fest, but in this genre-mixed setting they were hardly upstaged by their more famous guests, Bryce Dessner of The National and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Will Oldham.
The group offered a quick, pixelated rendition of David Lang's “Learn to Fly” before introducing Dessner, who sat in on guitar for “Murder Ballades,” a piece the ensemble commissioned him to write in 2013. (They recorded it on the Grammy-winning LP Filament.) The several movements of “Ballades” take folk songs like “Pretty Polly” as leaping-off points without being straight adaptations — though at one point their Appalachian origins did offer violinist Yvonne Lam the chance to briefly transform into a backwoods fiddler.
The program's second half, though, featuring Oldham, was likely the part festivalgoers will be telling friends about for years to come. The group began with Oldham not singing his own material but acting as speaker — in Frederic Rzewski's “Coming Together,” a musical setting for a text written by Attica Prison inmate Sam Melville a few months before the 1971 riots that would end his life.
“I think —” Oldham began, and proceeded to recite an eight-sentence excerpt from a letter in which the prisoner describes his surroundings and state of mind to a friend. Rzewski chops the text up, repeats phrases and changes emphasis as the instrumentalists play beneath the speaker. Here, Oldham's particular background — as a singer who started off as an actor and still acts occasionally, as in the excellent Big Ears fest entry New Jerusalem — served the material very well: The musician in him kept track of very tricky timing and counterintuitive pauses while he gradually built a performance out of the 135 words he was given. Now a perhaps-unreliable narrator, then a persecuted activist, Oldham's speaker grew increasingly agitated; by the time he adamantly claimed “I. AM. IN. EXCELLENT. PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH,” one didn't need to know the piece's Attica setting to fear for a coming collapse.
Rather than end with the devastating climax of Coming Together, the ensemble (and Dessner) then backed Oldham up with beautiful arrangements of three of his own songs, stretching back to 1995's Viva Last Blues. The last, 1998's “One With the Birds,” happened to call back to the avian theme of set-starter “Learn to Fly” but was altogether more peaceful, with the instrumentalists providing whimsical imitations of songbirds as Oldham imagined surrendering his humanity to be like one of them.
David Lang: Learn to Fly
Bryce Dessner: Murder Ballades
Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together (speaker: Will Oldham)
Will Oldham: When Thy Song Flows Through Me
Will Oldham: New Partner
Will Oldham: One With the Birds