Composition as Explanation


During the 2018/19 Season, Eighth Blackbird presents
a new 70-minute staged work for sextet by David Lang. 

According to Lang:

“In my recent work I have been trying to expand the notion of who the participants in a piece of music are and what they get out of participating. The normal idea of composition has been that the parts of the equation are separated—composer makes music, musicians play music, audience receives music. I have been trying to blur these distinctions by asking questions about things that are possible in the world that we haven’t yet explored. Can a piece be so quiet that every audience member’s experience is unique? Can a piece be made out of the struggle of performers to play something impossible? Can a piece be made that has no audience, in which all the participants become performers?

Several years ago I was part of a piece for Eighth Blackbird that required them to move, and for this piece we engaged choreographer Susan Marshall. Eighth Blackbird pride themselves on their ability to rise to every task, and they frequently employ staging, movement, speaking, and theater. Our piece was very successful, but during the process I started noticing that the choreographer was giving them gestures and movements that she thought the ensemble could do. I wondered at that time if a piece of music could actually have at its core the notion that learning how to perform it might transform the performers, and that transformation would not be a byproduct of the performance but its very intention.

When Eighth Blackbird asked me to propose a new project I thought of other kinds of actions that they might concentrate on, that would transform them. I began to think of what it would be like to make a piece that required them not just to act, but to become actors—in order to perform it they would take acting lessons, study diction, study the art of theater. In other words, my piece would not just ask them to move and to speak, but it would require them to commit themselves to a rigorous education that would transform them as performers.

After some thought about what the text could be for this I settled on Gertrude Stein’s 1923 lecture ‘Composition as Explanation,’ in which a yet-to-be-famous Stein explains to her audience what she is doing in her writing, in the same repetitive and plainspoken and circular language as her writing. In other words, she has blurred the relationship between her content, her form, and her performance, in much the same way that I propose to do for Eighth Blackbird.”

Work on ‘composition as explanation’ is underway thanks to support from the Arts Club of Chicago. In October 2016, Eighth Blackbird presented a 45-minute work-in-progress performance at the Arts Club—the site of Stein’s 1923 lecture. Leading up to the 2018-19 season, Lang will complete the score, and the creative team will develop stage, set, and lighting designs.


From David Lang:

Although I have been involved in many different kinds of music in my life I am primarily a classical musician. Over the years it has become a source of irritation for me to see how our reverence for the Western classical tradition gets in the way of building bridges to other cultures, inspiring larger audiences of more passionate listeners, and making more innovative music.

What is most frustrating to me is that music can do many other things than were useful to past Western classical composers. The instruments, the players, the singers, the venues, the audiences, are all capable of being refreshed by innovation and by challenge, and if they are going to connect to a larger world they will need to be refreshed. That is my job! A lot of my frustration comes from noticing how we teach our musicians, and I design projects to highlight things I notice.

Something that interests me is that musicians perform in theaters, and yet we give them no training in stagecraft or theatrical arts. In fact, classical music fetishizes the idea that musicians are merely the vessels through which music flows. Eighth Blackbird, on the other hand, has always incorporated movement and theater. And yet, they have picked up what they know on the job. My piece ‘composition as explanation’ is designed to give them the formal training that actors get, but that classical musicians never get. It is my bet that this will let us all make something new.


From Eighth Blackbird (Lisa Kaplan, piano):

For 20 years Eighth Blackbird has sought to move music forward through innovative performance and advocacy for music by living composers. We have continuously pushed at the edges of what it means to be a chamber music ensemble or give a concert, constantly considering all of the different ways in which we communicate with our audience.  

In 2013, we undertook the hour-long staged work ‘Colombine’s Paradise Theatre’ composed by Amy Beth Kirsten. This large-scale dramatic production–the most ambitious staged production in our recent repertory–incorporated complex stage direction, choreography, elaborate costumes with masks and set design, while requiring us to perform from memory. These elements significantly stretched our performance abilities and demanded our growth as artists.

With ‘composition as explanation,’ we look forward to working with David Lang to once again push our boundaries as performers and the boundaries of the genre of chamber music.  Our most recent collaboration with David, ‘these broken wings’ (2008), is Eighth Blackbird’s calling card – showcasing the obsessive, powerful, and mesmerizing rhythmic component of his compositions, while demanding the clarity in performance that has become the ensemble’s hallmark. ‘composition as explanation’ will require us to take another trip outside of our comfort zone, developing a new set of theatrical skills in addition to maintaining the high standard of musicianship necessary to perform David’s work.