Duke Performances‘ 2016-17 regular season ended with artists and a program that shattered all misconceptions and biases of just what “contemporary music” means in the twenty-first century. Eighth Blackbird, a sextet that is one of the great ensembles performing today, was joined by Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, at Duke University’s resplendent and acoustically pristine Baldwin Auditorium. This event was made even that much more special by featuring works by three of the most creative and eclectic composers alive today, each of whom have worked with and written for Eighth Blackbird.

Deriving their name from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Eighth Blackbird formed at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in 1996; four of the founding members are in the current lineup. All of the musicians have studied at the most prestigious conservatories so their pedigrees are as polished as any “traditional” ensemble. On stage for this performance was Yvonne Lam, violin, Nicholas Photinos, cello, Michael Maccaferri, clarinets, Nathalie Joachim, flutes, Matthew Duvall, percussion and Adam Marks on piano, filling in for founding pianist Lisa Kaplan who is on maternity leave.

The program opened with Doublespeak by Nico Muhly (b. 1981), one of the most influential and sought after young composers who has already amassed a catalogue of hundreds of works. Written for Eight Blackbird in honor of Philip Glass’ 75th Birthday, it was premiered in 2012 at the Music Now! Festival in Cincinnati. Muhly distills the best of Glass’ style, abandons the tendency of overindulgence and not quite knowing when enough is enough, and uses some very inventive orchestration in creating a compelling and refreshingly accessible work. Violinist Lam began with a figure that is both similar to and quite different from the usual repeating Glass figures. She also quickly demonstrated her virtuosic technique and interpretive skills. Unlike most of Glasss works, there is a bit of chromaticism that gives it a little kick, as well as a euphoric, driving rhythm. Muhly somehow elicits a variety of sounds from just six instruments, something usually only possible with a full orchestra. If nothing else, this definitely gave some relief to those who have a fear of contemporary music and may have been coerced to attend!

The next set was one of the most fascinating creations I have experienced in quite a long time. Named Murder Ballades, it is exactly what it says. Composed for Eighth Blackbird by Bryce Dessner (b. 1976), it turns out that this is not quite as bizarre or even as new as one might expect. Musical tales of gruesome murders have their roots in European traditions and found favor in Appalachian folklore and ballads. Written in 2013 and revised two years later, these eight pieces appear to be missing a basic element, i.e. a text, but we didn’t seem to miss that. This would be appropriate for the soundtrack for anything from Twin Peaks to Fargo, but also serves as a kind of compendium of folk and mountain American music. However, Dessner does not dumb it down and there were some fantastic voyages outside the realm of normalcy, especially a spectacular cello solo by Photinos.

But, they did save a final murder ballade to include words as they brought out singer/songwriter/guitarist Oldham. I was not familiar with this artist before this concert, but seeing him perform made me realize how fortunate we are to have organizations like Duke Performances to book artists that all of us should sample, even having never heard of them. Oldham is not a singer that one would describe as having a “beautiful voice.” It is more the character of his stage presence, his slight eccentricities and his earnest delivery of simple, yet compelling and beautifully carved lyrics.

The major work involving Oldham was Coming Together by Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938). Written in 1971 in response to the Attica uprising and a letter of one of the prisoners killed, this is both musically completely unique as well as profoundly psychologically disturbing. Violinist Lam introduced us to the work using the “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” scene from Stanley Kubrick’s film Shining as an illustration of repetitiveness as an indicator of a mental breakdown. Oldham repeatedly, yet with great variety, intoned the same few lines that the prisoner wrote over and over to slowly bring us along on this man’s descent into madness as a result of his incarceration. Rzewski’s score is a frightening voyage in sound from slight dread to screaming terror. With all of the musicians rapidly reciting confused and angry gibberish, the ending felt like it was only with the prisoner’s death that was he able to find some peace from his poisoned thoughts.

Oldham went on to sing several more songs as he thoroughly charmed the audience with his unique delivery combined with the lovely arrangements of a one-of-a-kind sextet. We’ve come a long way from the time when “modern music” (still considered by some to be anything written >= to the twentieth century) meant sitting through dense, mostly dissonant, non-lyrical, academic music with no regard for something as trivial as whether the audience enjoys it. Eighth Blackbird, and several other contemporary ensembles, has turned that around 180 degrees and, thankfully, shows us that there is no end to the reservoir of great music – just give it a chance.