When an ensemble has won a quartet of Grammies, some begin to wonder: has the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gotten it right? It’s a fair question, considering the oddities that have piled up over the years (for example, rewarding Steely Dan for the wrong album). Yet in this category, readers can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Roomful of Teeth broke the Eighth Blackbird streak in 2014, and Hélène Grimaud is on the Academy’s radar, so someone’s paying attention over there.
This brings to the fore the dichotomy that exists between the two poles of our Modern Composition category. The first pole is simple and lovely: for the most part, piano and violin sets, deep in emotion. The second: complex works for larger ensembles, such as ICE, Nordic Affect and Eighth Blackbird. The challenge for these latter groups is to infuse emotion into their technical expertise. We know they’re good; but do we feel something when they play?
As Hand’s Eye reflects the work of six composers from composer collective Sleeping Giant and six performers, the tones and moods vary considerably. Those who fell in love with Filament (featuring works by Muhly, Glass and Dessner) will have to readjust their expectations. There’s a lot to love here, although different listeners will love different pieces. I’ve become enamored with Christopher Cerrone’s “South Catalina” and Jacob Cooper’s “Cast” (and am now imagining Cerrone and Cooper reading these words and exclaiming, “Ha!”). These pieces breach the gap between the technical and emotional in an endearing fashion, one that will strike many listeners as more “modern” than “classical.” The piano and chimed percussion of “South Catalina” are tender and elegant, and moments of dynamic contrast flourish throughout the eleven-minute piece. Woodwinds enter like birds returning from their southern sojourn, then fall silent as a restful night. Their subsequent awakening is like the rise of a new and delightful dawn.
If the album were sequenced a bit differently, “Cast” would follow, providing a perfect transition from ivory to ivory, chime to chime. The press release refers to it as “warm but tattered beauty”, to which we say, stop using all the good words! While less accessible than the former piece, the flute flying like a slightly injured sparrow, it’s a fine cooldown that arrives at album’s end. A cooldown from what? one might ask. From the two minute handsaw explosion of Hearne/Cooper’s “[crossfade]”, which bleeds into “Cast” like the injury before the timeout; and the Fantasia-esque trills, crashes and plonks of “By-By Huey” (Ted Hearne), whose staccato pace references Penderecki, but which manages to find peace with itself in its final minutes.
At 14 minutes, Timo Andres’ “Checkered Shade” is the album’s longest single track, and Eighth Blackbird takes full advantage of the length to throw in a number of curveballs. The first is that the song seems to be stuck in a repeated low-register piano chorus, until the mood shifts and the full ensemble kicks in. The entrance of the drums at 5:30 provides the biggest uplift, as well as a fine example of how to use stereo effects on a home recording. After this, the song seems to end a couple times, allowing space for gentler tones to examine its empty spaces, like cats returning to a kitchen after a crash. Andrew Norman’s “Mine, Mime, Meme” is the least accessible piece, sounding at times like stringed foxes chasing hares, but it’s a fine example of the ensemble’s willingness to stretch its boundaries. In contrast, Robert Honstein’s three-part “Conduit” playfully explores its surroundings, using everything from wood blocks to triangles to provide a feeling of safety and love.
More intellect is involved on this album than we usually encounter in what we review, but the emotion is what makes Hand Eye an immediate front-runner for that fifth Grammy; as they say in sports, one for the thumb. (Richard Allen)