I attended eighth blackbird’s performance of Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades few weeks ago, on Good Friday, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Matthew Duvall, eighth blackbird’s percussionist, had mentioned the performance on our Facebook page, and encouraged me to attend the show. eighth blackbird is a Chicago-based contemporary chamber music ensemble that has been in an artistic residency at the MCA this year, conducting rehearsals in the gallery space, and performing periodically in the museum’s auditorium.
Dessner developed Murder Ballades, a suite of new pieces composed in conversation with the murder ballad tradition, especially for eighth blackbird. In addition to being a highly prolific composer of chamber music, Dessner is also a member of the rock band The National. Here is his description of Murder Ballades from the evening’s program notes:
“When eighth blackbird asked me for a piece, I immediately knew what to do: let great American folk music inspire a great American new-music ensemble… In Murder Ballades, I reexamine several of these old songs, allowing them to inspire my own music. ‘Omie Wise,’ ‘Young Emily,’ ‘Pretty Polly,’ and ‘Down in the Willow Garden’ are classic murder ballads, tales of romantically charged killings that are based on real events. ‘Hocket,’ ‘Dark Holler,’ ‘Lewisburg,’ and ‘Underneath the Floorboards’ are my own compositions, of which ‘Dark Holler’ is loosely modeled on the clawhammer banjo style that would have accompanied many of these early folk songs. ‘Brushy Fork’ is a Civil War–era murder ballad/fiddle tune, and ‘Wave the Sea’ and ‘Tears for Sister Polly’ are original compositions woven in the depths of the many months I spent inhabiting the seductive music and violent stories of these murder ballads.”
The MCA performance presented a 2015 revision of the work, which debuted in 2013. It differed slightly from the way the individual pieces appear on the eighth blackbird’s album, Filament, which won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance. The MCA performance began with “Omie Wise – Young Emily,” the first flowing directly into the second. Here are the two pieces as they appear on the album:
I hadn’t listened to a recording of Murder Ballades prior to this performance, so was hearing it all fresh. As the bass clarinet and cello developed the main musical theme of Dessner’s “Omie Wise,” my mind leapt to searching for traces of where the lyrics or the melody would be. I kept trying to pick it up, but could never quite catch what I expected to hear – either the tune with which it is most commonly associated today, or the hymn tune Protection, which folklorist Eleanor Long-Wilgus found as the setting for some early versions of the ballad. The elements were occasionally and vaguely familiar, but disassembled, and not clearly “Omie,” at least at the time.
Mildly disoriented by the music, I became aware of just how much in my head I was listening to this piece. I am usually much more focused on lyrics and not an expert on modern chamber music, so an instrumental piece on the murder ballad theme was ambitious listening for me. As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know, I’m not averse to abstraction. Still, the disconnect between what I was hearing and what I expected to hear took the pieces away from emotional immediacy into something that was a much more intellectual exercise.