Eighth Blackbird is made up of (from left) Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin/viola; Lisa Kaplan, piano; Nathalie Joachim, flutes; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Nicholas Photinos, cello. (Photo by Saverio Truglia)
As he looks ahead to Monday’s 58th annual Grammy Awards, Nicholas Photinos of Eighth Blackbird hopes his group can keep its winning streak alive.
“Amazingly, we’ve won all the Grammys we’ve been nominated for,” the chamber music sextet’s founding cellist says. “Three nominations and three wins.”
The Blackbird made a big splash one decade ago, winning two golden doorstops for the disc “Strange Imaginary Animals.” In 2012, the contemporary classical group won another statue with its rendition of Steve Mackey's "Lonely Motel: Music from Slide.” Additionally, a year later, the group’s playing helped cop a Best Contemporary Classical Composition award for composer Stephen Hartke.
The current nominated album, “Filament,” sees the group collaborate with different composers and remixers on the musical motifs of Philip Glass. “Love him or hate him, you have to come to grips with his influence on all genres of music,” Photinos says of Glass. “The composers that are on the disc kind of bridge the line between pop and classical. In new music, especially in indie-rock, there’s a lot of cross-pollenization now, and pop itself is being influenced a lot by the classical world.”
Bryce Dessner, of the indie-rock band The National, is one of the collaborators. “He was a name we kept hearing more about. He’s starting to be known as a film composer [“The Revenant”] and he’s primarily known for being this rock musician. But he got his master’s degree in composition at Yale so he’s not just dipping his toes into the classical world, he’s been there all along.”
Beyond the Grammy nod, things are busy in Blackbird land. Since last summer, the troupe has been serving as a living piece of art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, a project about process that sees them rehearse in front of gallery visitors. There’s also an hour-long work by composer David Lang, in the works, and the preparation of David T. Little’s piece, “Ghostlight.” Alongside Photinos, Eighth Blackbird includes Nathalie Joachim on flute, Michael J. Maccaferri on clarinet, violinist Yvonne Lam, percussionist Matthew Duvall and pianist Lisa Kaplan.
The successful relationship with the University of Richmond, where Eighth Blackbird has been ensemble-in-residence for more than a decade, continues to evolve, the musician says. But the mission’s the same. “Our focus has always been to work directly with the students there … to introduce them to new things and new collaborations. One of our big mandates was to work across disciplines and departments, providing students with experiences they wouldn’t normally have.” On April 13, the group will join with bassist/composer Matt Ulery for a concert at the Modlin Center of the Arts that will feature, in Photino’s words, “chamber music jazz.”
Eighth Blackbird joins several Richmond-affiliated Grammy nominees to be celebrated at the awards this year. D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s “Really Love” will contend for Record of the Year and Best R&B Song. Metal band Lamb of God’s “512” is up for Best Metal Performance — a category in need of rehabilitation after Tenacious D’s inexplicable win last year. And pioneering Richmond rapper Mad Skillz co-wrote a song on Nicki Minaj’s “The Pinkprint,” nominated for Best Rap Album. Viewers will see many of these awarded on TV, while others, like the classical categories, are relegated to another event.
“There’s kind of a sideshow aspect to it,” the cellist says. “The public sees this large event at the Staples Center, but the bulk of the Grammys are awarded at this presentation that is webcast but not televised, three hours before the show. There are 70 or 80 categories of awards, and some performances, a really nice ceremony but it’s not on the level of production as the televised Grammys.”
He’s hardly complaining, though. “How has winning the Grammy helped us? Well, it helps us in our career. It’s an external recognition that people instantly know. Your average concertgoer will see “three-time Grammy winner,” and they may not know us but they’ve heard of the Grammy and they might come and check us out. It’s opened doors in terms of that, and with attracting collaborations.”
How about increased sales? “No,” Photinos says after a pause. “I mean, you get a slight jump right after you win, but no. And that kind of surprises me.”
Here's a sample of their sound:
The 58th Grammy Awards will be broadcast Monday, Feb. 15, at 8 p.m. on WTVR Channel 6 and other CBS stations. For more, go to grammy.com.