At first glance, the album Strange Imaginary Animals may look like a whimsical musical menagerie, perhaps an avant-garde update on Carnival of the Animals; but this 2006 release from Çedille is more intellectually demanding and esoterically puzzling than its improbable title and cover art may suggest. These six colorful works for chamber ensemble are gathered together ("unified" is too rigid a term) around a rather elusive concept -- the imagination -- and each piece forces the listener to think creatively about its possible meanings, however arcane or absurd. Take, for example, Jennifer Higdon's Zaka (2003), a dynamically rhythmic tour de force in which the performance and its reception are influenced by its name and definition:
"za-ka (zô' kô) v. To do the following almost simultaneously and with great speed: zap, sock, race, turn, drop, sprint."
Or consider Gordon Fitzell's Violence (2001), which is a surprisingly delicate and quiet piece that explores the underlying aesthetics of violence, instead of making an overt display of aggression. Things become even more paradoxical with Steven Mackey's humorous Indigenous Instruments (1989), which portends to be new music from a nonexistent society; David M. Gordon's mechanistic yet elastic Friction Systems (2002; revised 2005), which is elucidated in the liner notes by nothing more than an anagrammatic grid; Fitzell's mysterious sound sculpture Evanescence (2005), which was apparently inspired by the four words used to describe it, "violence, metamorphosis, sublimation, evanescence"; and Dennis DeSantis' Strange Imaginary Remix (2006), which resembles a dance mix of electronica snippets. The music in each piece is as technically challenging as the ideas behind them are abstruse, though nothing here is especially hard to listen to, except for Gordon's Friction Systems, which is the album's most brazenly dissonant track. For the most part, these composers write in an accessible postmodern style, with vivid tone colors and brilliant virtuoso parts for the musicians. The engaging contemporary ensemble eighth blackbird -- consisting of pianist Lisa Kaplan, percussionist Matthew Duvall, violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, flutist Molly Alicia Barth, and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri -- performs the works with vibrant energy and considerable charm and wit, and the recordings are outstanding for their clarity and depth. Taken as a whole, this CD may not draw a wide audience, but it is the kind of album that will appeal to fans of Exquisite Corpses, recreational surrealism, and conceptual art.