“Sick Puppy” is what the insiders call it—the annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP), which had its fourth concert Wednesday night at New England Conservatory. It was a multifarious affair as far as new music concerts go. There were several chamber works, some with electronics, and a generous display of piano etudes. Altogether nine pieces were performed. Remaining events at NEC’s Brown Hall include a Callithumpian concert tonight and the “Iditarod” on Saturday.
The first piece was La Barque Mystique, from Spectralist composer Tristan Murail. Conductor Jeffrey Means led the small ensemble through a score as dense as the pseudo-cryptic idiom of Murail’s program notes. The piece takes its title (French for “The Mystical Boat”) from a series of pastels by symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Just as the symbolists would create art in a metaphorical and suggestive manner, so Murail’s orchestration, despite its limited instrumentation, conveyed a sense of grander things. There was a depth to the sound even with fewer than a half-dozen musicians onstage. Among the performers there was exceptional precision in the execution of certain rhythms, exquisitely held together by conductor Means’s clear preparations and beat.
A varied collection of piano pieces performed by Corey Hamm followed. The selection was a diverse showcase of 20th-century composers, from heavyweights such as György Ligeti to relatively young living composers such as Dai Fujikura.
Dorothy Chang offered three pieces from her Five for piano, each vaguely programmatic. Ephemera, according to the program notes, “rises out of and returns to the mist.” On its rise it becomes more rhythmically active while maintaining its flexible and exposed qualities before resettling to the mist as rhythmic figures gently repeat, traveling higher up the keyboard each time. Echoes displayed Chang’s capacity for complex counterpoint. The work began as a canon with the sustain pedal held down while lower harmonies were gradually added in an arrhythmic fashion—the “smattering of ritualistic bells” the program notes referred to. Then pianist Corey Hamm wrestled the unbalanced ostinato in Toccatina to the ground at an unforgiving tempo.
The desolate qualities and savage contradictions of Ligeti’s music were realized through L’Arrache-Coeur, dedicated to Ligeti’s friend and composer György Kurtág. David Rakowski’s Étude No. 8: Close Enough for Jazz followed. Part of his set of 100, this étude contained the lively rhythms of jazz juxtaposed with a fair amount of atonality. Noël Lee’s Étude No. 5 featured a tonal framework with a Coplandesque cowboy lilt in the lefthand gone awry. Last, Dai Fujikura’s Étude No. 1: Frozen Heat featured relentless repetitive rhythms, played with great precision by Hamm, leading at times to a roaring wall of sound.
As an associate of John Cage and other New York School affiliates, Earle Brown championed a style of musical construction he deemed “open form”. Last night’s Available Forms I, which closed out the first half, was a model example of Brown’s open form, in which the music is composed of separate segments that may be played in any order chosen by the conductor. This indeterminacy combined with Brown’s charged textures made the piece sound like a living organism, its every function amplified—the beating of the circulatory system, the sparking of the nervous system, the hum of the digestive system, and the lyricism of the brain’s higher functions. Dissonant clusters in the winds combined with galvanizing metallic percussion while the soothing harmonics in the strings served as a foil.
The second half of the concert contained two pieces by Rand Steiger, the composer-in-residence for this year’s Sick Puppy. Deeply involved in computer music, Steiger included live audio processing in both pieces. The processing was beautifully integrated, its subtle appearances always serving to complement the acoustic instruments and never detracting from the experience.
The first piece, Résonateur, was commissioned in 2006, in honor of the 80th birthday of Pierre Boulez. Microphones were placed by each instrument in the ensemble so that real-time audio processing could be deployed on them. The signal processing included spatialization, resonance, reverberation, delay, and just-tuned harmonizing. The different audio processing also had a doubling effect on each instrument, which gave the small ensemble a lush and expansive sound. After starting off with a bang, Résonateur gave way to meandering swells of cluster chords as samples were triggered from keyboards, all while the laptop screen glowed behind them, forever faithful and determined in its live audio processing. The main draw here was the world of timbre, which, through means of digital signal processing, was immensely expanded. An English horn is a slightly evocative sound in itself, but add some digital effects and suddenly the stable orchestration one is used to has melted away. One could write almost anything for the ensemble and it would be captivating. This isn’t to deprecate Steiger’s compositional skills, which saved the piece from being reduced to a simple display of a new technology by banalities and clichés.
Last was Steiger’s A Menacing Plume, written after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of April, 2010. Steiger said in his program notes he had “never before attempted so directly, almost literally, to narrate something like this event in musical terms.” The piece was written for three woodwinds, three strings, and three keyboard instruments (two vibraphones and piano) each group acting mostly autonomously within themselves in addition to undergoing live audio processing. The disparate elements in the music—cluster chords, runs in the woodwinds, strings playing jeté, bowed vibraphones—represented the variety and intricacies of underwater life. At one point the instruments came to a halt, revealing a pool of sustained reverb—decaying digital information left behind—representing the massive impurities introduced to the Gulf of Mexico. For a fair amount of time, this digital reverberation was pumped through the speakers, before eventually receding, giving way to a cluster of strings. The piece was never quite the same after this. Each group of instruments continued its attempt to flounder through the murk, resulting in a graceless simulacrum of their previous existence.